I wasn't sure which StackExchange I should ask this question, but since the story I am writing is basically a historically inspired fantasy, I decided to present it here.

The story in question is supposed to be a fairly short pirate adventure set in a Bronze Age world. My protagonist is an admiral from a fairly wealthy kingdom (inspired by the kingdom of Kush from our world) who is hunting down the ringleader of a large pirate organization. I imagine that, after learning where the pirates' fortified base of operations is located, she would go after them with a fleet of several galleys each manned with archers and infantry (think the war galleys of New Kingdom Egypt).

Now, it's important to the story that my admiral gets captured by the pirates in a sea battle, which would require that their fleet overwhelms hers somehow. What I imagine is that the pirates' ships are dhow-type vessels which are individually smaller than my admiral's galleys, but their fleet is numerically larger. In short, it's a small number of large galleys versus a much larger number of small dhows.

How would such an asymmetrical sea battle play out in a Bronze Age world? The scenario I imagined is that some of the pirate dhows would cut off my heroine's galley from the rest of her fleet by ganging up and encircling it (a bit like sharks swimming around their prey in cartoon depictions) before flinging out the grappling hooks and then boarding it to capture her. But then what would happen to the rest of the protagonist's fleet? Couldn't they barge in and save my heroine before the pirates carried her off?


9 Answers 9


Now, it's important to the story that my admiral gets captured by the pirates in a sea battle, which would require that their fleet overwhelms hers somehow.

Consider that the battle will let you display what sort of commander your female admiral is. I am guessing that if you made her female you will not want her to seem a blundering incompetent. With her superior force and strategic thinking, she should win the battle. And also get captured.

Option 1: After the battle is done, stealthy pirates return under cover of night and take her off of her ship.

Option 2: Pirate prisoners of war escape from their prison in the hold. They are grateful not to have been killed outright and so do not murder her, but take her away with them.

Option 3: Ben Hur style - although her forces go on to victory, her flagship ship is holed from below and sinks, leaving her in the water. She is presumed drowned and because of her armor this is very nearly the case. She struggles out of her armor and is rescued by a pirate vessel. Without her armor or insignia of rank, the pirates might not initially know who she is.

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    $\begingroup$ I really like these ideas! Especially the first one. :) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 0:15
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    $\begingroup$ Not only is this politically correct, it is historically accurate that no female admiral ever lost a naval battle. I like #3, good opportunity to end season 1, and also show pirates in a humane way. $\endgroup$
    – Ska
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 5:53
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    $\begingroup$ You forgot the obvious: she sacrifices her ship to give her side a huge advantage. However she ship that captured her flees before the rest of the pirate fleet is destroyed. [That would also hold a lot of characterization] $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 8:38

Is the purpose to capture the protagonist or defeat her fleet? Those are not necessarily the same thing.

If the pirates have the advantage of knowing the waters, you, as the author, can arrange for there to be a convenient reef they know about that, when the tide is right, just allows them to pass over it with their shallow-draft boats while the larger ships of the admiral can't. So they lure the admiral's ship in (the tech of the time means the admiral is going to be leading from the front) and gets it grounded on the reef, while the ebbing tide means her other ships can't get close to provide support (at least the ones not already aground). That allows them to attack it en masse, overwhelm it, and capture her, then making their getaway before the tide rises and the other ships can finally move in.

If you want the fleet defeated as well, then simply have them sail in and fling torches or whatnot aboard the stranded ships.


This battle would go like this in the Bronze Age:

The pirates break the oars of the admiral's ship with a daring pass, thus rendering it immobile. Even if the pirates' ship is smaller, this is a matter of speed and maneuverability.

Then, they assault the ship and it happens like a land battle. Slingers might be more lethal than archers because the distance is short but they need more space to shoot.

From the sources of the Greek-Persian Wars (yes, I know we are off by 700 years but naval warfare didn't change so much), the breaking of the oars was very spectacular, with deadly splinters flying around (the rowers are almost nude) and the men running to equip their weapons (most of the rowers double as soldiers), some of them even using the broken oars as improvised weapons to keep the enemies off of their ship.

You can't write about a ship ramming another in the Bronze Age, but this can be good enough.


Its a numbers game during Bronze age

Sure they got Big boats, and as you have smaller ones, but your pirates dhows have better maneuverability than your protagonist galleys.

Their plan of attack:

The pirates will charge head on, since arrows will be the primary ranged weapon at this age, the galleys will have archers raining burning arrows at the dhows, one by one the pirate dhows sink and burn, but the attack does not cease. The pirates will attack the ships sides, throws hooks or burning arrows too into the galleys, some pirates board the ships and kill your crew with swords, others support them through ranged attack. The attack of the pirates will be relentless until they finally burned the last galley, capturing your protagonist in the process.


Divide and conquer

The advantage of having a lot of small ships is that you have a lot more flexibility in your tactics and maneuvering. You likely have a shallower draft. Make use of this. Your pirates operate out of a shallow bay, scattered with reefs, with turbulent waters. Use their smaller ships to draw the large galleys in, and then send out fire ships to split them apart, and make them unable to follow each other. Isolate the flagship galley, then just ram it (bronze age should let you duplicate the ramming prows of triemes) with enough ships to allow your boarding parties to overwhelm what the troops on board can handle.

This approach also means that you can have the admiral have overwhelming force and still lose. Her forces cannot come to her aid: she only has her ship to bring to bear, as the others are floundering amidst the reefs and burning ships.

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    $\begingroup$ There's a lot of historical and modern precedent for having a large, flexible force of many units versus a small force of a few large ones. Take the Yamato, for example, a legendary gigantic ship- that fired it's guns once and was later sunk by torpedo before it could fire back $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 3:31
  • $\begingroup$ @SydneySleeper that is hardly relevant, because the naval action in which the Yamato fired its gun ended with the Japanese almost unscattered and the opposing forces badly beaten (although they succeeded in scaring the Japanese with the threat of torpedoes); the biggest advantage was that the USA ships could lay smoke screeens and the Japanese did not have radar. And when the Yamato was sunk it was in a completely different action. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76 In the Battle off Samar, the Japanese lost three heavy cruisers, which I wouldn't consider "almost unscathed" The US wasn't "badly beaten", losing two escort carriers (one to a kamikaze after the main action). two destroyers, and a destroyer escort. The strategic situation in the area was almost unchanged, with the Japanese still having far superior firepower. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 15:33

When I had to puzzle out a naval battle with a similar premise for a book of mine, I used a shallow bay with many submerged rocks. The larger ships had to maneuver slowly and carefully, so they couldn't come to each other's defense, while the smaller, shallow-draft boats could go where they pleased.

Another idea: if you've ever tacked upwind in a channel between two islands, then you know how the funnel effect makes each successive tack shorter and it seems you'll never get there. The point is, distance at sea is relative: supporting ships could be within shouting distance, and still half an hour away.

Your galleys are rowed, of course, but current does just as good a job. Supposing there's a tidal current past the mouth of the bay where the pirates are based. Being tidal, it changes quickly. The command ship, being larger and better crewed, can make way against the current just a bit more quickly than the other two vessels and enters the calm bay ahead of them. Meanwhile, the current is rising and effectively pinning the other two ships. Then the pirates attack.

Incidentally, did they have grappling hooks in the bronze age? I haven't done the research myself, but I'd be very skeptical. Grappling hooks require a lot of strong, long-length cordage that you are not using for anything else and that you can afford to lose when the enemy inevitably cuts it away. And rope was expensive. Check out one of Linybeige's instructive and funny rants about the value of rope in middle ages. I imagine his arguments are even more salient for bronze age.

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    $\begingroup$ While it was a Roman innovation, the corvus ("crow") gives an alternative to a grappling hook -- a bridge hinged on one end, with a spike on the other. You get close and drop the spiked end onto the enemy ship. It gives you a bridge to the enemy ship. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I've heard it called the only authentically Roman naval invention, implying they copied everything else from Greeks and Carthaginians. Probably a bit unfair, though. $\endgroup$
    – Tumbislav
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ "Grappling hooks require a lot of strong, long-length cordage" - would chains not work? $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 23:26

my admiral gets captured by the pirates in a sea battle, which would require that their fleet overwhelms hers somehow.

Not necessarily.

Ships of that age were not very seaworthy. Time and time again a power would send an impressive navy, only to see it destroyed by storms and gales even before it got to contact the enemy.

Even more modern and way better ships could suffer the same fate at relatively modern ages, think of the Spanish Armada sent to invade England (and that was from being a "one of a kind" incident), or the Mongol one sent to invade Japan.

For maximum effect your pirate base is surrounded by a rocky coast; when the enemy fleet appears the storm starts and most of the ships are driven to the rocks and sunk; those ships who reamain afloat are too damaged and its tripulation too exhausted (rowing against the wind to avoid certain death at the rock can be very tiring). The pirates just need to finish off a meager resistance.

If you want an actual battle, an option would be fireships. Those would be most effective against tightly packed ships; there are some scenarios allowing for them.

For example, fighting at this age was usually infantry combat on top of ships; in fact often ships were chained together in order to pass reinforcement from one point of the "line" to the other. So, tightly packed ships would be the default option for many commanders.

Of course, they would be aware of the risk of fireships and have countermeasures, so you need some reason for the countermeasures to fail; e.g. they believe that the pirates are not expecting them and the pirates ambush them, or they try to separate the ships but fail to do so because of the currents or because they are in a narrow strait.

Another options include classical ambushes (the fleet has to pass a narrow point and the pirates attack in the middle of the crossing, defeating the fleet by parts, or the night time attack).

The attacking fleet has to pass a narrow strait it could chose to try to pass


Ancient Naval Warfare was Broadly Melee


This is especially true in comparatively calm seas such as the Mediterranean. Often fleets would only aim to get across a few arrows (later cannonballs) before the fighting was decided by melee combatants.

This allows you to view each connected vessel as an independent battlefield, in which your protagonist can be losing locally even while the fleet is winning.


It depends.

Since the galleys are bigger than the dhows, that alone is not necessarily going to guarantee a win for the kingdom's fleet. There are several other factors you need to take into account:

  • Admiral's Skill

Is your admiral a complete noob or are they the next Horatio Nelson? This could be the difference between victory and defeat for your kingdom's navy.

  • Numbers

Are there more galleys than dhows or more dhows than galleys? Are the two forces equal in number? Again, this could be the difference between victory and defeat. If the kingdom has more galleys than the pirates have dhows, then the battle is effectively decided. If there are more pirate dhows than galleys, then the pirates have a chance

  • Speed/maneuverability

If the dhows are smaller than the galleys, that means they are probably going to be much faster and easier to maneuver than the galleys. If the dhows are able to run circles around the galleys, then the dhows will probably win easily, especially if the battle is in a tight location (i.e. a narrow strait or some rapids). If the battle is in a narrow location, the dhows will probably win easily because the galleys would probably run aground from their own turning radius.

  • The Weapons on the Ships

The weapons on each ship type can also easily determine how the battle will go. Based on the fact that this is the bronze age, archers and ramming will probably be the main method these ships used for waging war. However, it is not entirely implausible for a device similar to the Corvus the Romans used against Carthage in the Punic Wars to exist. The corvus is essentially a plank that latches onto the decks of enemy ships, allowing infantry to rush the deck and capture the ship. If any of your ships have corvi, they will have the obvious advantage in strength, but it will cost them dearly in terms of speed and maneuverability because the planks are so heavy.


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