Roman Britain’s Navy

The Classis Britannica was responsible for patrolling the north-western waters of the Roman Empire. It was based at Boulogne (Bononia).

In AD 69-70, the Rhine frontier was in tumult. The aftermath of Nero’s reign and suicide had left not just Rome in disarray. During the so-called `Year of the Four Emperors’, the civil war that convulsed Rome as multiple rivals tussled for the imperial throne, disaffected former allies rebelled. Notable among them was Gaius Julius Civilis, an auxiliary Roman officer and prince of the Batavi, a prominent Germanic tribe of the Rhine delta in what’s now the Netherlands.

Angered by Rome’s treatment of his tribe after years of stalwart service – including important contributions to the invasion and subjugation of Britain from AD 43 – Civilis launched a revolt, persuading other nearby Germanic tribes to join him.

After a number of battles and sieges, Civilis was subdued. Tacitus, who recounted the story in his Histories, describes how the Legio XIV Gemina (`Twinned 14th Legion’) was transported across from Britain to help the mopping-up operation. The legionary commander, Fabius Priscus, marched his troops to suppress the Nervii and Tungri tribes – and in doing so left his fleet exposed. The nearby Cannenefates tribe launched an assault, destroying or capturing most of the ships. And so the narrative of Britain’s maritime power – this being the first recorded mention of the Classis Britannica, the first navy of Britain – enters the historical record in ignominy.

First fleet

The Classis Britannica was the regional fleet of the Roman province of Britannia from the mid-first century to the mid-third century, one of 10 such fleets across the empire. These fleets originated with the Augustan reforms of the Roman military, replacing the larger ad-hoc fleets that had served Rome well during its earlier conflicts in the Mediterranean.

The Classis Britannica as a named body came into being shortly before the AD 69/70 Batavian Revolt described earlier. However, the origins of the fleet stretch back to the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD 43.

After the initial invasion, the fleet took part in every aspect of the subsequent expansion across the islands of Britain, eventually taking geographical responsibility for the Atlantic approaches, the English Channel, the east and west coast of Britain and the North Sea basin. As is clear from its deployment to Germany during the Batavian revolt, it was also given responsibility for protecting the north-west European coast, with its headquarters fortress at Boulogne. Less than two centuries later, the Classis Britannica disappears from the historical record; the last known reference came in AD 249, relating to Saturninus, a North African-born captain.

During its existence, the Classis Britannica had more than one role. The commander of the British regional fleet was appointed directly by the emperor, and reported to the province’s procurator, who was tasked with making the province pay. So the fleet undertook civilian tasks – for example, running key industrial enterprises such as the principal iron-working sites in the coastal weald. It was, though, primarily a military force, and its martial duties fell under the aegis of the province’s governor. These military roles included controlling maritime zones around Britain, regular patrolling, gathering intelligence, transport, amphibious warfare and communications.

The chief fighting ship was the liburnian, a war galley equipped with ram and ballista. Being a small bireme (powered by two banks of oars), this was more agile than the larger polyreme galleys of the Republican navies. Numerous types of cutters and skiffs were also employed, as were a wide variety of transport ships. These were usually built in the Romano-Celtic tradition, with shallow hulls for navigating coastal waters, and high bows and sterns for riding out heavy seas.

The ships were manned by a fighting and sailing crew organised in a similar way to land counterparts. The sailing company comprised marines, valarius sailors and remiges oarsmen – professionals, not slaves. From the outset, the mix of men was cosmopolitan, reflecting the empire itself. The original fleet used in the Claudian invasion was built around a core of experienced men from the Classis Misinensis regional fleet in Italy; later, most of its sailors and shipbuilders came from various European tribes – including the latterly rebellious Batavi.

During the Claudian invasion of AD 43, 900 ships were constructed to carry Aulus Plautius’s invasion force of 40,000 legionaries and auxiliaries in three waves across the English Channel. The fleet then supported the spearheads during the breakout from the invasion beaches of eastern Kent. It remained prominent in the final defeat of the Catuvellauni (who led the British resistance), and carried Claudius himself across from Gaul to take credit for the successful campaign.

The regional fleet then played a key role in the various conquest campaigns, an example being Vespasian and his Legio II Augusta (Augustus’s Second Legion) in south-west Britain during the late AD 40s. The Classis Britannica provided support during the future emperor’s relentless advance, providing the vital transport capability that enabled the land forces to leap ahead, objective by objective. After four seasons of campaigning, the southwest was fully conquered and the fleet, based in a series of new fortified harbours, was beginning to forge up into the Bristol Channel.

By the mid-AD 70s, the province was effectively established along lines recognisable for the rest of the occupation, with south and east fully functioning as part of the empire, and the north and west being a militarised border territory. With the northern border set along a line between the Solway Firth and the Tyne, later to be fortified under Hadrian, the scene was set for the Classis Britannica to again play a major campaigning role, this time under governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who made ambitious attempts to conquer Scotland.

Agricola arrived in Britain in AD 77 and, after a brief campaign in Wales, turned his attention northward. His targets were the native tribes of Scotland, broadly referred to as the Caledonians, and in the spring of AD 79 he launched his forces in that direction. This campaign featured the familiar pattern of coastal legionary spearheads on both the east and west coasts supported by the Classis Britannica, which controlled the sea close to the shore and fulfilled the supply and scouting roles.

The presence of the fleet was evidently a shock to the natives: in his Agricola, Tacitus reports that its galleys spread terror among the Caledonians. Agricola mounted four subsequent campaigns in the north, building military anchorages on the east and west coasts of Scotland and far north-west England to support the fleet. The fighting included a successful amphibious assault either north across the Solway Firth from Cumbria or west across the river Annan in Dumfries and Galloway, and in the fifth year of his campaign Agricola brought the natives to battle at Mons Graupius below the Moray Firth in the Grampians. The result: the total defeat of the Caledonians. The Classis Britannica then completed the first Roman circumnavigation of Britain.

Agricola was recalled to Rome some time before AD 85, after which the empire lost interest in the far north of Britain. The Classis Britannica spent much of the second century supporting the military presence on the northern border. It came to prominence again in AD 196 when the British governor Clodius Albinus launched an unsuccessful usurpation attempt against the emperor Septimius Severus. It appears that the Classis Britannica sided with Albinus – the fleet would have been needed to carry his troops to the continent – and so fell from imperial favour.

However, the fleet made a spectacular return to action in the early third century, when Severus attempted his own `shock and awe’ conquest of Scotland. At this time the Maeatae in central Scotland and Caledonians farther north had become so troublesome that the governor made a desperate request for new troops or for the emperor himself. He was lucky: he got both.

Imperial assault

In AD 208, Severus crossed the Channel with a huge imperial entourage including the Praetorian Guard and crack units from the continental legions. Carried by the Classis Britannica, this force landed at Richborough (near Sandwich in Kent), travelling north and collecting British legions en route to York, where Severus set up his imperial capital.

The emperor launched the first of two massive assaults northward in AD 209, deploying 50,000 men and massively expanding the fort and harbour at South Shields to act as his main supply base. As this enormous force headed north, the Classis Britannica again sat tight on the maritime flank, its galleys and transports surging ahead of the land forces to harry the natives and secure assault harbours. The regional fleet’s importance in this campaign is indicated by the number of coins featuring a naval theme issued at this time.

Once again, as the legionary spearheads probed northwards, fortified harbours at Cramond on the Forth and Carpow on the Tay were used. The campaign progressed steadily, though it is clear that the stream of casualties from guerilla warfare began to mitigate against Roman success. When it became obvious that the natives wouldn’t oblige with a meeting engagement, a truce was agreed and the emperor headed back to York with terms that met his satisfaction.

The terms clearly weren’t so agreeable to the natives, who revolted the following year, prompting Severus to plan a new campaign. Ill health got the better of him, and the advance was led by his son, Caracalla. This campaign, undertaken in AD 210, was especially brutal: Severus ordered his troops to kill all of the locals they encountered. Though the campaign again concluded without a major battle, it was ultimately successful in that peace fell on the northern border for a period of 80 years.

The navy vanishes

The campaigns of Severus marked a high point in the career of the Classis Britannica – though he himself died in York in AD 211. The fleet then found itself combatting a new menace in the form of Germanic maritime raiders travelling across the North Sea.

The fleet disappears from the historical record in the middle of the third century, but its fate is a mystery. A number of events offer explanations; in each case the fleet was vulnerable, at some stage backing the wrong horse during the sometimes violent and dramatic changes in imperial leadership, and suffering as a result. One was the scramble for imperial control between senate and military after the assassination of Alexander Severus in AD 235, which initiated the `Crisis of the Third Century’. Another was the `Gallic Empire’ founded by Postumus that lasted from AD 260 to AD 274. Finally, there was the `North Sea Empire’ established by the usurper Carausius, which lasted from AD 286 to AD 296.

In my opinion, the most likely of these scenarios would have been in the context of the `Gallic Empire’, by which time it might also have been the case that the fleet was simply too expensive to maintain given the economic troubles of the empire. However it came about, we know that sometime in the middle of the third century Britain’s first navy disappeared – the end of a major fighting force that played a vital role in the story of Roman Britain.

Sea Eagles of Empire: Simon Elliott (History Press, 2016)

The Roman war machine comprised land and naval forces. Although the former has been studied extensively, less has been written and understood about the naval forces of the Roman empire and, in particular, the regional navies which actively participated in most military operations and policed the seas and rivers of the Empire. Until the mid-third century, in a British context, this navy was the Classis Britannica—a strong fighting force in its own right. The composition, ship types, roles, tactics, and technology have never been studied at length. Here Simon Elliot tells the story of this illustrious naval force in their metal-beaked galleys and their exploits defeating enemies of the Empire and keeping the peace around the British Isles.

The Roman Navy: Ships, Men & Warfare 350 BC – AD 475 by Michael Paul Pitassi (Seaforth, 2012)

The Roman Navy was remarkable for its size, reach and longevity. As significant as the Royal Navy was to the British Empire in the nineteenth century, the Roman Navy was crucial to the extraordinary expansion of Imperial power and for its maintenance over a period of more than 800 years. The fabric and organisation of this maritime force is at the core of this new book.

Roman Britain and the Roman Navy by David JP Mason (History Press, 2009)

So much has been written about the Roman army in Britain that the vital role of the navy – both in support of the army and in the defence of this distant Roman province – has been largely overlooked. In providing the first comprehensive account of the Roman navy’s importance in the conquest and defence of Britain, David Mason has redressed the balance. Combining archaeological evidence from recently excavated ships and harbour works with information from ancient sources, the author demonstrates the fleet’s vital importance to the success of the Roman military conquest. He also provides new insights into the logistics and tactics of the Roman naval forces and their close cooperation with the Roman army.

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