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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.

Examples of Galley Slave include:


  • 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 Asterix 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).
    • And in another story, the drummer thing is subverted when the pirates end up in command of a Roman galley, they ask their 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.


  • Ben-Hur was the first film to popularize this trope.
  • The Crimson Permanent Assurance, the Monty Python short at the beginning of The Meaning of Life, has a scene in which the hard-working accountants switch to galley slaves, complete with BONG-BONG-BONG drummer.
  • Eric the Viking also has a slave galley (chasing the heroes' boat). Here the brutal first mate is Japanese (with silly subtitles).
  • The Sea Hawk
  • In The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, the boys and the romantic lead end up as these. This eventually causes steering issues..


  • 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 Fantasyland.
  • 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 sentenced to this in the beginning, but it is never described, probably because the author didn't know about the conditions. This has a bit to do with confusing naming. Valjean was imprisoned in the Bagne of Toulon, which took its name from the fact that its prisoners, "bagnards", were those who would have been galley slaves earlier in French history, and this is likely to be translated as "sentenced to the galleys". 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 taken aboard a ship with these. He starts the mutiny and frees them.
  • 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 off-and-on Ishmael slaves working the same oar of a Mhurgai ship.

Live Action TV

  • 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.
  • 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.


  • Heather Alexander's song "Yo Ho" is about being kidnapped and put to work as a galley. It's not a very happy song.

Real Life

  • Subverted: Actually far less common (though not unknown) in the Sword and Sandal era. Slave galleys were a staple of Renaisance 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 citizen[1]--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. 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.
    • Carthaginian Navy rowers had living and training requirements similar to a modern athlete. No wonder their Navy was so feared in the Mediterranean.

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. 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.
  1. Athens had four classes of citizen: Thetes, the working classes; zeugitae, the middle classes who had enough wealth to purchase their own armor and weapons; hippeis, or "knights", meaning people rich enough to maintain a horse; and "five hundred bushel men" who were impossibly wealthy. While the Constitution of Solon originally included some political and legal inequalities, these were mostly eliminated in the time of Pericles.