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In many historical paintings one can see slave rowers chained to the ships.

  • I wonder whether this practice was indeed widespread?

  • Were the chains permanent or allowed quick disconnection?

  • Were the rowers allowed to walk in a port when the ship was staying a long time or was reloaded? Or were they used to help reloading?

  • How would they go to toilet if the chains were permanent?

  • Was serving on a ship a normal slavery or was it a kind of punishment?


I want to know whether there is any evidence that rowers were ever cast to the ships or oars in Ancient Greece and Rome. In my view it could be too expensive to chain people at that time, even if the crew were slaves.

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It is worth noting that in battle, slave oarsmen were potentially an extreme hazard. If any one of the 170 oarsmen in an ancient Greek trireme missed a beat, the boat would immediately be dead in the water, spinning, as all the oars on one side clashed and many broke. The mobility and speed of these vessels was the result of extreme precision in rowing, achievable only with the aid of truly dedicated oarsmen. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 1 '14 at 18:12
@PieterGeerkens hence it's generally assumed (and I think there's written evidence) that rowers on military vessels were not slaves but trained soldiers. This had the added benefit that they would serve as extra troops in any boarding or amphibious action. – jwenting Jan 4 '14 at 14:49
@jwenting: You are confusing galleys with Viking longboats, and with 18th century ships of the line. Galleys fight by ramming, and the oarsmen must stay at their oars in order to retain mobility of the vessel. Once having rammed an opposing vessel, the object is to back off as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that the hole in the opposing vessel can fill with water as quickly as possible. Staying in contact only allows for the possibility of the opposing crew escaping drowning by taking over your own vessel. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 4 '14 at 15:16
@PieterGeerkens I'm not, those galleys also were used in boarding and amphibious actions, even though that was not their primary mode of operation. – jwenting Jan 4 '14 at 15:29
@jwenting: I read some years ago, but cannot find the source just now, that ancient Greek oarsmen "buttered their buttocks" to achieve an effect similar to the use of a modern rowing seat as popularized by Ned Hanlon. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 4 '14 at 15:32
up vote 14 down vote accepted

Rodgers, William Ledyard, vice admiral, USN, ret. Greek and Roman Naval Warfare. A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis (480 BC) to Actium (31 BC) (1934, 1964)

Gardiner, Robert, ed. Earliest Ships, The: The Evolution of Boats into Ships (1996)

Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons, Warriors & Warfare in the Ancient Civilisations of Greece and Rome (1980) (Good for the beginner.)

In Classical, Hellenistic, and Imperial navies, rowers were free men. They were not chained, and fought against boarding actions when necessary. The exception was in Greece, when slave-owners might send some of their slaves to the navy in time of war, but they were treated same as the free men, including being paid by the day. One way to earn money to buy your freedom!

So the scenes in Ben Hur are just bad history. It would make sense set in a Venetian galley 1400 years later.

It's by the Late Medieval/Renaissance that being sentenced to the galleys becomes a terrifying punishment handed out by countries with Mediterranean shores. At that time, the criminals are chained to the benches (cheap iron, just part of the galley's fittings), live, sleep, eat, and shit there, probably for a short life. You could smell a galley or galleasse passing upwind, and they were limited in where in a harbor they could dock or anchor because of this. They stank with their slaves. Does the galley slave die of sores? No one cares. He's disposable and supposed to die a slow horrible death. Slaves rowed well in battle to save their own lives, because if the ship sank, they sank with it. No one released them for just that reason.

As mentioned above, depending on the ship's duty they might be released in port to be used for re-loading or grueling duties ashore (still chained).

Adm. Rogers again: Naval Warfare Under Oars, 4th to 16th Centuries. A Study of Strategy, Tactics and Ship Design (1940, 1967) His information on viking ships is weak; his longbow ballistics stink (because he's basing them on early 20th C American amateur competitions), but he'll give you everything on galleys and galleasses.

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Not all rowers were slaves, free men would be unlikely to be chained to their oars.
Galley slavery was the harshest form of slavery a man could face, apart from maybe some mines, and could thus have been a form of punishment for those guilty of serious crimes just short of warranting execution (though I'd guess many would wish they were executed after some time on the oars).

http://www.romanarmytalk.com/17-roman-military-history-a-archaeology/176707-ancient-galley-slaves-myth-and-reality.html is an old forum thread talking about the topic, and the idea that galley slaves were not the norm and why. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galley_slave confirms that, and lists sources.
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1995/issue46/lifeasagalleyslave.html talks about a 16th (yes, that late) French galley rower, who apparently were chained to the oars pretty much all the time (unless needed for other duties). http://melita4historica.x90x.net/20011.html is another source for the French galleys. Not technically slaves, these were convicts usually sent for a set period of time (though French "justice" was often such that people were sentenced to penalties almost certain to kill them before their time was up even for minor crimes).
http://www.spainvia.com/Christianslaves.htm talks about the miserable fate of the be many counts millions of Europeans who ended up as slaves in to the muslims in north Africa (and as far away as Arabia, though that's not explicitly mentioned. It answers your questions, though this happened a thousand years after the Roman empire you're referring to.

Most of these public slaves spent the rest of their lives as galley slaves, and it is hard to imagine a more miserable existence. Men were chained three, four, or five to an oar, with their ankles chained together as well. Rowers never left their oars, and to the extent that they slept at all, they slept at their benches. Slaves could push past each other to relieve themselves at an opening in the hull, but they were often too exhausted or dispirited to move, and fouled themselves where they sat ... When the pirate fleet was in port, galley slaves lived in the bagno and did whatever filthy, dangerous, or exhausting work the pasha set them to. This was usually stone-cutting and hauling, harbor-dredging, or heavy construction. The slaves in the Turkish sultan’s fleet did not even have this variety. They were often at sea for months on end, and stayed chained to their oars even in port. Their ships were life-long prisons.

This went on for centuries, well past the end of slavery in Europe and the Americas.

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Thanks. What about toilets, and what about the actual practice in the Roman Empire and Greece? I also wonder whether they were chained to the ships or detachable oars. How could they help the pasha if they were chained or were they detached while in a port? – Anixx May 28 '13 at 13:18
And, was there any practice in Ancient Greece or Rome to cast/chain the (slave) rowers to the ship? Was not casting people to an oar or benches too expensive to rely on, even of the crew were slaves? – Anixx May 28 '13 at 13:56
The source of your last quote sounds extremely suspect. It's basically a wingnut diatribe, and the website it's hosted on is some sort of public airing if grievances concerning an investment scam in Gibraltar in 2006. – Michael Borgwardt Apr 30 '14 at 8:36
@MichaelBorgwardt so just because you don't like what it says you claim it's not true? – jwenting Apr 30 '14 at 10:33
@jwenting: No. I wrote "suspect" not "untrue". But the way it's written makes it clear that the author wouldn't let truth get in the way of his ideology. Seriously, just read the last paragraph and tell me that's someone interested in reasonable historical analysis. In any case, the whole thing is based on an academic text that may be a credible source, but doesn't indicate whether it's quoting or paraphrasing. – Michael Borgwardt Apr 30 '14 at 11:11

For Athens wikipedia deals with the question in detail:

Contrary to popular perception, in the ancient navies, crews were composed not of galley slaves but of free men. In the Athenian case in particular, service in the ships was the integral part of the military service provided by the lower classes, the thētai, although metics and hired foreigners were also accepted.[36][37] Although it has been argued that slaves formed part of the rowing crew in the Sicilian Expedition,[38] a typical Athenian trireme crew during the Peloponnesian War consisted of 80 citizens, 60 metics and 60 foreign hands.[39] Indeed, in the few emergency cases where slaves were used to crew ships, these were deliberately set free, usually before being employed.[40] For instance, the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse once set all slaves of Syracuse free to man his galleys, employing thus freedmen, but otherwise relied on citizens and foreigners as oarsmen.[41]

Furthermore, this fact had as its corollary the great political power of the common folk in Athens. One is almost tempted to say that Athens was democratic because it had such a huge fleet, rowed by free citizens. (Of course, it's more complex than that, but there is a sizeable kernel of truth in this statement). An ancient author had already pointed it out (quoted from here):

My first point is that it is right that the poor and the ordinary people there should have more power than the noble and the rich, because it is the ordinary people who man the fleet and bring the city her power; they provide the helmsmen, the boatswains, the junior officers, the look-outs and the shipwrights; it is these people who make the city powerful much more than the hoplites and the noble and respectable citizens. This being so, it seems just that all should share in public office by lot and by election, and that any citizen who wishes should be able to speak in the Assembly. ("Xenophon," Constitution of the Athenians 1.1-2)

A modern historian elaborates this point further - see here.

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I already read this by the link provided by jwenting. What really interests me is whether there is ANY evidence that people were CAST or CHAINED to the ships in at least one instance in ancient Rome or Greece. – Anixx May 28 '13 at 14:44
As far as I know, the use of slaves in galleys was a Medieval and later phenomenon. Ancients did neither, the movie Ben-Hur aside. – Oldcat Dec 8 '14 at 22:55
Not by the Athenian Navy for sure. Not only were they free men, they were a considerable number of voters of the government - think of them as Congressmen or Members of Parliament. – Oldcat Aug 17 '15 at 22:04
@Oldcat Well, that was exactly the point of my answer, I think.. – Felix Goldberg Aug 18 '15 at 8:43

RE. Were galley slaves chained. There is a painting by Italian artist Alessandro Magnasco dated about 1710 titled "Manning the Galleys" which clearly shows galley slaves chained by the neck and having their heads shaved and being branded. The artist was an Italian court painter in Milan and Genoa. His paintings can be found on Google images. He did a number of paintings of the lower classes and underworld which are quite interesting. Based on this painting and written accounts I would say that the Italian city states generally chained their galley slaves 16 century to the end of the 18 century.

Hope this helps

Edit: The painting appears to actually be "The Embarkation of the Galley Slaves", 1730.
- Pieter Geerkens

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Clearest online reproduction I could find is this: bridgemanart.com/en-GB/asset/121279/… – Pieter Geerkens Apr 29 '14 at 2:21

The paintings you are seeing are probably based on medieval or later galleys, such as those operated by Vencie, Genoa and Turkey which in some cases were manned by chained slaves. Chains would only be used in specific circumstances.

In ancient times it is unlikely rowers were chained for several reasons. Firstly, metal was much more valuable in ancient times. Even creating simple wrought iron fetters would have been an expensive proposition 2000 years ago.

The other reason is that when chains are worn for long periods of time normally sores will develop where the metal rubs against the flesh. Such sores can develop in as little as a few days. Not only would such sores be very painful, they will eventually become infected and kill the person if the sores go untreated.

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Interesting opinion, but not proof either for or against. – CGCampbell Apr 9 '15 at 16:48

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