A galley slave is a slave rowing in a galley, either a convicted
criminal sentenced to work at the oar (French: galérien), or a kind
of human chattel, often a prisoner of war, assigned to his duty of
1.1 Greek navies
1.2 Roman and Carthaginian navies
2 Early modern era
3 In fiction
6 Further reading
Ancient navies generally preferred to rely on free men to man their
galleys. Slaves were usually not put at the oars except in times of
pressing manpower demands or extreme emergency, and in some of
these cases they would earn their freedom by this. There is no
evidence that ancient navies ever made use of condemned criminals as
oarsmen, despite the popular image from novels such as Ben-Hur.
In Classical Athens, a leading naval power of Classical Greece, rowing
was regarded as an honorable profession of which men should possess
some practical knowledge, and sailors were viewed as instrumental
in safeguarding the state. According to Aristotle, the common
people on the rowing benches won the Battle of Salamis, thereby
strengthening the Athenian democracy.
The special characteristics of the Trireme, with each of its 170 oars
being handled by a single oarsman, demanded the commitment of skilled
freemen; rowing required coordination and training on which success in
combat and the lives of all aboard depended. Also, practical
difficulties such as the prevention of desertion or revolt when
bivouacking (triremes used to be hauled on land at night) made free
labour more secure and more economical than slaves.
In the 5th and 4th centuries BC, Athens generally followed a naval
policy of enrolling citizens from the lower classes (Thetes), metics
(foreigners resident in Athens) and hired foreigners. Although it
has been argued that slaves formed part of the rowing crew in the
Sicilian Expedition, a typical Athenian trireme crew during the
Peloponnesian War consisted of 80 citizens, 60 metics and 60 foreign
However, when put under military pressure by the Spartans in the final
stages of the conflict, Athens, in an all-out effort, mobilized all
men of military age, including all slaves. After the victorious
Battle of Arginusae
Battle of Arginusae the freed slaves were even given Athenian
citizenship, in a move interpreted as an attempt to keep them
motivated rowing for Athens. On two other occasions during the
war, captured enemy galley slaves were given freedom by the
In Sicily, the tyrant Dionysios (ca. 432–367 BC) once set all slaves
of Syracuse free to man his galleys, employing thus freedmen, but
otherwise relied on citizens and foreigners as oarsmen.
Slaves accompanying officers and hoplite marines as personal
attendants into war are assumed by modern scholars to have also
assisted in the rowing when need arose, but there is no definite
proof on this point, and they should not be regarded as regular
members of the crew. When travelling over the sea on personal
matters, it was common that both master and slave pulled the oar.
Roman and Carthaginian navies
In Roman times, reliance on rowers of free status continued. Slaves
were usually not put at the oars, except in times of pressing manpower
demands or extreme emergency.
Thus, in the drawn-out
Second Punic War
Second Punic War with Carthage, both navies are
known to have resorted to slave labour. In the aftermath of Cannae, a
levy of slaves was equipped and trained by private Roman individuals
for Titus Otacilius’ squadron in
Sicily (214 BC). After the
New Carthage five years later, local slaves were impressed
by Scipio in his fleet on the promise of freedom after the war to
those who showed good will as rowers. At the end of the war,
Carthage, alarmed over the impending invasion by Scipio, bought five
thousand slaves to row its fleet (205 BC). It has been suggested
that the introduction of polyremes at the time, particularly of the
quinquereme, facilitated the use of little-trained labour, as these
warships only needed a skilled man for the position nearest the
loom[clarification needed], while the remaining rowers at the oar
followed his lead.
Nonetheless, the Romans seemed to avoid the use of slave rowers in
their subsequent wars with the Hellenistic east.
Livy records that
naval levies in the War against Antiochos consisted of freedmen and
colonists (191 BC), while in the
Third Macedonian War (171
BC–168 BC) Rome’s fleet was manned by freedmen with Roman
citizenship and allies. In the final showdown of the civil war
Octavian and Sextus Pompey, the adversaries enlisted among
others slaves, but set them free before putting them to the oars,
indicating that the prospect of freedom was judged instrumental in
keeping the rowers motivated. In Imperial times, provincials who were
free men became the mainstay of the Roman rowing force.
Early modern era
A painting of the 1571
Battle of Lepanto
Battle of Lepanto in the Ionian Sea, where both
sides relied on tens of thousands of slaves, prisoners or convicts as
A réale galley belonging to the Mediterranean fleet of Louis XIV, the
largest galley force of the late 17th century; oil on canvas, c. 1694
Only in the
Late Middle Ages
Late Middle Ages did slaves begin to be increasingly
employed as rowers. It also became the custom among the Mediterranean
powers to sentence condemned criminals to row in the war-galleys of
the state (initially only in time of war). Traces of this practice
appear in France as early as 1532, but the first legislative enactment
comes in the Ordonnance d'Orléans of 1561. In 1564 Charles IX of
France forbade the sentencing of prisoners to the galleys for fewer
than ten years. A brand of the letters GAL identified the condemned
Naval forces from both Christian and Muslim countries often turned
prisoners of war into galley-slaves. Thus, at the
Battle of Lepanto
Battle of Lepanto in
1571, 12,000 Christian galley slaves were freed from the Ottoman
Knights Hospitallers made use of galley slaves and debtors
(Italian: buonavoglie) to row their galleys during their rule over the
In 1622, Saint Vincent de Paul, as a former slave himself (in Tunis),
became chaplain to the galleys, and ministered to the galley slaves.
In 1687 the governor of New France, Jacques-René de Brisay de
Denonville, seized, chained, and shipped 50
Iroquois chiefs from Fort
Frontenac to Marseille, France, to be used as galley slaves.
Louis XIV of France, who wanted a bigger fleet, ordered that the
courts should sentence men to the galleys as often as possible, even
in times of peace; he even sought to transform the death penalty to
sentencing to the galleys for life (and unofficially did so - a letter
exists to all French judges, that they should, if possible, sentence
men to life in the galleys instead of death).
By the end of the reign of
Louis XIV in 1715 the use of the galley for
war purposes had practically ceased, but the
French Navy did not
incorporate the corps of the galleys until 1748. From the reign of
Toulon functioned as a naval military port,
become a merchant port, and served as the headquarters of the galleys
and of the convict rowers (galériens). After the incorporation of the
galleys, the system sent the majority of these latter to Toulon, the
others to Rochefort and to Brest, where they worked in the arsenal.
Convict rowers also went to a large number of other French and
non-French cities: Nice, Le Havre, Nîmes, Lorient, Cherbourg,
Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, La Spezia,
Antwerp and Civitavecchia; but
Toulon, Brest and Rochefort predominated. At
Toulon the convicts
remained (in chains) on the galleys, which were moored as hulks in the
harbour. Their shore prisons had the name bagnes ("baths"), a name
given to such penal establishments first by the Italians (bagno), and
allegedly deriving from the prison at
Constantinople situated close by
or attached to the great baths there.
All French convicts continued to use the name galérien even after
galleys went out of use; only after the
French Revolution did the new
authorities officially change the hated name — with all it signified
— to forçat ("forced"). The use of the term galérien nevertheless
continued until 1873, when the last bagne in France (as opposed to the
bagnes relocated to French Guiana), the bagne of Toulon, closed
definitively. In Spain, the word galeote continued in use as late as
the early 19th century for a criminal condemned to penal servitude. In
Italian the word galera is still in use for a prison.
A vivid account of the life of galley-slaves in France appears in Jean
Marteilhes's Memoirs of a Protestant, translated by Oliver Goldsmith,
which describes the experiences of one of the Huguenots who suffered
after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
Madame de Sevigne, a revered French author, wrote from Paris on April
10, 1671 (Letter VII): "I went to walk at Vincennes, en Troche* and by
the way met with a string of galley-slaves ; they were going to
Marseilles, and will be there in about a month. Nothing could have
been surer than this mode of conveyance, but another thought came into
my head, which was to go with them myself. There was one Duval among
them, who appeared to be a conversible man. You will see them when
they come in, and I suppose you would have been agreeably surprised to
have seen me in the midst of the crowd of women that accompany them."
Galley-slaves lived in unsavoury conditions, so even though some
sentences prescribed a restricted number of years, most rowers would
eventually die, even if they survived the conditions, shipwreck and
slaughter or torture at the hands of enemies or of pirates.
Additionally, nobody ensured that prisoners were freed after
completing their sentences. As a result, imprisonment for 10 years
could in reality mean imprisonment for life because nobody except the
prisoner would either notice or care.
Barbary pirates of the 16th to 19th centuries used galley slaves,
often captured Europeans from Italy or Spain. The Ottoman Sultan in
Istanbul used galley slaves also.
A short account of his 10 years as a galley-slave is given by the
character Farrabesche in "The Village Rector" by Honoré de Balzac. He
is sentenced to the galleys as a result of his life as a "chauffeur"
(in this case the word refers to a brigand who threatened landowners
by roasting them).
In one of his ill-fated adventures, Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote
frees a row of prisoners sent to the galleys, including Ginés de
Pasamonte. The prisoners, however, beat him. (Cervantes himself had
been captured in 1575 and served as a galley slave in
Algiers for five
years before he was ransomed.)
In The Sea Hawk, a 1919 novel of historical fiction by Rafael
Sabatini, as well as the 1924 film based on the novel, the
protagonist, Sir Oliver Tressilian, is sold into galley slavery by a
relative. In the 1940 film of the same name (but with an entirely
different plot), the protagonist, Sir Geoffery Thorpe, played by Errol
Flynn, is captured by Spanish military personnel and receives a life
sentence as a galley slave. The sets in the 1940 film appear
Lew Wallace's Judah
Ben-Hur is sent to the galleys as a murderer but
manages to survive a shipwreck and save the fleet leader, who frees
and adopts him. Both films based on the novel depict the historically
inaccurate galley slaves.
The 1947 French film
Monsieur Vincent shows Saint Vincent de Paul
taking the place of a weakened slave at his oar.
Roma Sub Rosa
Roma Sub Rosa novel
Arms of Nemesis contains an
appalling description of the conditions under which galley slaves
lived and worked, assuming that they existed.
C. S. Forester
C. S. Forester wrote of an encounter with Spanish galleys in Mr.
Midshipman Hornblower when the becalmed British fleet is attacked off
Gibraltar by galleys. The author writes of the stench emanating from
these galleys due to each carrying two hundred condemned prisoners
chained permanently to the rowing benches.
Patrick O'Brian wrote of encounters with galleys in the Mediterranean
Master and Commander
Master and Commander emphasising the galley's speed and
manoeuvrability compared to sailing ships when there was little wind.
In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Jean Valjean was a galley prisoner,
and was in danger of returning to the galleys. Police inspector
Javert's father was also a galley prisoner.
Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard transplanted the institute of galley slavery to his
mythical Hyborian Age, depicting
Conan the Barbarian
Conan the Barbarian as organizing a
rebellion of galley slaves who kill the crew, take over the ship and
make him their captain in one novel (Conan the Conqueror).
^ Casson 1966, p. 35
^ a b Libourel 1973, p. 119
^ With the possible exception of a single instance in Ptolemaic Egypt
(Casson, Lionel (1971). Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World.
Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 325–326. ).
^ Sargent 1927, pp. 264f.
^ a b Sargent 1927, p. 266
^ Aristotle, Polit. v. 4. 8 (1304a) "On the other hand, the victory of
Salamis, which was gained by the common people who served in the
fleet, and won for the Athenians the empire of the sea, strengthened
^ Casson 1966, p. 36
^ Sargent 1927, p. 273
^ Sargent 1927, pp. 266–268; Ruschenbusch 1979, pp. 106
^ Graham 1992, pp. 258–262
^ Ruschenbusch 1979, p. 110
^ Xenophon, "Hellenica", 1.6.24
^ Hunt 2001, pp. 359–366
^ Hunt 2001, p. 359
^ Sargent 1927, p. 277
^ Sargent 1927, pp. 273f.; Casson 1966, pp. 36f.; Graham
1992, p. 260
^ a b Sargent 1927, p. 274
^ Casson 1966, pp. 36f.
^ a b Libourel 1973, pp. 117f.
^ Libourel 1973, p. 117
^ Casson 1966, p. 38; Libourel 1973, p. 118
Livy 42.27.3, 42.31.6–7 and 43.12.9
^ Casson 1966, pp. 41f.
^ Casson 1966, p. 41
^ Patrick 2007, pp. 718
^ Grima, Joseph F. (2001). "The Rowers on the Order's Galleys (c.
1600-1650)" (PDF). Melita Historica. 13 (2): 113–126.
^ Miguel de Cervantes#Military service and captivity
Casson, Lionel (1966), "
Galley Slaves", Transactions and Proceedings
of the American Philological Association, 97, pp. 35–44
Graham, A. J. (1992), "Thucydides 7.13.2 and the Crews of Athenian
Triremes", Transactions of the American Philological Association, 122,
Hunt, Peter (2001), "The Slaves and Generals of Arginusae", American
Journal of Philology, 122, pp. 359–380
Libourel, Jan M. (1973), "
Galley Slaves in the Second Punic War",
Classical Philology, 68 (2), pp. 116–119
Patrick, James (2007), "Renaissance and Reformation", Vol., 7,
Ruschenbusch, Eberhard (1979), "Zur Besatzung athenischer Trieren",
Historia, 28, pp. 106–110
Sargent, Rachel L. (1927), "The Use of Slaves by the Athenians in
Warfare", Classical Philology, 22 (3), pp. 264–279
Bamford, Paul W., Fighting ships and prisons : the Mediterranean
Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV. Cambridge University Press,
London. 1974. ISBN 0-8166-0655-2
James, Simon (2001), "The Roman
Ben-Hur and the Birth of
a Factoid", Public Ar