Until the late 16th century, galleys were the main battleships. They were then started to be replaced by larger galleons, as the galleons could carry much bigger cannons with the developed technology.

My question is about the time of the galleys:

  • How was a typical naval battle? Did the ships have to get together to initiate a fight?
  • How was a typical attack to a fort from the galleys? How the forts could be invaded?
  • It would be more useful if you restricted the question more. Different countries used different kinds of ships. The ships being used in the Baltic, for example, were completely different than those used in the Black Sea. Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 15:31

2 Answers 2


The question as it stands would require a book to answer it. Luckily for you, the book has been written: "Naval Warfare Under Oars, 4th to 16th Century" by Rodgers (1940). To quote from Chapter 8 on the Italian Naval Wars in the 13th century:

Tactical Customs

Ordinarily, squadrons moved in column with the admiral leading; in battle the fleet formed in line, sometimes in a straight line, sometimes a crescent with the wing ships either advanced or withdrawn.... Frequently, when the fleet was near the shore, the ships were bridled for battle; that is, they stretched cables from one ship to the next, so that the enemy could not break through the line.... The engagement commenced at a distance with flights of arrows, stones, and bolts from the machines. When attacking sailing ships, it was an object to tear the sails with arrows and cut the rigging with scythes. After ships collided, the rowers left their oars to fight; divers tried to bore holes under the water. Liquid soap was thrown on the hostile decks to make them slippery. Greek fire was thrown in pots and also quick lime, liquid pitch, and boiling oil and incendiary darts.... It is noteworthy that few ships were sunk by the ram or otherwise as compared with ancient times. For siege work the ships rigged flying bridges and ladders from the masts to swing against the walls and enable the soldiers to reach their tops. On the other hand, the entrances to harbors were defended by chains drawn across the channel, and on some occasions by piling (lizze) driven to obstruct the channel and by sunken ships.

To answer your question more fully you may want to get this 350-page book, published by the United States Naval Institute Press.

  • 5
    Excellent answer, and much lol for the great opener "The question as it stands would require a book to answer it. Luckily for you, the book has been written" that alone would deserve a +1.
    – o0'.
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 17:17

I agree that the question is too broad. And it begins with the statement "until 16 century galleys were the main battleships, which is not correct. (Viking ships and many others before 16-th were not galleys. Greek and Roman ships were not galleys, though they are somewhat similar. They used different weapons, and different tactics.) All battleships in the old times used oars in battle but this is the only thing that is common to them. The oars and the methods of rowing was also different.

Galleys were used until 18-th century. 16-18-th century galleys carried guns. Usually one or two big guns. The guns could be only aimed forward or backward, otherwise they would interfere with oars. So they were used essentially as gunboats. They could also take an enemy by boarding sometimes. They were used only in Mediterranean and in the Baltic. There is no much use of a galley in the Atlantic ocean or in the North sea.

You are also asking about a typical naval battle. There was a famous one which is relatively well-documented: the Battle of Lepanto. Here is an 18-th century galley battle: Battle of Gangut.

  • 1
    Actually, Greek and Roman warships were galleys, as were Norse warships. The term "battleship" is just wrong. Rodgers wrote another book, on Classical warships, Greek and Roman Naval Warfare. A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis (480 BC) to Actium (31 BC) (1934) These can be considered the backbone of galley warfare research, though someone might also like Casson, The Ancient Mariners: Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times or ...
    – Zither13
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 17:27
  • ...Warry, Warfare in the Classical World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons, Warriors & Warfare in the Ancient Civilisations of Greece and Rome or Gardiner, The Earliest Ships: The Evolution of Boats into Ships.
    – Zither13
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 17:29
  • Zither13: Thanks for the reference but neither in Rome nor in Greece they had galleys. A galley is a Venetian invention (some late Middle age).
    – Alex
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 22:06
  • @Alex: Perhaps you are thinking of the galleass, originating in the Mediterranean in the 15th century AD? Galleys go back at least 5000 years, and the Greeks and Romans built them by the hundreds.
    – user4139
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 3:28
  • 1
    Those are all galleys, Alex; in English, at least, other languages may translate slightly differently. Consult any dictionary, or the Wikipedia page on galleys.
    – user4139
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 13:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.