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Maritime technology

Military and maritime technology in the second half of the 16th century

Several historians have stressed the role of artillery, particularly heavy one, in the transformation of the correlation of powers from the mid-15th century onwards. The victory of the western forces at Lepanto has been explained by emphasizing the Venetian -mostly- superiority in artillery. It seems, however, that it was the Venetians themselves who first provided this explanation, as they wanted to benefit from the glory and the profits from the victory. Yet, they failed to mention that their artillery was handled mainly by mercenaries and men who belonged to the Spanish army. The Ottomans, on the other hand, placed more importance on tactics, whereas their men, mostly the janissaries, were used to fighting on horseback, using mainly bows, and were fit for amphibious operations.


“the perfect galley should capture precisely the attributes of a graceful young woman, whose every aspect should manifest swiftness, vivacity and extreme agility” Cristoforo de Canal, Venetian Commander of the Adriatic, 1562

Maritime technology had not evolved dramatically in the centuries which elapsed since the Greek trireme of the 5th century B.C. Ships were mainly moving using the power of wind and men, namely rowers. The need to incorporate artillery in war ships started gradually to generate modifications in the design of ships. In galleys, for example, the bow had to be flatter in order to fit the cannon, whereas on the other hand the stern had to be heavier in order to balance the weight of the cannon in the front. Simultaneously more and more importance was paid to the decoration both of the ships and of the artillery they carried, in an effort to impress not only the enemy but also the crew, who hence felt proud of the ship they manned and defended with their lives. However, the galley became a basic type of war ship until the appearance of steamships in the 19th century. Its major advantage was that it could approach the shores and distance itself from it in a short time, thus offering the possibility to carry out land operations as well (by debarking the soldiers it carried). It was a ship with low drought and a narrow hull, quite unstable and easy to overturn, but flexible and capable of flanking larger ships (mainly galeasses and galleons) relatively easy and hit them with the cannons of its bow or stern, while avoiding their fire, as their cannons were placed higher than the hull of a galley. An average Ottoman galley was manned with 150-170 rowers, 50-75 soldiers, about 30 sailors and about 15 officers.
Another advantage was that the galleys were fast to build (thus many of them were constructed only when a naval clash was visible in the nearby future), and also easy to come ashore for spending the winter or undergoing repair. This prolongued their lives in relation to the larger and heavier ships, which rotted fast in the water. A consequence thereof was the low cost for their maintenance, as there was no need for the crews to remain aboard. Venetian galleys were in several aspects different from that of the Ottomans. The latters' main advantage was their light sails which offered them higher speed when sailing. In order to facilitate navigation and steering under heavy winds, the largest galleys bore a second, square sail on a bow mast, shorter and slightly slant. Gradually this developed into a proper second mast. Ottoman hulls were broader and usually lighter, as the Ottomans avoided carrying heavy artillery and many cannons. The motion power, when not sailing or accomplishing manoevres, was the rowers. An average galley had 24 to 26 rows of rowers on each side and three men on each oar. There were two systems, the singl-oared one (a scallochio) with one oar per rower, or the double-oared one (alla sensile) with one oar per bench of rowers . Quite often a combination of both systems was used on the same ship. The paintings representing he naval battle of Lepanto depict only single-oared ships, but this is not accurate and realistic. The largest galley at the time of the battle of Lepanto was Don Juan's flagship, referred to as “La Real” (i.e. the royal ship). In the Maritime Museum of Barcelona an exact copy of it has been constructed; according to estimates, it weighed 237 tons when empty, it required 290 rowers, it carried 300 mariners and solders and the daily consumption of its men in food and water approached two tons in weight.
A Galleass represented the evolution of a galley with a strictly military function. It used both rowers and sails (mainly triangular lateens) for it motion; its main differetiation from the galley was the addition of a deck which covered the ship completely. The usual amount of oars was 52. It was equipped with about 10 cannons on the bow and 8 on the stern, whereas on it sides were placed weapons for stone missiles.

The term galleon was initially used to denote a large galley, in use at the maritime explorations already since the 13th century. However, the galleons in use in the second half of the 16th century had developed into ships with low bow, a longer hull and several decks. This type of ship was dominant during the expeditions in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean in the ages of discovery. The galleons were purely sailing ships, with three or four masts, whereas they soon developed into was ships with heavy artillery, mainly cannons. They followed trade missions, though, and carried goods and merchandise themselves.
A galliot was also a development of the galley. It was smaller in size with 16 or 18 pairs of oars and only one rower on each side. It was provided with two masts and only bore lateen sails. It was a particularly flexible ship and was therefore used amply for military purposes. The Ottoman marine forces used a lot of galliots, possibly because there were the ships amply used by the corsairs of north Africa, several of whom later on became Ottoman admirals. Due to its low cost of construction and maintenance, it was the type of ship preferred by Greek ship-owners at the end of the 18th-beginning of 19th century for their commercial activity. When the Greek War for Independence broke out, these ships were easily transformed from commercial to war ships and achieved important victories against the Ottoman fleet
The manpower
Galleys' rowers consisted of three categories of men: a) those who had been conscripted, usually as mercenaries, and were also soldiers, b) the professional sailors, several of whom were Greeks; these men, however, were relatively untrustworthy, because they could mutiny if they saw that the battle was going to be lost and c) the slaves or convicts, whose only duty was to row until the end. Apart from the active rowers there was usually a considerable “reserve” of men, usually among the sailors. Authors of those days refer that each galley and the way it functioned depended almost entirely on the captain, usually a naval officer (although in many cases, as in Lepanto, military offices of land forces were asked to undertake the role of captain on ships). The ships offered a considerable amount of sailors, who performed tasks mainly on the deck, as well as a number of warriors and officers who decided upon the tactics that were to be applied.