Tunisia: the Galley ship

The galley ship represents freedom of modern Tunisia today. But very few people know about its glorious history that affected the whole Western civilization. To fully understand the symbolism of this image, we must travel back tin time to the ancient Phoenician civilization.

Physical location of Tunisia (maphill.com)

Theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qoQBCB1CmM

1. History of Tunisa

Tunisia is located at the Northern tip of Africa, once ihabited by the Berber tribes, then the Phoenician people came here to settle and founded Carthage city from the 12th century. But according to legend, Queen Dido (also called Elissa) established Carthage in 814 BC. Settlers in Carthage inherited their culture and religion from Phoenicians and Canaanites.

Queen Dido in game Civilization V (civilization.wikia.com)
President Habib Bourguiba (wikipedia.org)

Carthage then became a powerful opposition to the Roman empire, but it eventually yielded to the power of Rome in 146 BC and became a completely Latinized and Christianized colony. By the 7th century, this area was then conquered by Muslim Arabians and later became a colony of the Ottoman empire in the 16th century, and colonial French empire in the 19th century. Modern Tunisia finally gained its independence on July 25th 1957, under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, who is also the first president of the country.

The crescent moon symbol on Tunisia’s national flag and coat of arms gives us the information that Tunisia is a Muslism country. While the national symbol of Tunisia has been prominently displayed on its national coat of arms since 1956: the galley ship, which symbolizes freedom. This is also a proudful symbol of a glorious history of Tunisian people from ancient world history.

Coat of arms of Tunisia (wikipedia.org)

2. Phoenician civilization

Phoenicia was a civilization based on maritime trade spread throughout the Mediterranea during the period from 1500 BC to 100 BC. Originally from Canaan, the Phoenicians were not keen on farming, but were more interested in seagoing, manufacturing and trading. The Phoenicians traded on land with merchants carrying valuable goods from as far as India and China to the West. Goods were then shipped to EgyptGreece, Rome and North Africa. This trade helped the Phoenicians become extremely wealthy and powerful. Phoenicians were adventurous merchants living in independent city-states, similar to ancient Greece. Each city-state is a politically independent unit, they can clash and dominate each another, or cooperate and form alliances.

Phoenician traders (emaze.com)
Tyrian purple was the royal color in the Roman empire (in film Quo vadis, 1951)

The main port of the Phoenicians was Tyre (present-day Lebanon), it was famous for its Tyrian purple color, a luxurious dress color worn by Greeks and Romans to prove their  social status. The name ‘Phoenicia’ in Greek means ‘purple person’. The most important colony of the Phoenicians is Carthage (present-day Tunisia), which later became a major metropolis and their main trading port.

Carthage city – the main port of Phoenicians (ancient.eu)
Phoenician alphabet
Phoenician alphabet (ancient.eu)

Phoenicia was the first state-level society to use the alphabet popularly. The Phoenician phonetic alphabet is thought to be the origin of modern day alphabets, although it does not contain vowels (later added by the Greeks). Through maritime trade, Phoenicians spreaded the use of alphabet to North Africa and Europe. The Greeks used this alphabet and transmitted to the Etruscan people who then again passed on to the Romans.

3. The galley ship

The secret of Phoenicians’ ecomical and military success was the galley ships, especially those built from Lebanon cedar wood. From the Mediterranean, this invention had been used very popularly throughout the West since ancient times until the 19th century. Galley is type of large ship that mostly move by rowing. They are characterized by the long, slender hull, shallow draft, low freeboard, move by sails and oars. The galley’s primary weapon is an iron ram at the front to pierce or break through oars of enemy ships. Later on, people also equipped catapults or cannons on board. Virtually all the galleys had sails that could be used in favorable winds, but human power was always the primary method of propulsion. This allowed the ship to navigate at will despite the winds and tides. The success of a galley ship is due to its speed and manual control.

Phoenician shipbuilders were the first people to make versions of galley ships with 2 banks of oars around 700 BC, in Greek it is called a bireme – where “bi-“ means “two” and “-reme” means “oar”. Because each side of the ship has 2 set of oars for sailors to row, therefore a biremecan accommodate up to 120 rowers. It is usually about 24m long and about 3m wide.

A bireme (weaponsandwarfare.com)

The bireme ships were later modified by the Greeks and were added one more set of oar to become a trireme, meaning there were 3 set of oars, and accomondated up to 180 sailors. It basically still kept the length of the bireme, but added a tier to the height and also had a large square sail.

A Greek trireme (wikipedia.org)

The galley ships can be used both as a merchant ship or a warship. For merchant ships, the hull would be less dilated, have fewer oars and will rely primarily on sails. The galleys carried valuable or perishable goods which required to be moved as safely and quickly as possible. As a result, Carthage became a maritime powerhouse that controlled most of the trades in the Mediterranean, providing soldiers, slaves, goods, and hoarding vast quantities of gold and silver from mines in Spain.

A merchant galley ship (explorersweb.com)

4. The Punic wars

Large fleets of galley ships were commonly used in Carthaginian disputes and conflicts, the most well-known was the Punic wars. They included many large naval battles with hundreds of ships and thousands soldiers, sailors and slaves.

The “Punic war” is the term used for wars between ancient Rome and Carthage. Because in Latin, Carthaginians are also known as Punic people, which means “descendants of the Phoenicians”. The main cause of the Punic war was that the Roman republic wanted to expand its territory through Sicily city – at that time was under Carthage control.

Map of the Roman and Carthaginian empires in 264BC (wikipedia.org)

At the beginning of the First Punic War (264-241 BC), Carthage was the dominant power in the Western Mediterranean region, with a vast maritime empire. Meanwhile, Rome was a rapidly rising power in Italy, but lack of naval power compared to Carthage. To overcome this weakness, within only 2 months, Rome built a naval power force of more than 1,000 galley ships based on Carthaginian designs to confront Carthage itself directly on the high seas. This event also laid a solid foundation for Roman domination on both land and sea afterwards.

Fearsome naval battles during the first Punic war (pinterest.com)
The mighty Hannibal Barca (phalanxgames.pl)

The Second Punic war (218-201 BC) witness the event that general Hannibal Barca led his army of war horses and elephants crossing the Alps and entering Roman territory in 218BC. This is the symbolic event of the second Punic war and one of the most celebrated achievements of any military force in ancient warfare. The unbelievable victories of general Hannibal in Italy for 16 years almost left Rome paralyzed. But at the end of the war, Hannibal was ultimately defeated by one of the greatest military commanders and strategists of all time: Scipio Africanus.

The Carthaginian army crossing the Alps in the Second Punic war (historythings.com)

By the end of the Third Punic war (149-146 BC), after more than a hundred years, with the loss of hundreds of thousands soldiers on both sides, Rome finally conquered the Carthaginian empire and completely destroyed this city. From then, it became the only powerhouse that dominated western Mediterranean as well as the western world.

Catapulta painting by Edward Poynter depicts a scene of the Roman army sieging Carthage (wikipedia.org)

Today, the galley ship symbol represents a glorious period of freedom and development of the Carthaginian empire without being dependent on any foreign power. It has also become a indigenous national identity of Tunisian people.



Casson, L. (1994). “The Age of the Supergalleys” trong Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times. University of Texas Press

Kingfisher. (2014). Bách khoa thư lịch sử (The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia). Hà Nội: Nhã Nam

Lancel, S. (1995). Hannibal. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell

Morrison, J. S. & Gardiner, R.(Eds). (1995). The Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels Since Pre-Classical Times. London: Conway Maritime


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