January 15, 2013

Galleys Ancient and Medieval

I’ve been re-reading my copy of John F. Guilmartin’s Galleons and Galleys, which has made me realize some FRPG tropes could use clarification: chief among them, galley rams and galley slaves.
The heavier galleys of antiquity had a waterline ram at the bow, meant for springing open the planking of an enemy ship. The ram gave the galley a unique profile, with the lower bow jutting out:
Trieme with waterline ram
The waterline ram was abandoned sometime before or in the early Middle Ages, and came to be replaced by a spur on the bow, the arrumbada, which was designed to ride over the gunwales of a smaller or equal-sized ship so boarding parties could run over it and jump down into the enemy ship’s deck.  It was not designed for doing hull damage, which wouldn’t have been much good anyway since the spur was well above the waterline as you can see in the pic below:
Venetial galley with spur
As for slave rowers, I’m afraid I’ll have to lose one of the sword-and-sandal genre’s beloved tropes: the Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians didn’t use them.  Military galleys used free-born rowers, who were also soldiers.  In Athens during the Pelopponesian War, the rowers were influential in getting the citizenship laws amended in their favor, as many of them were not eligible to vote at the time – that’s how important they were. We can blame Hollywood for giving us the wrong idea, thanks specially to Ben Hur.
Sorry folks, it wasn't like this under Rome
The iconic image of Charlton Heston above properly belonged to the Late Middle Ages/Renaissance, specially the Mediterranean  wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.  While some powers like the Venetians initially preferred free rowers, who could add their swords to the fighting power of the ship, manpower or money shortages eventually turned them like the Spanish and the Turks to using slave rowers. 
Author Arturo Perez-Reverte also points out one reason the Spanish may have preferred slave rowers: social convention.  The Spanish soldiery of the time considered themselves hidalgos, ‘sons of somebody,’ members of the nobility to whom manual labor was abhorrently declasse.  In the climactic scene of Pirates of the Levant, Captain Alatriste gets stuck in a desperate battle against terrible odds because the soldiers vote not to row.
Speaking of Spain, here’s a historical note that may be of interest to fellow-Filipino gamers:  Because galleons  couldn’t effectively deal with the karakoa and other fast, shallow-drafted Malay vessels in Philippine waters, the Spanish built galleys in Cavite. 
The galley and the karakoa are ‘evolutionary parallels’ of each other so to speak, both able to move independently of the wind and able to negotiate the shallow, coral reef-strewn waters of the archipelago.  The shipbuilders of Sulu seem to have later copied the Spanish galley, which could hold more men and was more solidly built than the karakoa, though likely slower.  The lanong below looks very much like a Mediterranean galley:
Lanong from Sulu: artist unknown
I can’t be 100% sure, but this photo above looks more like a photograph than a drawing or painting – which would date it to the late 19th or early 20th century, likely during the American occupation of the archipelago. Galleys didn’t fare very well against steam gunboats, though, so they disappeared :-)

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