Monday, October 03, 2022

HISTORY CORNER: Days of the galley slaves

| January 30, 2022 1:00 AM

Even Cleopatra had slaves to row her fleet of ships in ancient Egyptian times.

When Mark Antony the handsome Roman triumvir — one of three men ruling the Empire — invited her to meet him in Tarsus in 41 B.C., she made a grand arrival dressed like Aphrodite, goddess of love, seated under a gilded canopy aboard a golden barge with purple sails and rowed with oars made of silver.

Attendants fanned her with sweet-smelling burning incense.

She was beautiful, highly intelligent, charming, powerful and rich.

Mark Antony didn’t have a chance.

Cleopatra’s plan worked to perfection — Aphrodite was a good choice. She was the ancient Greek goddess of love, lust, beauty, pleasure, passion and procreation. All of that would aptly describe their years together that followed.

Historians have been writing about them ever since — including how all that pleasure would begin a downward spiral to tragedy and death in 31 B.C. at Actium, a Greek town on a gulf headland on the Ionian seacoast.

Mark Antony and Gaius Octavian — also known as Octavian, one of the three ruling triumvirs — were both seeking to be emperor of the entire empire. Antony had troops in scattered encampments in western Greece, and a fleet of 400 galleys along with Cleopatra’s fleet of 60 at anchor in Actium preparing to invade Italy and take over as Emperor.

Octavian’s troops and fleet crossed the Adriatic from Italy to battle them.

Both sides used galleys equipped with sails and neither used galley slaves to row them. Rowers were paid military personnel — contrary to Hollywood’s depictions in the various versions of the Ben Hur movies and other films.

Octavian had the superior power with his land forces and his fleet was able to blockade Antony and Cleopatra’s.

Under those conditions, galleys could only be maneuvered by rowing.

In the battle that ensued, Octavian proved to be a brilliant commander, while Mark Antony faced mounting problems with his land forces, and his fleet blocked by Octavian’s picket line of ships.

Then disaster struck Mark Antony.

Cleopatra saw a break in the picket line and ordered her fleet of 60 ships to hoist anchor and leave for Egypt. The escape succeeded.

Then he made a fatal mistake: He abandoned his troops on the ground, and took a third of his fleet — leaving the rest behind — broke through the blockade and chased after Cleopatra.

He caught up with her, had a reconciliation and continued on to Alexandria.

Back at Actium, Antony’s abandoned troops deserted or joined Octavian.

Galleys would play a role in important events from those times on until the late 17th century when oars on sailing ships were only used in longboats towing vessels becalmed by lack of wind.

One of those events was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, a clash of two fleets that took place off the west coast of Greece — not far south of Actium.

The Battle of Lepanto was a naval engagement between a coalition of Christian states called the Holy League organized by Pope Pius V to stop the Ottomans, whose naval and land forces controlled the eastern Mediterranean, and had their eyes on plundering Rome.

The Pope’s action was triggered by a series of events in the Mediterranean.

A year earlier, the Knights of Malta had succeeded in defending the island against Ottoman attack, and news had just arrived telling the Pope about the gruesome killing on some 10,000 civilians at the hands of Ottoman torturers at Famagusta on the east coast of Cyprus.

The coalition Christian fleet was placed under command of John of Austria, the 24-year-old illegitimate son of Charles V, formerly emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. John was also half-brother to Philip II, king of Spain.

John’s fleet included 206 galleys and six huge slow-sailing 160-foot galleasses called “Floating Fortresses.”

The ships were armed with 80,000 men — crew, musketeers and archers — with cannons, muskets and arquebuses.

Also on board were 30 Capuchin friars and a number of Jesuits.

One night just before engaging the Muslim fleet, a meteor flashed across the sky, reflecting off the surface of the sea before splitting into three fading trails.

“Christian admirals took it as a hopeful portent.”

The Ottoman fleet under command of Ali Pasha, ruler of the European part of the Ottoman Empire, included 222 galleys and more than 50 galliots — small, swift rowed boats.

The Muslim forces were larger, “but not as well disciplined.” Among their forces were 15,000 captive Christians used as rowers.

The battle was an overwhelming victory for the Holy League.

“The allies captured 117 galleys and many thousands of men, liberated about 15,000 enslaved Christians, and sank or burned about 50 galleys,” says a Britannica report. “They lost 12 galleys and had about 8,000 wounded, among them Miguel de Cervantes (author of “Don Quixote”). The battle was remarkable as the last and greatest engagement with oar-propelled vessels and the first great victory over a Turkish fleet.”

The days of galley warships was almost over.

Only a few were used 17 years later in the Spanish Armada.

The Spanish Armada that attempted to attack Britain in 1588 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I had 130 warships. Most were galleons. Portugal supplied four galleys to the Armada, but they were not suited for open ocean sailing, and the stormy weather the Armada faced was a major reason for its failure.

Galleys were fine for calmer Mediterranean and coastal operations.

Each Armada galley was armed with 50 guns, 300 soldiers and sailors, and powered by 300 rowers.

“During the Channel actions, they were repeatedly called on as a squad in any calm, to rescue Spanish stragglers or cut-off a stray English ship,” Garratt Mattingly of Columbia University wrote in The Defeat of the Spanish Armada. “They were formidable ships; but their leader was wrecked after the Calais fire ship attack in the Battle of Gravelines, and only two of the four made it back safely to Spain.”

One galley — La Girona — was part of the frontline of the fighting, and was wrecked off the coast of Ireland when it hit rocks in heavy seas at Lacada Point near Portballintrae, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

Only nine survived out of 1,300 people on board — along with a cache of Spanish gold.

In 1967, that treasure was found by Belgian professional diver and historian Robert Sténhuit. After finding Spanish gold coins, Sténhuit, his wife and friend hid them in a cave until they could determine how to gain legal ownership.

Spain of course laid claim to the find, but after lengthy legal hurdles, a court decided no sole owner could be found, and ordered the treasure be sold.

It was valued at £132,000, and Sténhuit agreed for the gold to stay in Northern Ireland, where it is now a main exhibit at the Ulster Museum.

In 2008, the BBC made a documentary of the whole story.

Julius Caesar instituted recreated naval battles called Naumachia shows, using cheaply built galleys with two rows of oarsmen, held in Rome’s Coliseum which was filled with water, as well as in other specially constructed water venues.

The enormously popular shows sometimes had up to 30 ships in the action.

Caesar did this to win popular support to offset his unpopular rampage of killing his enemies to achieve power — which included many prominent Romans.

At first, the naumachias were just theatrical, but later emperors introduced gladiators into the reenactments, with actual killings taking place — the victims usually condemned criminals with no gladiatorial training.

The spectators loved it.

Hollywood also likes galley-and-slaves drama.

Even though using slaves in galleys was historically rare, Hollywood has continued using that story line.

"Ben Hur" was written by Lew Wallace in 1880, and the book has been made into five movies, starting in the silent-film days. Invariably, there have been scenes of galley slaves chained to their oars and being mistreated by bad guys with whips.

In the Robin Hood movie "Prince of Thieves," Kevin Costner playing Robin is peering through a telescope. The story is set in the year 1194, but the telescope wasn’t even invented until the early 17th century.

The kilt-laden "Brave Heart" movie’s story takes place in the 1200s A.D. Kilts weren’t invented until the late 1500s.

It all makes good theater but bad history.

More popcorn please…

• • •

Contact Syd Albright at

• • •

Why the Spanish Armada?

After the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, authorized by Queen Elizabeth I, Philip II of Spain sent the Spanish Armada to avenge the execution, remove Elizabeth from the throne and restore Catholicism to Britain under a new Catholic monarch. Bad weather stopped him from succeeding.

About Mark Antony…

Antony was a man of considerable ability and impressive appearance, far more genial than his adversary but not quite equal to Octavian’s exceptional efficiency, energy and political skill. Nevertheless, he was an outstanding leader of men and a competent general, though, in the end, not such a successful admiral.

— Britannica

Cleopatra and the Romans…

Cleopatra married Mark Antony and had three children with him, but their relationship also spawned a massive scandal in Rome. Antony’s rival Octavian used propaganda to portray him as a traitor under the sway of a scheming seductress, and in 32 B.C., the Roman Senate declared war on Cleopatra.


Who else used galley slaves?

Until about the end of the French Revolution, the French Navy notoriously used galley slaves, who “were literally worked to death.” In the ancient Mediterranean, galley rowers were mostly free men, with slaves used only when manpower was short. In medieval and early modern times, convicts and prisoners of war often manned galleys. Barbary pirates and Asian pirates also used galley slaves.

Galley slave quote…

There are no galley slaves in the royal vessel of divine love — every man works his oar voluntarily.

— St. Vincent de Sales



This Assyrians bas-relief in the British Museum shows a bireme, powered by two tiers of oarsmen (c.700 B.C.).



Sea battle depiction of ramming of triremes, warships powered by three levels of rowers developed by the Phoenicians and Greeks and copied by the Romans, with other vessels having less levels of oarsmen, or more.



Early 18th century Russian Baltic warships like this one using sail and oars were effective in shallow waters off Finland.



The French galley Réale returning to port, during the reign of Louis XIV, the rowers not always slaves or criminals but also well-disciplined freemen (c.1694).



Lorenzo A. Castro (c.1664-1700) painting of Battle of Actium (31 B.C.) between Roman Emperor Octavius defeating Anthony and Cleopatra’s combined fleets, using galley warships, inaccurately portrayed, being chubby rather than sleek, with figures wearing 17th century clothing.



Actium, Greece where land and sea battles took place in 31 B.C. during a Roman Empire power struggle that would lead to the downfall and death of both Antony and Cleopatra.



Illustration of war galleys used during the Punic Wars (264-146 B.C.) between Rome and Carthage, when galley slaves were sometimes used.



Cutaway model of an oar-powered Venetian galeazzi, one of the top ships in the Republic of Venice fleet in the Mediterranean during the 16th and 17th centuries.



The Romans entertained crowds by recreating naval battles in the Coliseum and other venues by flooding the arena, involving warships of those times — including galleys — as depicted in this painting by Spanish artist Ulpiano Checa (1860-1916), first exhibited at the National Society of Fine Arts in Paris in 1894.



Battle depiction of troops galley boarding in Punic War between Rome and Carthage fought in the Mediterranean.



Roman galley warships almost always used freemen as rowers, though some slaves were used in the Second Punic War against Carthage.



Spanish Armada (1588) painting showing galley in the foreground.



Engraving of Barbary corsair (privateer) galley of North Africa, showing pointed ram for attacking other ships from the 16th until the end of the 18th century.

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