Galley - Military History

Military History

The first Greek galleys appeared around the second half of the 2nd millennium BC. In the epic poem, the Iliad, set in the 12th century BC, galleys with a single row of oarsmen were used primarily to transport soldiers to and from various land battles. The first recorded naval battle, the battle of the Delta between Egyptian forces under Ramesses III and the enigmatic alliance known as the Sea Peoples, occurred as early as 1175 BC. It is the first known engagement between organized armed forces, using sea vessels as weapons of war, though primarily as fighting platforms. It was distinguished by being fought against an anchored fleet close to shore with land-based archer support.

The development of the ram sometime before the 8th century BC changed the nature of naval warfare, which had until then been a matter of boarding and hand-to-hand fighting. With a heavy projection at the foot of the bow, sheathed with metal, usually bronze, a ship could render an enemy galley useless by breaking its side planking. The relative speed and nimbleness of ships became important, since a slower ship could be outmaneuvered and disabled by a faster one. Early designs had only one row of rowers that sat in undecked hulls, rowing against tholes, or oarports, placed directly along the railings. The practical upper limit for wooden constructions fast and maneuverable enough for warfare was around 25-30 oars per side. By adding another level of oars, a development that occurred no later than c. 750 BC, the galley could be made shorter with as many rowers, while making them strong enough to be effective ramming weapons.

Early galleys usually had between 15 and 30 pairs of oars and were called triaconters or penteconters, literally "thirty-" and "fifty-oared", respectively. By the 8th century BC, the Phoenecians had added a second row of oars to these ships, creating the bireme. Soon after, a third row of oars was added by the addition of an outrigger to the hull of a bireme, a projecting construction that allowed for more room for the projecting oars. These new galleys were called triērēs ("three-fitted") in Greek. The Romans later called this design the triremis, trireme, the name it is today best known under. It has been hypothesized that early types of triremes existed in 701 BC, but the earliest positive literary reference dates to 542 BC. According to the Greek historian Herodotos, the first ramming action occurred in 535 BC when 60 Phocaean penteconters fought 120 Etruscan and Carthaginian ships. On this occasion it was described as an innovation that allowed Phocaeans to defeat a larger force.

The emergence of more advanced states and intensified competition between them spurred on the development of advanced galleys with multiple banks of rowers. During the middle of the first millennium BC, the Mediterranean powers developed successively larger and more complex vessels, the most advanced being the classical trireme with up to 170 rowers. Triremes fought several important engagements in the naval battles of the Greco-Persian Wars (502–449 BC) and the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), including the battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, which sealed the defeat of the Athenian Empire by Sparta and her allies. The trireme was an advanced ship that was expensive to build and to maintain due its large crew. By the 5th century, advanced war galleys had been developed that required sizable states with an advanced economy to build and maintain. It was associated with the latest in warship technology around the 4th century BC and could only be employed by a sizeable state with an advanced economy and administration. They required considerable skill to row and oarsmen were mostly free citizens that had a lifetime of experience at the oar.

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