Exhibit of the Week: Green and Roman galleys, Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre

Model of a Greek galley
Model of a Greek galley

Among the model ships which have been donated to the Maritime Heritage Centre are two galleys of the Ancient World, one an example of a Greek and the other of a Roman vessel.

The models, both apparently constructed from commercial kits, seem to well represent these sleek, primarily oar-propelled warships. (Sails could be set in favourable winds though were not, as a general rule, used when in battle.) Such ships participated in some of the most significant conflicts of the ancient era. The galley also features in myth and legend.

Model of a Roman galley showing the Corvus.

Model of a Roman galley showing the Corvus.

Information regarding the model Greek ship describes it as depicting a “bireme of 480 BC”. Once the ram (a bronze-fronted projection of the keel timbers) was introduced, probably in the 9th century BC, the Phoenicians and Greeks evolved the bireme – ships with two banks of oars per side, from their existing single-banked galleys – in order to get a ship of equal or greater power with a shorter, stronger hull, thereby increasing manoeuvrability and sea-worthiness.

The bireme led in turn to the trireme, a ship with three banks of oars, larger, but with the same features of ram-equipped bow, curving stern and fairly shallow draught, as its precursor. It was in fact the trireme which was the main warship of the Greek naval forces that defeated the fleet of the Persian king, Xerxes, at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, although biremes – as represented by our model – could have comprised part of the Greek fleet. This defeat of the Persians prevented their conquest of Greece and averted the great changes such a conquest would have meant to the development of Greek – and therefore European – civilisation and culture.

The model Roman galley in the Heritage Centre’s collection appears to be a vessel from the time of Rome’s first war against the Carthaginians which took place between 264-241 BC. The ship is equipped with a Corvus (Latin for “raven” or “crow”), a kind of boarding-bridge located at the bows of their galleys which enabled the Romans to win several decisive naval battles and ultimately the war, against an established maritime power.

The Corvus was attached at its inboard end to a pole, allowing it to be swivelled to either side of the ship. A pulley enabled the device to be raised or lowered.

In battle, once the Roman galley was near an opposing vessel, the “raven” was let down onto the enemy’s deck, a sharp spike at the end (not shown on the model) piercing the planks and grappling the ships together. Marine-legionaries onboard the Roman ship would then board the enemy vessel across the bridge and engage in the close-quarters’ fighting – as in a land battle – at which the Romans were adept. The Romans and Carthaginians fought two further wars, by the end of which Carthage was completely destroyed. The Mediterranean was then called by the Romans the Mare Nostrum or “Our Sea”.

This type of ship – in later forms – continued into the modern era, the last great action involving opposing galley fleets being the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 AD, though galleys remained on the seas well beyond that date.