Could a Roman Galley Have Crossed the Atlantic Ocean?

I understand that the Romans were not very good mariners, and that Roman cargo vessels could not tack (sail into the wind).
Consequently, the Romans relied upon rowed ships (galleys) for military operations.
Suppose a Roman galley left Londinium, and headed west. It would have been about a 3000 mile trip to North America-could a galley have made it?
I have no idea how fast a galley could move-nor what amont of food they could carry (rowers need to be fed). Would such a ship arrive OK, or would the rowers have starved to death in mid-ocean?

Just about anything that floats can cross the Atlantic, and have. A Roman galley would not be a good ship for this job, though. Further, a Roman crew wouldn’t be an ideal crew for the job. In fact that’s why much of the Roman navy was manned by conquered peoples such as the Greeks, who were far better seafarers.

I think the biggest problems the Roman ships would have would be a lack of navigational sophistication required to make such a journey and that the ships would be extremely vulnerable to the rough and unpredictable Atlantic Ocean.

That being said, all kinds of stuff has made the trip across the Atlantic. Luck comes into play, calm seas can make it easier than it would otherwise be. If I was a betting man I’d bet if you launched 100 Roman ships at least a few would hit land somewhere in the Americas. However making it back the odds are no better and probably worse, again due to all the problems with the first crossing. So the likelihood of a ship making it there and back again is very small.

I think rowed warships are probably the worst of the Roman ships to use, though. The Romans did have trading ships that were entirely sail-powered and would have probably been more suited for such a venture (still not well suited.) The problem I would see with galleys is the large number of rowers needed and the logistical difficulties in having enough food for most of them to survive the passage. Further, I don’t know much about the mechanics of galley rowing but any Atlantic crossing up until probably the 19th century involved some moderate degree of attrition that was pretty much unavoidable. So even if the food wasn’t a problem I don’t know what happens to a galley where 1/5th of the rowers die of the natural causes and stresses of long distance sea travel. If you lost too many it could bring the galley to a standstill, although they did possess sails as well.

Cruising speed for a galley is supposed to have been about 2-3 knots. If we call it 3 mph, then a 3000 mile voyage would take about 125 days, or over 4 months. In contrast, Columbus took about 5 weeks to cross the Atlantic.

I doubt a galley could have carried nearly enough food to have made a voyage that long without resupply. Aside from the mere amount of food was its preservation: supplies would have been eaten by insects or gone moldy long before then. And besides that, scurvy would have killed many of the crew as well. So I would say no.

It looks like it’s about 2,000 miles from Ireland to Newfoundland, which is the shortest crossing by far. It might be possible; Wikipedia lists ancient Greek sources that suggest that well-trained trireme crews could travel 50 miles a day, rowing only 8 hours each day. That would give a crossing time of 40 days. Galleys need lots of supplies to feed all the rowers, though, and it seems unlikely to me that they’d be able to carry enough food and fresh water to supply those rowers for the weeks it would take. If you sent out dozens of galleys, a few might make it, but nowhere near enough to sustain trade or colonial connections. Roman galleys, I believe, used sails for distance travel and rowers primarily to maneuver in battle. I don’t think anyone has ever used galleys as trading vessels; strong slaves are just too expensive to turn a profit that way.

However, there’s a reason that Columbus landed in the Caribbean, not the much closer Newfoundland-- the trade winds. The prevailing wind pattern in the North Atlantic is westerly, blowing back toward Europe. While some ships of the Roman period could tack against the wind, they couldn’t do it nearly as efficiently as modern sailing ships do; they’d be limited to just a few degrees upwind, and even then they’d be blown backwards much quicker than modern ships. That’s because modern sailing vessels have much deeper keels, which give them more resistance against the water in a lateral direction, allowing them to tack upwind much more effectively. Vasco de Gama once tried to set out from India back to Africa in the wrong season, figuring he’d tack against the wind the whole way. His return crossing, traveling against the wind, took more than five times as long as his original crossing. Even in a galley, independent of the wind for propulsion, you’ll still be greatly slowed by the wind and blown backwards every hour that you rest. Besides, the ocean currents travel in the same westerly direction-- you’d be driven backwards by that too. That 40 day estimate does not take these things into account, and they’d all work against you.

Somewhat to the south of the westerlies in the North Atlantic, you have easterlies which blow in the opposite direction. The Portuguese discovered these in the 15th century, and it was these winds that Columbus used to reach the New World. A Roman galley setting out from Lisbon might have a better chance to reach the new world because the prevailing winds would be at their back, not in their face. That said, the Romans didn’t know about the trade winds at the time.

But weren’t the Viking longships a type of galley? and they made it, by hoping across the northern islands: Ireland/Hebrides to Iceland, to Greenland, and to Newfoundland. Did they have better technology than the earlier Roman galleys?

And of course there’s the legend of St. Brendan. In the 1970s Tim Severin crossed the Atlantic in a currach inspired by the legend.

From wiki.

Here’s a video of their vessel.

Another issue is navigation. The Romans, and a lot of the mediterranean types before them, used very primitive reckoning to reach destinations. Often, from what I read, they would pull to in the nighttime. Fortunately the Mediterranean was small, well known, and it was hard to miss your destination.

By contrast, even following the coast of Africa has to wait until the Portugese developed the ships and navigation techniques to know where they were going and fight the wind and currents. (An earlier discussion of wheat and pasta I recall mentioned how pasta was a big hit for mediterranean sailors because before that a lot of ships had to carry live food like chickens and goats).

The Jared Diamond discussion of polynesian expansion and navigation techniques points to the critical element. People in dugout canoes could cross the vast Pacific ocean (as nobody had done before). The critical element was being able to find and also return to remotely scattered islands - navigation techniques. If you didn’t find anything, you had to know how to get home.

Well, in a sense, but for long passages they would have used sail if possible. I presume the OP is primarily asking if it were feasible for a galley to cross the Atlantic using oar power alone, and by a direct route across the Atlantic of 3000+ miles. Island-hopping across the North Atlantic and using sail for long passages make the trip much more feasible. It would also be more feasible to cross across the shortest distance of about 1,600 miles between Senegal, Africa, and Brazil, only about half of Columbus’s route or the route proposed in the OP.

I’d say the Phoenicians would have been much more likely to have crossed the Atlantic than the Romans.

Wikipedia has an interesting article on Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact - the “Fringe Theories” section gives a good overview of the possibilities, unlikely though most of them are.

The galleys used during Roman times were only used as warships, not general transportation. They were terrible at everything else and especially at cruising the open ocean - what would a warship need to cruise the open ocean for?

Merchant ships were powered by sail. If the Romans had wanted to cross the Atlantic they would not have used galleys.

The biggest draw-back of a galley is the freeboard. The rowers can’t sit too high because they need an effective rowing position. At least Greeks used wax covers for storms, but they reportedly tended to leak.

I agree. They were explorers in a way that the Romans weren’t, and they were much better seafarers. Had they not been eliminated by the Romans, I think they might have attempted an earlier crossing than Columbus.

Can’t the rowers be seated below decks, with holes for the oars? Or would it not be called a galley in that case?

Oh, yes, and they were. Many Greek galleys were biremes or triremes; that is, they had two or three decks of rowers. You still get a surprising amount of water coming in through those forty or so holes, and in a big storm, it’s a problem. Galleys were OK in the relatively calm Mediterranean, but in a big Atlantic storm, you’d have an issue.

Wouldn’t the crew have died of thirst, or if they got really lucky with rain starved to death. My understanding is that such ships carried very little in the way of supplies, relying on very regular resupply from the land.

Northern mariners use the knarr for trade & to carry supplies (including livestock) for long voyages. The longships were handier for quick surprise visits…

If you want to colonize the new world before Caravels, you need to go northwest off Scotland; your trireme can make it to Iceland in three squares, leaving you safe from sinking at the end of your turn.

Would that we were all so civilised.

The ancient greek traveler Pythias of Massilia (Marseille) made a voyage to Iceland (he reported seeing ice on the sea). What kind of ship would he have taken?

I’ve heard something about these Roman ships being somewhat unstable, and subject to damage from sudden storms in the Mediterranean. Does anyone know if that would be true? Did these ships have a keel and substantial rudder that would allow them to ride out rough seas?