By Richard Gabriel
In 31 bc the last two great generals of the Roman civil wars faced each other at Actium off the coast of Greece in a naval battle that would settle the future of Rome. For months Mark Antony and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra had tried in vain to break Octavian’s land and naval blockade of their forces in Greece. By late summer Antony’s armies were low on supplies and ravaged by disease. On September 2 his fleet of more than 200 ships carrying 20,000 marines and 2,000 archers put to sea to challenge the blockade. They faced a fleet of some 400 ships carrying 16,000 marines and 3,000 archers under the command of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.
Antony’s fleet comprised big quinqueremes and even larger ships of Levantine design whose decks were high off the water, affording his marines and archers a significant advantage in close combat. Agrippa’s ships were mostly liburnae—smaller, lower biremes of Illyrian design constructed two years earlier in Naples. But they were lighter and faster than those of his opponent.
Antony intended to fight a typical Roman sea battle: Close with the enemy ship, board it with marines and slaughter the enemy. Agrippa, however, was the most daring and imaginative commander Rome had produced since Caesar and was the real genius behind Octavian’s military successes. He had a different plan.
Antony’s 5,000-yard line of ships was the first to attack. For four hours the fleets skirmished and maneuvered in light winds without result. Just past noon the breeze freshened, and Antony’s ships increased the intervals between each ship to lengthen their line and prevent envelopment by Agrippa’s longer line of ships. But Agrippa had anticipated this move, and his biremes raced toward the heavier and slower quinqueremes, passing them closely to break their oars and rudders. Agrippa then brought his numerical advantage to bear by having several biremes attack a single quinquereme. Whenever a bireme successfully rammed a quinquereme, it would disengage and maneuver away. After a few hours many of Antony’s large ships lay dead in the water, awaiting the final boarding attack.
The attack never came. Instead, Agrippa’s biremes maneuvered close to the drifting quinqueremes and with onboard ballistae, or crossbows, launched flaming pots of pitch and charcoal at the ships. Historian Dio Cassius wrote later that crews tried to quench the fiery projectiles with water, but “as their buckets were small and few and half-filled, they were not always successful. Then they smothered the fires with their mantles and even with corpses. They hacked off burning parts of the ships and tried to grapple hostile ships to escape into them. Many were burned alive or jumped overboard or killed each other to avoid the flames.” Thousands perished.
Thanks to Agrippa, Octavian’s Rome was now master of the Mediterranean. Yet there was no permanent navy. Until Actium, the empire had simply created one whenever the need arose. Octavian thus established the Roman imperial navy, which historian Chester Starr termed “the most advanced and widely based naval structure in antiquity.” For the next 500 years the Roman Empire would control the region, depending as much on its fleets as on its legions and roads for survival.
At the outset of the 3rd century bc, Carthage, with its fleet of 300 ships, was the preeminent naval power in the western Mediterranean. At that time, Rome had no naval force or experience in naval warfare. But when the First Punic War broke out between the two powers in 264 bc, Rome quickly realized that victory could only be achieved at sea. The Senate ordered Cornelius Scipio, grandfather of Scipio Africanus, to construct the first Roman fleet.
Italy had large forests of fir from which to build boats but no ship designers, crews or captains to take them to sea. The Romans hit upon the idea of copying a quinquereme that had fallen into their hands. Although commonly believed to have come from the Carthaginians, it was actually a vessel from the navy of Hannibal of Rhodes. Using the captured boat as a template, the Romans constructed a fleet of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes in just two months. As historian Polybius described, production required 165 woodcutters, carpenters and metalworkers working full-time on each of the ships, or a labor force of 20,000 men.
Manpower shortages and the cost of trained crews, more than the cost of the ships themselves, were often the most important factors in determining the size of a country’s navy in antiquity. Galley crews were not slaves but expensive skilled freemen. So, as it constructed a fleet, Rome instead turned to its army conscripts, teaching them rudimentary rowing and maneuvers on wooden ship mock-ups onshore. This was the navy that put to sea to fight the largest and most experienced naval force in the western Mediterranean.
Naval tactics of the day relied on skilled captains and rowers to maneuver their vessel past an opposing ship and break its oars, leaving it crippled and vulnerable. The attacker could then pierce the hull of the helpless boat with a metal prow ram and leave it to sink.
Lacking skilled captains and trained crews, the Romans played to their strongest military tactic: close infantry combat. A Roman captain would use catapults to launch grappling irons at the enemy ship, holding it fast while marines boarded and engaged in close combat. To facilitate boarding, the Romans introduced the corvus, a wooden boarding ramp 36 feet long and 4 feet wide with railings on either side and a long metal spike extending from its bottom. Using ropes, the men would swing the ramp over the side of their ship onto the enemy’s deck. The spike would drive into the deck, holding both ships together and steadying the ramp as Roman marines poured across. The new tactics caught the Carthaginians by surprise at the Battle of Mylae in 260 bc, when the Romans boarded and destroyed their ships one by one.
In 256 bc the Romans launched an amphibious invasion of North Africa, sending a fleet of 250 warships and 80 transports carrying 60,000 men. Two hundred Carthaginian warships met the Roman fleet off Mount Economus. This time, seamanship rather than manpower decided the outcome, as Roman commanders acted on their own initiative to thwart multiple attacks against the troop transports. While the Romans lost 24 ships, the Carthaginians suffered 30 sunk and 50 others captured. The Roman invasion force got through and landed in North Africa, only to be defeated in a land battle and forced to withdraw.
Roman naval losses during the First Punic War were extremely high, due mostly to the Roman practice of sailing in rough weather, as the weight of the corvus and its position on the bow made ships especially unstable in rough seas. Rome lost as many as 600 Roman warships, 1,000 transports and more than 400,000 men, a number approaching the total American dead in World War II. Probably no war in naval history has recorded as many casualties from drowning, losses representing some 15 percent of the able-bodied men of military age in Italy. Polybius called it the bloodiest war in history. Despite the casualties, the Romans pressed on, replacing lost ships and training fresh crews.
In 241 bc the Carthaginians sought to lift the Roman siege of Lilybaeum in Sicily by sending a naval force to break the Roman blockade. Certain of victory, the Carthaginians sent no marines with their ships, planning to acquire them in Lilybaeum following the battle. Despite foul weather, the Roman captains put to sea to intercept the Carthaginian fleet. In a clash near the Aegates Islands off Sicily, the Romans sank 50 ships and captured 70 of the 200 Carthaginian combatants that took part. Its last fleet gone and lacking enough money and raw materials to build another, Carthage surrendered. Rome now commanded the western Mediterranean.
Two decades later Rome and Carthage were again at war. Probably for financial reasons, Carthage had not rebuilt its combat fleet. When the Second Punic War (218–202 bc) broke out, it had no more than 50 warships to counter the Roman fleet of 220. Hannibal was forced to take his army overland through Spain rather than landing directly on the Italian mainland. Without a navy, Hannibal could not shift his forces from theater to theater as could the Romans, and his supply lines to Carthage were always under threat. As a result, there were no major sea engagements during that long war. In 204 bc a Roman invasion force of 400 transports carrying 26,000 troops and 1,200 horses and protected by 40 warships crossed from Sicily and invaded North Africa. Two years later Scipio defeated Hannibal at Zama, and Carthage surrendered. Now only Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire stood between Rome and complete dominance of the Mediterranean.
Rome had learned that the proper role of a navy was to support ground operations and that naval combatants could not bring about a strategic decision by themselves. Thus it placed equal emphasis on its transport ships and combatants.
War broke out with the Seleucid Empire in the eastern Mediterranean in 192 bc. As Antiochus maintained a large fleet, transporting the Roman army across the Aegean from Greece was a risky proposition. Lucius Scipio, the brother of Scipio Africanus, marched his army overland to cross the Hellespont and take the war to the Asian mainland (present-day western Turkey). Transports ferried his troops across the strait while other naval units blockaded the Syrian fleet at Ephesus. For weeks both sides skirmished off the coast. In December 190 bc, as the Roman army marched down the coast to bring the fight to Antiochus, the Seleucid fleet tried to break the Roman blockade. In a battle off Myonnesus, the Romans carried the day. A few weeks later Antiochus’ army was defeated at Magnesia. Rome now controlled the entire Mediterranean. Only Rhodes, a Roman ally, and Egypt, a broken reed, were left with significant naval assets.
Regardless, Rome still considered itself a land power, and over the next century, wrote Chester Starr in The Influence of Sea Power on Ancient History, “the Romans carried out the most complete process of naval disarmament that the world has ever seen and let her own naval establishment rot away.” That decision led to one of the worst waves of piracy in classical times. By 102 bc more than 1,000 pirate ships preyed on Mediterranean shipping, and more than 400 coastal settlements had been sacked, their populations sold at Roman slave markets. Rome finally reacted when the pirates threatened its grain imports. In 67 bc the Senate sent Pompey the Great to eradicate the outlaw scourge. He attacked the pirates’ coastal strongholds and regained control of the seas within a year. The experience convinced Rome to rebuild its navy.
Until then, Roman naval experience had been restricted to the tideless Mediterranean. It fell to Julius Caesar to fight the first Roman naval battle on the ocean. In 56 bc he launched a campaign against the Veneti in Gaul, who lived along the Bay of Biscay and were excellent sailors. While Caesar moved his armies overland, Decimus Brutus commanded the fleet that engaged the Veneti navy.
The Gallic ships were superior to Roman quinqeremes in every respect. Constructed of oak, they were almost impervious to ramming, with flat bottoms better suited to the coastal shallows. They were higher at the deck line with high sterns and prows from which to fight off Roman marines. The Gallic ships also flew large leather sails that withstood high winds better than canvas and enabled them to run faster before the wind, easily eluding their foes.
But their great strength also revealed a weakness, as the Gallic ships had no oars and relied on the mainsail for propulsion. Supportive halyards were tethered to the deck on either side of the mast. The Romans devised a new weapon to cripple the ship. “Sharp and pointed hooks secured to the ends of long poles,” wrote Caesar of the device, “after the fashion of siege hooks. When these contrivances had caught the halyards supporting the yards, the Roman ship was driven away by the oars, and the halyards were cut in consequence, so the yards fell to the deck.” Their mainsail halyards thus severed, the Gallic ships were immobilized. The Romans could now close with their grappling irons and deploy marines to deal with the crew.
Octavian had formally established the Roman imperial navy following the battle of Actium, when he sent Antony’s captured ships to Forum Iulii (present-day Fréjus on the south coast of France), establishing a permanent naval base to control the northern Mediterranean. He started with two major fleet commands: Classis Praetoria Misenensis, at Misenum on the Gulf of Naples, to protect Italy itself and its grain imports in the south; and Classis Praetoria Ravennatis, at Ravenna at the head of the Adriatic, to deal with trouble in Dalmatia and Illyria. To protect Egypt, the source of Rome’s grain supply, Octavian created the Classis Augusta Alexandrina, at Alexandria.
Campaigns along the German Rhine (AD 5–16) necessitated creation of Classis Germanica, with heavier seagoing ships based at the river’s mouth and lighter river squadrons based at Altenburg near Cologne. The invasion and eventual conquest of Britain (AD 43–60) also required strong naval logistical support. The main Roman naval base was at Gesoraicum (present-day Boulogne) and served as the headquarters for Classis Britannica. Among the navy’s significant achievements during the conquest was its circumnavigation of Scotland, proving that Britain was an island.
After the Armenian wars, Nero (reign: ad 54–68) created the Classis Pontica to control the Black Sea. The empire’s other great water border lay along the Danube. The river splits at the Kazan Gorge, which prompted the Romans to create two fleets: Classis Pannonica in the west and Classis Moesica in the east. Classis Moesica provided naval and logistical support to Trajan’s conquest of Dacia (AD 101–106). Under Hadrian (reign: ad 117–138) Classis Moesica controlled the mouth of the Danube and the area north, while Classis Pontica was responsible for the south and the Hellespont. Later, smaller fleets such as the Classis Nova Libyca were created to patrol the western littoral, while a larger fleet, Classis Syriaca, supported Roman forces on the border with Parthia.
Fleets were usually collocated with legion camps and provided logistical support to the army, transported troops and patrolled the rivers and coast with complements of marines. The navy remained subordinate to the army throughout the imperial period. Naval personnel did not think of themselves as sailors but as soldiers, even choosing to memorialize themselves as legionnaires on their tombstones. Naval crews were organized into centuries just like the army, and each ship had a centurion aboard with an assistant who fulfilled the role of first sergeant. The centurion was responsible for teaching infantry tactics, training his men to repel boarders or act as an assault party.
Fleets were organized into squadrons of about 10 ships. Commanding officers were drawn from the equestrian class of Roman nobles, and fleet commanders carried the rank of prefect. The sailors were free men dawn from the lower ranks of society. Few were Romans, however; most were drawn from seafaring peoples of the eastern Mediterranean or the provinces. Service was for 26 years, and citizenship was awarded on discharge.
The navy’s role changed over time, from active combat fleet to multipurpose military service and finally to a smaller, mobile force. Once rival navies were no longer a concern, the river fleets (Rhine, Danube and Nile) came into being to support ground operations and secure the imperial borders. Historian Publius Tacitus recorded that as early as ad 15 Germanicus’ campaign in Germany required a new type of ship to navigate the inland waterways and canals. His ships had narrow sterns and bows, wide hulls and flat keels to ply the shallow rivers. They could be sailed or rowed and had covers to protect men and cargo from the weather.
Increased coastal and river patrols eventually called for a fast, light combat ship with a shallow draft. The Romans chose a modified version of Agrippa’s liburna, reduced to about 80 feet in length. Its forward-raking mast flew a single sail, while its crew of 60 manned two rows of oars. Under sail it could make close to 14 knots. Built decked or undecked, the ship could carry 30 to 50 marines, depending on the mission.
The fleets became vitally important to the defense and survival of the empire, as they patrolled its waterways and borders, safeguarding regional trade routes. In times of crisis, the navy switched roles to transport troops and supplies, but even then its light combatants could be brought into play in direct support of ground operations.
Rome ruled the seas for more than four centuries, until finally, weakened by repeated barbarian invasions from the east, it was unable to sustain the navy. By 450 the Vandals had established a kingdom in North Africa and built a powerful navy. Their king, Gaiseric, sent his fleets to raid the Mediterranean coasts and shipping and eventually to attack Rome itself. By the time of Gaiseric’s death in 477, the Vandals had eliminated Rome as a naval power and become the new masters of the Mediterranean.
For further reading, Richard Gabriel recommends: Greek and Roman Naval Warfare, by William Rodgers, and The Roman Imperial Navy, by Chester Starr.