Galley Slave

A staple of the Sword And Sandal and Fantasy genres. The hero is enslaved and forced to work as a galley rower, while chained to his fellows. Necessary embellishments include:

  • A large sailor beating time on a drum
  • A brutal first mate with a whip
  • A friendly Scary Black Man chained next to the hero, who will die heroically for the hero's freedom

The alternative, for a male slave, to Gladiator Games.

In reality galley slaves were uncommon in the ancient world, and they became a reality only in the 16th century. Most rowers were free men from the lower classes. In the case of Athens, said people would often push for war to serve as rowers as they got a better wage rowing at sea than tilling the fields or working a low paying job. Using slaves as rowers was to be avoided. If a ship full of free rowers was boarded, they would fight alongside the marines and other personnel. Free men were also more motivated to learn maritime skills and rowing maneuvres.

The usual way to employ free rowers was alla sensile, i.e. each rower had his own oar. That would maximize the sum of oar blade wet surface and thrust created. The only way to employ slaves was alla scaloccio, where several rowers were chained to one oar. This style was inefficient and wasted manpower, but required little skill. It was estimated to substitute 2 free rowers, 3 slaves were required. Some nations, like Venice, never adopted galley slavery and relied on free rowers and alla sensile rowing style until the end of galley era.

The galley slaves posed always a risk. Not only were they prone to deserting and running away, but also to mutiny. If a ship full of slave rowers was boarded, the boarders would say "Hey, you know those Jerks who beat you and force you to row, we are going to kill them! We would be much obliged if you helped us with this and would give you your freedom!" This is one of the reasons why the Ottomans lost the battle of Lepanto as many of their ships had galley slaves.


  • The "spokescandies" for M&M's which take the slavemaster's line and turn it into a rendition of The Hues Corporation hit "Rock the Boat".

Comic Books
  • In Astérix At The Olympic Games, the gauls hire a ship to transport them to Rome only to find the ship they hired is a galley, where they're expected to do the rowing. The ship's captain explains that these are the "deck games and sport" promised. He then confirms that it's usually a slave ship: "You got the better deal, normally rowers are chained and whipped!"
    • Similarly, the Phoenician merchant who shows up from time to time uses "business associates who didn't read the contract very well".
    • And in Asterix the Legionary, the troop Asterix and Obelix signed up in are the rowers (see the Real Life section below). The voyage ends up quite pleasant, driving the captain nuts by countering his orders (heading straight for the pirate ship, for instance). He also tells the drummer to beat faster... only to be told the little Gaul has already requested it.
    • And in another story, the drummer thing is subverted when the pirates end up in command of a Roman galley, they ask their (not very) Scary Black Man to be the drummer, at which point he pulls off a high-speed drum solo before being replaced with a standard drummer.
  • The Thorgal volume "The Black Galley": Thorgal gets captured and becomes one of these. There's the drummer (who's a Scary Black Man) and the whip-man.
  • In De cape et de crocs, our heroes are sent to a galley, with the requisite chains, drummers and slave uprising. Amusingly, the drummer wouldn't look out of place in a metal band, and is seen still beating away on his drum while on the lifeboat.
    • Also, due to the Running Gag of referring to every ship as a galley, we get this exchange, as Don Lope and Armand have snuck onto the janissary's ship:
    Don Lope:: Ola, amigos! We are Christians, like you! We've come to rescue you from the Barbary scum!
    Armand: Once again, Don Lope, this is not a galley, but a zebec. A zebec is a sailboat...
    Don Lope: So these people in the hold are not galley slaves?
    Armand: No!
    Don Lope: But Turkish sailors?
    Sailors: YES!


  • The Fighting Fantasy book Master Of Chaos begins like this. Unusually, the hero went into slavery voluntarily, as a discreet way of gaining entry to the local Wretched Hive.
  • Discussed at length in the The Tough Guide To Fantasy Land.
  • Whole chapters of this in The Baroque Cycle. This is the Baroque Cycle, so 'whole chapters' doesn't mean much.
  • In Les Misérables, the main character is referred to as a galley slave ("galérien"), as was typical at the time, even though by that point the prisoners were no longer allowed to serve as actual galley slaves. However some translations seem to be slightly confused by this and have Valjean as an actual galley slave, as do some of the films. Valjean and those like him were more like enslaved dock workers/manual laborers.
  • Uhtred, the Anti-Hero of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles, spends some time as an oar-slave. Instead of the traditional Scary Black Man friend, he instead finds himself a crazy badass Irishman. They keep each other angry enough to survive.
  • The hero of Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion has just made his way home after surviving a stint as a galley slave; it turns out to be fairly critical to the plot.
  • in " the Golden Crown, by Chris Hiemerdinger, the time traveling Harry Hawkins is sold as a slave to Romans and finds himself on a ship heading who-knows-where. lucky for him, pirates burn down the ship( after he grabs the key, and unlocks all the other rowers.)
  • Happens in "The Legend of Luke", one of the Redwall novels.
  • In the World of Gor, one of the few roles a male slave could live and die in. Captain Bosk made it a practice to free slaves of captured vessels, which made them more motivated rowers, and fighters when necessary, out of gratitude and aversion to re-enslavement.
  • In Robert E. Howard's The Hour of the Dragon, Conan the Barbarian is kidnapped and taken aboard a ship with galley slaves. He turns the tables on his captors, however, when he notices some old comrades among the galley slaves and convinces them to mutiny.
  • Played with in Shogun. When Blackthorne sees the galley that will transport him to the capital, he panics thinking its a slave ship and is willing to die in order not to be a galley slave. It is revealed that the rowers were all full samurai doing their duty rather than slaves.
  • In The Long Ships, protagonist Orm and his companions are captured in Spain while on a viking trip, and spend two years as galley slaves.
  • Master of Whitestorm begins with the titular character and his slaves working the same oar of a Mhurgai ship.
  • Seen in every Redwall book involving pirates in any major capacity. More often than not the heroes will end up killing the ship's crew and freeing the slaves.
    • Not all Redwall books, actually. Legend of Luke, Mariel of Redwall, and Mossflower incorporated oarslaves for the pirates. Some of the baddies, even pirates, in later books held slaves, but did not use them on the ships.
  • In The Sea Hawk, this happens to the hero when he is betrayed by his younger brother. He later returns the favor to said betrayer.
  • The Mystery of Atlantis: the hero can end up as a galley slave at one point. Being a time-traveller, he simply time travels out of there while everyone are hanging their heads down out of fatigue.
  • Outcast, Rosemary Sutcliff's second and worst-researched Roman novel, has its protagonist Beric arrested and sentenced to row a Roman army transport galley on the Rhine. His oarmate is a dreamy artist with an Incurable Cough of Death, leaving Beric in the role of barbarian best friend.

Live-Action TV
  • In the early Doctor Who serial The Romans, the heroes are separated while visiting Nero's Rome, and Ian ends up enslaved and working a galley.
  • In Frankie Howerd's Up Pompeii, the main character has a Have We Met?? moment with another slave. He doesn't recognize the other guy at first, and the other guy only realizes when he sees the back of his head. He sat behind him in the galley, so that's all he saw of him for all those years, but he would recognize the back of that bonce anywhere after that.

  • Heather Alexander's song "Yo Ho" is about being kidnapped and put to work as a galley. It's not a very happy song.
  • The closing song of Accept's Stalingrad album is "The Galley", a lenghty song about the hopelessness of being a galley slave.

Newspaper Comics
  • Parodied in a The Far Side cartoon. The sailors are wondering why their ship is going around in circles all the time... which the reader can see is because they put all the big, muscular slaves on one side of the boat, with the other side being crewed entirely by skinny wimps.
    • Another featured a galley slave complaining to the whipmaster about getting jabbed with a splinter.
    • Yet another had a slave complain that it was his turn for the window seat.
    • One had the drummer replaced by a bad entertainer on a piano.

Tabletop Games
  • One of the "bad endings" of the Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure City of Terror, has your character end up as galley slave. "You learn to enjoy your life as a galley slave, it's not bad.. But it is HELL, when the captain wants to water-ski."

  • In The Duchess of Malfi, Bosola spent some years in the galleys, the last punishment for serious crimes before execution, for murder. This may explain his initial attitude.

Video Games
  • Downplayed in Golden Sun. Monsters attack the ship Isaac and his friends are on, and by the time you fight each wave off, one of the (voluntarily employed) rowers has been put out of commission. After each round, you have to pick one of the NPC passengers to press-gang into service as a replacement for the rest of the voyage, whether they like it or not. Choosing the right combination of replacements will actually unbalance the rowers, sending the ship off-course and getting you early access to the Bonus Dungeon.
  • They aren't seen on-screen, but one NPC in Mount and Blade: Warband will buy prisoners for this purpose. He pays a flat rate of 50 Denars each, meaning basic units like recruits and bandits will sell for more than other Ransom Brokers will pay, but you get a lot less for high-tier units.

Real Life
  • Subverted: Actually far less common (though not unknown) in the Sword And Sandal era. Slave galleys were a staple of Renaissance naval warfare when it became normal to put several men on an oar. In Ancient and Medieval times freemen were preferred because rowing one man to an oar required more skill.
    • The Roman Army's Naval Service only wanted free men, who were paid well, well trained, and highly motivated by the chance of citizenship at the end of their tenure. Since ramming and boarding actions were a staple of ancient sea combat, you'd need fast ships crewed by professionals willing to do their best. As a further reason, if the ship was boarded, a crew of angry and armed free men rowers was a far better second line of defense than chained, unhappy slaves.
    • Being a Galley Rower was also a prestigious Athenian Navy position, for similar reasons as their Roman counterparts. It is true that the rowers were thetes—the lower class of Athenian citizennote —this was purely economic; the thetes were the most numerous citizens, as well as the only ones who couldn't afford the weapons needed to fight on land.note  Athens recognized the importance of its navy to its defense (calling them, famously, the "wooden walls") and later their importance to the Athenian Empire, and honored the rowers accordingly. The thetes also tended to be most favorable towards going to war, because being a galley rower was a better-paying and much more prestigious job than was available to them in peacetime.
    • Carthaginian Navy rowers had living and training requirements similar to a modern athlete. No wonder their Navy was so feared in the Mediterranean.
  • Played straight in the Renaissance when the chief tactic was to mount as many cannon (no more than five) as could be fitted onto the bow, gain a positional advantage, and sweep the opposing deck with shot before boarding. This required less delicacy than ramming and the rowing methods of the time meant that the chief desire was having more reserves.
  • Subverted at Baltic. Both the Swedes and the Russians used conscripts as rowers. They had their weapons (usually short musket and sabre) aside their thwarts.