Zheng He

According to ancient Chinese sources, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions. The 1405 expedition consisted of 27,800 men and a fleet of 62 treasure ships supported by approximately 190 smaller ships. The fleet included:
·                     Treasure ships, used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies (nine-masted, about 126.73 metres (416 ft) long and 51.84 metres (170 ft) wide), according to later writers. Such dimension is more or less the shape of a football field. The treasure ships purportedly can carry as much as 1,500 tons. By way of comparison, a modern ship of about 1,200 tons is 60 meters (200 ft) long, and the ships Christopher Columbussailed to the New World in 1492 were about 70-100 tons and 17 meter (55 ft) long.
·                     Horse ships, carrying tribute goods and repair material for the fleet (eight-masted, about 103 m (339 ft) long and 42 m (138 ft) wide).
·                     Supply ships, containing staple for the crew (seven-masted, about 78 m (257 ft) long and 35 m (115 ft) wide).
·                     Troop transports, six-masted, about 67 m (220 ft) long and 25 m (83 ft) wide.
·                     Fuchuan warships, five-masted, about 50 m (165 ft) long.
·                     Patrol boats, eight-oared, about 37 m (120 ft) long.
·                     Water tankers, with 1 month supply of fresh water.
Six more expeditions took place, from 1407 to 1433, with fleets of comparable size.
Trade in the Indian Ocean was decentralized and cooperative. Commercial interest prevailed over political authorities.
Strait of Malacca was the meeting point between Indian Ocean and South China Sea, between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra. The Kingdom of Siam gained control of the upper Malay Peninsula, while the Java-based Kingdom of Majapathi ruled over the lower portion of the peninsula and most of Sumatra. Majapahit was not strong enough to stop the Chinese pirates that were affecting trade in this region. In the 1407, the Chinese government sent a fleet and smashed the pirates.
The city of Alden (Arabia) had a double advantage: enough rainfall to supply drinking water to a large population and to grow grain for export and to be a convenient stopover for trade between India and the Persian Gulf, East Africa, and Egypt.

Knights of Malta – 18th Century Galleys

From… “Admiral Satan, The Life and Campaigns of Suffren” describing the Knights of Malta as a training corps for the French navy

In the Mediterranean, one of the primary occupations of the galleys was suppression of the North African pirates. “the oar powered Galliot was the best instrument since it could navigate calm, shallow and sheltered waters, and was not dependent upon the wind”

Economy was another motivator.. “A small squadron of sailing ships had been built…. but it was a crippling burden to the treasury” (of Malta)

I don’t think the major powers used the galleys against each other except as prestige ‘toys” and for harbor defence. The rowing and sailing corps were independent until the late 1740s. The death of the Grand Prior of France, Jean-Phillipe d’Orleans, allowed the unification of the French Navy.. and essentially the demise of the galleys as a serious force. “Most of the galley officers retired and only 28 transferred to service under sail” (including Suffren)

The galley fleet at Malta did provide the aristocracy a means of establishing rank seniority in the French Navy…. service in the Maltese fleet was valued and recognized by the French navy… and young aristocrats could be entered into Maltese service as children, acquiring seniority from the time of entry! (ages 7 and 8 for the Suffren brothers)

They were too narrow to mount broadside guns and therefore lacked the power of massed artillery. Against a grounded or becalmed sailing ship they could gain favorable position but were limited in their bow mounted firepower. Ramming a sailing vessel from astern or ahead would produce a glancing blow…. from abeam against a battery would be suicidal. Pursue and board would be the most likely tactic… against smaller Islamic vessels.

There is an excellent book: “FIGHTING SHIPS AND PRISONS The Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV” by Paul W. Bamford Copyright 1973 University of Minnesota, LC # 72-92334, ISBN 0-8166-0655-2.

It is well worth tracking down through your library. You are right on as to the worth of the Galley Fleet. It and its shore establishment constituted a primary component of the French Prison System well into the Napoleonic Era. It is useful to remember that patronage of Malta and the Galley Fleet represented an important part of Louis’ activities in support of the Catholic Church. The Chaplains were very important officers on the ships. The number of war-like sorties was next to nothing in spite of the theoretical uses they could be put to. The most important voyages were those to deliver ambassadors. While the number of prisoners from both France and the other continental countries (small German states) who paid to have France keep their prisoners was swelling far beyond the needs of the fleet, French representatives were busy buying Muslim slaves to send to the oars.

While only a few officers were incorporated into the sailing fleet at the end of the separate galley fleet, the galleys lingered on. I suspect the extraordinary level of venality of the galley fleet afloat and ashore had more of a cross-over to the sailing fleet than is generally recognized. If nothing else, the association of a major component of the national naval establishment in the public mind with unjust imprisonment for life under cruel conditions, was a handicap to the navy.

Korean-Japanese Wars (1592–1593 and 1597–1598)

After the successful unification of Japan, Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi made two attempts to seize Korea as the first step in a Japanese conquest of China. Japanese defeats at sea, however, made the maintenance of supply lines between Kyushu and Japanese bridgeheads in southern Korea increasingly difficult, and the campaigns were eventually abandoned.

In the first campaign Hideyoshi landed some 160,000 men in southern Korea, his army advancing north with relative ease. The Japanese suffered reverses at sea, however, under Korean naval units commanded by Yi Sun Sin. In the summer and autumn of 1592 Yi’s navy won some 10 engagements around the southern coast of Korea between Sach’on and Pusan. The largest of these were the 8 July Battle of Hansan-do and 10 July Battle of Angolp’o. At Hansan-do the Japanese had 36 large vessels and 14 medium-sized ships, as well as a large number of junks. Yi sent six ships to lure out the Japanese and then destroyed one of the three formations of the Japanese fleet. He then chased the Japanese to nearby Angolp’o, where he again got them to come out for a full attack and trapped them. In these two battles the Japanese lost some 59 ships. Yi’s fleet continued to blockade the Japanese base at Pusan until the end of the first campaign.

In the second campaign the Japanese navy gained an initial victory. In the 15 July 1597 Battle of Koje-do, the Koreans lost 160 ships and its commander Won Kyun was killed in action. The Koreans were forced to abandon their base on Hansan-do and pull back to the west.

This victory enabled the 140,000-strong Japanese landing force to advance, but it provoked a Chinese intervention and consequently a stalemate on land. In an attempt to support the land forces, the Japanese fleet sailed into the Yellow Sea through Myongnyang Strait, where the Koreans under Yi Sun Sin intercepted it. In the Battle of Myongnyang, 16 September 1597, Yi checked the Japanese advance at sea, and the campaign again reverted to a stalemate. Japanese land forces were besieged in coastal strongholds such as Sunch’on, Sach’on, Pusan, and Ulsan.

This strategic stalemate and Hideyoshi’s death on 18 August 1598 caused Japanese to withdraw its land forces from southern Korea. The last naval battle in the campaign took place during this process. The Japanese garrison at Sunch’on was under blockade by the Chinese squadron under Ch’en Lin and the Korean fleet led by Yi Sun Sin. The Battle of Noryang, 18 November 1598, occurred when a Japanese fleet led by the Shimazu clan tried to break through the blockade. Although the Shimazu fleet was severely damaged by the combined Chinese-Korean fleet, the Japanese Sunch’on garrison was evacuated. Yi Sun Sin was killed in the battle.

Throughout the two campaigns, in contrast to the fighting on land, the Korean navy was always superior. This was in part because of the splendid leadership of Admiral Yi Sun Sin, who nearly always led the entire Korean fleet. In contrast, the Japanese fleet lacked strong leadership and was little better than a combination of small coastal/inland water navies. The Koreans also enjoyed a technological advantage in the form of their armored Kobukson (turtle ships). These formed the core of the Korean fleet and inflicted serious damage on the Japanese fleet. The Korean victories at sea constantly threatened the Japanese supply lines and were one of the major causes of Japan’s abandonment of the campaign.

Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Hideyoshi. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Eckert, Carter J., et al. Korea Old and New: A History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Hall, John Whitney. The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. 4. Early Modern Japan. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Turnbull, S. R. Samurai: A Military History. New York: Macmillan, 1977.

Battle of Cnidus, (394 b.c.)

Naval battle that ended Spartan hegemony in the Aegean Sea after the Peloponnesian War. Harassed by a Spartan-led expeditionary army operating in western Asia Minor, the Persian satrap Pharnabazus persuaded King Artaxerxes II to equip a fleet and appoint Conon as admiral in 397 b.c. When four mainland Greek cities (Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Argos) started a war with Sparta in 395 b.c. with Persian encouragement, the Spartan King Agesilaus was forced to lead the army in Asia Minor back to Greece in the summer of 394 b.c. At about the same time, Agesilaus’s brother-in-law, the nauarch Peisander, met the Persian fleet in a battle off the south coast of the Reşadiye Peninsula near the city of Cnidus (then located near modern Datça). Peisander’s fleet of 85 triremes faced an enemy fleet of 80 Phoenician ships, 10 Cilician ships, and perhaps 80 Greek ships.

We have two brief descriptions of the battle, by Xenophon and Diodorus Siculus. According to Xenophon, Conon’s Greek ships were posted in front of Pharnabazus’s Phoenician ships. Peisander’s allies soon fled or were driven ashore, and he himself died in the fighting. According to Diodorus, Conon captured 50 triremes and took 500 prisoners, the rest getting back safely to Cnidus. News of the disaster reached Agesilaus about the time of the solar eclipse of 14 August 394 b.c.

The impact of the battle was dramatic, destroying Sparta’s naval supremacy and leading to the wholesale defection of Aegean and Anatolian Greek city-states from the Spartan alliance. Athens tried to reverse the verdict of the Peloponnesian War, rebuilding the fortifications demolished in 404 b.c. and seeking to reassert its authority over its former empire.

Hornblower, Simon. “Persia.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 6, The Fourth Century B.C., 2d ed., ed. D. M. Lewis et al., 45–96. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Seager, Robin. “The Corinthian War.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 6, The Fourth Century B.C., 2d ed., ed. D. M. Lewis et al., 97–119. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Navy of Venice

The Venetian Arsenal was the biggest and more efficient shipyard of the Renaissance, and the reason why Venice was capable of standing up to the Turks for three hundred years and seven wars.

San Lorenzo (?) galleasse in an illustration by eslovac artist Avor. It is based in a Venetian engraving. It is probably the galleasse of Antonio Bragadino that has sunk a Turkish galley. Next to it we can see another galleasse, and behind the galleys of the Christian line, that probably were not using the sail. At the far back we can see the Turkish watch tower at Point Scropha. The morning was clear, although the smoke from the cannons rose over the fleet.

Situated on islands in a lagoon at the northern extremity of the Adriatic Sea, the Republic of Venice depended upon sea power for prosperity and survival. Founded during the collapse of the Roman Empire, Venice retained ties with the Byzantine Empire and resisted incorporation into the medieval Germanic Holy Roman Empire.

In the age of the Crusades Venice battled both Muslim powers and Italian rivals. With its fleets Venice defeated the attempt of the Normans of the Two Sicilies to dominate the Byzantine Empire. Then in 1204 it diverted the Fourth Crusade to the conquest of Constantinople. Venice enjoyed a favored position in the eastern trade, which it generally maintained even after the Byzantines recovered Constantinople.

The need for specialized war galleys caused Venice in 1104 to establish a government-run arsenal and develop Europe’s first regular navy. The patricians who dominated Venice willingly captained its galleys and fleets. To control the Adriatic and the sea routes to the east, Venice established strongholds on the Dalmatian coast, Corfu, and the Greek coast, and colonized Crete and several Aegean islands. In 1480 Venice acquired Cyprus.

Venice emerged victorious in its struggle with Genoa and Padua over the eastern trade in the War of Chioggia of 1379–1381, in which the Venetians mounted for the first time cannon on their galleys. Threats from Milan drove Venice to acquire a mainland empire that stretched from Padua to Bergamo. Piracy remained a perpetual problem.

Under a supreme Captain General of the Sea, Venice’s fleet was organized into squadrons for operations against Uskoks (Dalmatian pirates), patrol of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas from Corfu under the Captain of the Gulf, and defense of Crete and Cyprus. As many as 50 galleys might have been operational at any time.

Extra hulls were mothballed in the arsenal, and for a major war 200 galleys might have become operational. While the elite volunteered to command, seamen and rowers came to be conscripted throughout the Venetian Empire, and marine infantry were hired from the Italian mainland or Germany. In 1545, as wages rose, Venice turned to convicts (but never slaves) to row its galleys. Cristoforo da Canal provided a treatise on administration and tactics, Della milizia marittima, which was written around 1550 and published in 1930.
In the fifteenth century the expanding Ottoman Empire, which captured Constantinople in 1453, posed Venice’s greatest challenge. Periods of peace and trade were interrupted by sharp wars. In August 1499 the Ottomans won the Battle of Zonchio and began to pick off Venetian strongholds in the Aegean and Greece. The 25–28 October 1538 Battle of Prevesa, fought in alliance with Genoa and Spain, proved another setback.

Venice resumed its precarious but lucrative peace with the Ottomans until the Ottomans demanded Cyprus in 1570. Through the pope, Venice forged an alliance that included Spain and most of Italy. Venice provided over half of the galleys and six galleasses in the allies’ victory of 7 October 1571 at Lepanto. By then Cyprus had fallen, though Crete was saved. Venice, whose aims differed from Spain’s, made peace with the Ottomans in 1573 and returned to trade.

In the same years piracy had burgeoned in the Mediterranean. It was committed not only by Uskoks (egged on by the Austrian Hapsburgs) and Barbary corsairs, but even by English and Dutch rovers, who operated from Barbary and marauded in large, well-gunned sailing ships. Venice’s former allies also proved a threat: the Knights of Malta disapproved of Venice’s trading with the Turks and attacked its shipping, and the Spanish viceroy of Naples waged in 1617–1620 an undeclared naval war against the Republic.

In 1645 the Turks invaded Crete to begin the War of Candia (1645–1669), which was named for the long siege of its capital. The Venetian navy that opposed them mustered over 60 galleys, four galleasses, and, in an admission of the gun-power of sailing ships, three dozen galleons. Venice won most of the naval battles, among them two in the Dardanelles in 1665 and 1666, but the Turks conquered Crete.

By the end of the seventeenth century, small states such as Venice could no longer match the greater states, which now had the requisite administrative structures to wage war on a giant scale. Having made a humiliating peace with the Turks in 1718, Venice eased its naval efforts, maintaining only minimal forces afloat. War expenses drastically increased the public debt, while neutrality in Europe’s constant dynastic conflicts enriched Venetian merchant shipping. The perennial threat from Barbary, despite the payment of tribute, led to renewed naval building in the 1780s. In 1792 Venice had four ships of the line and six frigates on patrol off Tunisia. But in 1797 Napoléon Bonaparte toppled the Republic, ending forever its independence. Its remaining war fleet was appropriated by France.

Lane, Frederic C. Venice: A Maritime Republic. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
Tenenti, Alberto. Piracy and the Decline of Venice, 1580–1615. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.
Wiel, Alethea J. The Navy of Venice. London: J. Murray, 1910.

Battle of Curzola (Korčula), (7 September 1298)

The greatest naval battle fought between Genoa and Venice. At war with Venice since 1294, the Genoese sent an armada of more than 90 galleys into the Adriatic in the summer of 1298 under the command of Lamba Doria. The armada was missing some galleys because of a storm, and most of the fleet proceeded up the Dalmatian coast to the island of Curzola (Korčula), then a feudal possession of the Venetian noble family Zorzi. The Genoese captured and burned the city of Curzola on 5 September 1298. Meanwhile, the Venetians, learning of the Genoese intrusion, had sent a fleet commanded by Andrea Dandolo. When the opposing fleets came into visual contact late on 6 September, the Venetian galleys probably outnumbered the Genoese 96 to 76.

The battle began early on Sunday, 7 September, and seems to have been fought in the channel between the island and the mainland, to the southeast of the city of Curzola. The Venetians, facing southeast, had the morning sun in their eyes. The battle lasted until the afternoon and was marked by heavy casualties on both sides. The Venetians had the advantage initially, capturing 10 Genoese galleys, but later the Genoese were able to take advantage of disorder in the Venetian line and gain a decisive victory. Nearly the entire Venetian fleet was captured or destroyed, except for a dozen galleys that escaped. Andrea Dandolo, the defeated commander, either died in the battle or afterwards as a prisoner (either of fever or suicide). The war ended with the peace treaty of 25 May 1299.

According to a tradition first recorded in 1553 and usually accepted, Marco Polo was taken prisoner in this battle; it was during his imprisonment in Genoa that he dictated his account of his travels.

Caro, Georg. Genua und die Mächte am Mittelmeer, 1257–1311. Vol. 2. Halle an der Salle, Germany: Max Niemeyer, 1899.
Lane, Frederic C. Venice: A Maritime Republic. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973
Manfroni, Camillo. Storia della Marina Italiana dal trattato di Ninfeo alla caduta di Costantinopoli (1261–1453). Leghorn, Italy: Reale Accademia Navale, 1902.
Polo, Marco. The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. Trans. and ed. Sir Henry Yule. 3d ed. Revised by Henri Cordier. London: John Murray, 1903.

Syrian-Roman War (192–189 B.C.E.)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Syria (Seleucids) vs. Rome (with Rhodes and Pergamum)


DECLARATION: Rome on Syria, 192 B.C.E.

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Syria wanted Rome’s compliance in the conquests of its ally Aetolia.

OUTCOME: Rome attacked a Syrian fleet, triggering a war that proved disastrous for the Syrians, who lost their seaports and became landlocked.

Syrian forces, 75,000; Roman-Pergamenian forces, 40,000



Following the defeat of Macedonia at the Battle of Cynoscephalae in 197, during the Second MACEDONIAN WAR, the Aetolians of central Greece jockeyed for position to take Macedonia’s place as the dominant state in Greece. After attacking the allies of Rome among the Greek states, they appealed to Syrian king Antiochus III (the Great; 242–187 B.C.E.) to intervene with Rome on their behalf.

Taking this as an invitation from the Aetolian League to invade Greece, Antiochus sailed with an army of 10,000 across the Aegean in 192 and was met by a Roman army at Thermopylae. Under the leadership of M. Acilius Glabrio (d. 152 B.C.E.), the Roman forces defeated Antiochus, who fled with the remainder of his forces back to Ephesus. However, the naval fleets of Rhodes and Pergamum collaborated with the Romans against Antiochus’s navy, winning three victories at sea, first at a location between Ionia and Chios (191 B.C.E.), then at Eurymedon and Myonessus, both in 190 B.C.E.


Polyxenidas a Rhodian general and admiral, who was exiled from his native country, and entered the service of Antiochus III the Great, king of Seleucid Empire. We first find him mentioned in 209 BC, when he commanded a body of Cretans mercenaries during the expedition of Antiochus into Hyrcania . But in 192 BC, when the Syrian king had determined upon war with Rome, and crossed over into Greece to commence it, Polyxenidas obtained the chief command of his fleet. After co-operating with Menippus in the reduction of Chalcis, he was sent back to Asia to assemble additional forces during the winter.

We do not hear anything of his operations in the ensuing campaign, 191 BC, but when Antiochus, after his defeat at the Battle of Thermopylae (191 BC) , withdrew to Asia, Polyxenidas was again appointed to command the king’s main fleet on the Ionian coast. Having learnt that the praetor Gaius Livius Salinator was arrived at Delos with the Roman fleet, he strongly urged upon the king the expediency of giving him battle without delay, before he could unite his fleet with those of Eumenes II of Pergamon and the Rhodians. Though his advice was followed, it was too late to prevent the junction of Eumenes with Livius, but Polyxenidas gave battle to their combined fleets off Corycus. The superiority of numbers, however, decided the victory in favour of the allies ; thirteen ships of the Syrian fleet were taken and ten sunk, while Polyxenidas himself, with the remainder, took refuge in the port of Ephesus.

Here he spent the winter in active preparations for a renewal of the contest; and early in the next spring (b. c. 190), having learnt that Pausistratus, with the Rhodian fleet, had already put to sea, he conceived the idea of surprising him before he could unite his forces with those of Livius. For this purpose he pretended to enter into negotiations with him for the betrayal into his hands of the Syrian fleet, and having by this means deluded him into a fancied security, suddenly attacked him, and destroyed almost his whole fleet. After this success he sailed to Samos to give battle to the fleet of the Roman admiral and Eumenes, but a storm prevented the engagement, and Polyxenidas withdrew to Ephesus. Soon after, Livius, having been reinforced by a fresh squadron of twenty Rhodian ships under Eudamus (Rhodian), proceeded in his turn to offer battle to Polyxenidas, but this the latter now declined. Lucius Aemilius Regillus, who soon after succeeded Livius in the command of the Roman fleet, also attempted without effect to draw Polyxenidas forth from the port of Ephesus : but at a later period in the season Eumenes, with his fleet, having been detached to the Hellespont while a considerable part of the Rhodian forces were detained in Lycia, the Syrian admiral seized the opportunity and sallied out to attack the Roman fleet.

The action took place at Battle of Myonessus near Teos, but terminated in the total defeat of Polyxenidas, who lost 42 of his ships, and made a hasty retreat with the remainder to Ephesus. Here he remained until he received the tidings of the fatal battle of Magnesia, on which he sailed to Patara in Lycia, and from thence proceeded by land to join Antiochus in Syria. After this his name is not again mentioned.

The Romans capitalized on these triumphs by invading Asia Minor with an army under the command of two great generals, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (237–183 B.C.E.) and his brother Lucius Cornelius Scipio (fl. second century). They met the Syrians at the Battle of Magnesia near Smyrna in December 190. After initial gains, Antiochus III made a serious tactical blunder by pursuing a flank of the Roman cavalry too far, laying himself open to encirclement by another Roman flank. This infantry force destroyed most of the Syrian army. As a result, Syria gave up all of its coastal territories, surrendered all but 10 of its warships, gave up its war elephants, and agreed to pay a heavy indemnity. Landlocked, Syria’s power was greatly diminished.

Further reading: John D. Grainger, Roman War of Antiochos the Great (Boston: Brill Academic, 2002); Susan Sherwin-White and Amelie Kuhrt, From Samarkhand to Sardis: A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).