Development of Roman Navy up to Actium

Between 190 and the build-up to Actium in the latter half of the 30s, warships larger than “sixes” disappeared from the fleets of the Mediterranean powers. Rome had methodically destroyed her major rivals at sea and emerged from the war with Antiochus as the undisputed naval power of the Mediterranean. One might reasonably ask why the Romans never developed an interest in midsized polyremes, except for their occasional use of “sixes” for flagships. The commonly accepted answer is derived from authors like Polybius and Livy, who chronicled the development of Roman naval power during the Punic Wars. The answer goes like this: the Romans perfected the art of grapple-and-board warfare in order to offset the nautical skill of their adversaries. Their first “fives” were of sturdy build, and although they did not handle as well as the Carthaginian “fives” they faced, they carried the Romans to victory thanks to a special boarding bridge called a “raven” (corax) with a spike on the outboard end that firmly gripped the deck of the attacked ship. The Romans soon dispensed with the cumbersome raven, but continued their preference for grappling their enemies-this time with iron hooks attached to ropes ( ferreae manus )-dragging them alongside so their marines could decide the battle. They so perfected the use of “fives” for this purpose that they did not need or want to build larger ships. When faced with larger ships in battle, they simply grappled them and let their marines do the rest. During the first century, they sometimes employed naval artillery to soften up their enemies from a distance before closing with them, throwing grapnels, and letting their marines finish them off. By this means, for example, Octavian defeated Antony’s larger vessels at Actium.

Distortions stemming from preserved battle narratives that focus on the experiences of the marines. A similar view emerges from the recent study of the Roman navy (up to 167 BCE) by Christa Steinby. She demonstrates convincingly how our sources routinely minimize the nautical expertise of Roman naval personnel and downplay the full measure of the navy’s effectiveness. A more defensible answer to our question (i. e., why the Romans avoided midsized polyremes) will be found in the strategic objectives they built their naval forces to achieve.

We should start with the most obvious reason, namely, that the Romans avoided the desire to build bigger and bigger warships because their primary enemies lacked effective naval siege units populated by midsized polyremes. These enemies included, first and foremost, the Carthaginians, but also the Sicilians, the Macedonians, the Syrians, and the Egyptians. As a result, the Romans were not driven, like the enemies of Demetrius, to compete in this arena to achieve their foreign policy objectives. When they began to build a fleet of any size, we see from Polybius that they matched the Carthaginians’ largest vessels, i. e., their “fives,” and worked to achieve naval dominance with this class. During the course of the first Punic War, they built hundreds of “fives,” and when these were lost in storms or in battle, they resolutely built hundreds more, making sure to surpass their enemy in numbers of units.

During the decade of the 240s, we might have expected Rome, with Syracusan help, to develop a naval siege unit as they struggled to gain control of Drepanum and Lilybaeum in western Sicily (250-41), but they chose not to do so. It seems that the Roman ruling class was simply unwilling to assume the staggering costs such a navy would require on an annually recurring basis. The demands asked of them were already high; in 243, for example, the wealthiest Romans were asked to loan the capital required to prepare a fleet of 200 “fives” (Polyb. 1.59.6-8), which eventually won them the war. Prior to their victory over the Carthaginians at the Aegates Islands in 241, they also lacked the naval superiority required to safeguard a siege unit from attack and insure their unhindered application of force against the besieged Corinthian garrisons.

In general, the strength of Roman naval power depended upon the superior manpower and timber reserves of the Italian peninsula. Drawing from these considerable resources, the Romans produced fleets that achieved naval dominance over their enemies and allowed them to transport superior land forces to the region of conflict. They then counted on their armies to defeat their enemies, rather than relying on city-by-city campaigns waged with military transports and naval siege units. They did indeed wage some campaigns against individual cities such as Lilybaeum, but their overall preference in their major wars seems to have been to establish naval dominance over the seas between Italy and the area of conflict, and then import a land force from Italy. For example, when fighting Antiochus III in the Syrian War (192-88), the Romans transported an army to Apollonia in Illyria and then marched it through Greece to Asia Minor for the crucial battle at Magnesia in Lydia that resulted in peace.

Their naval battles principally resulted from attempts to intercept enemy supplies and reinforcements before they came to specific land bases, generally outside the confines of a harbor. Quite simply, in this kind of warfare, medium-sized polyremes were a liability rather than an asset. There are a few exceptions during the Second Punic War when Roman commanders developed skills in naval siege warfare, but they never felt the need to build midsized polyremes, that is, until the Actian campaign of Antony and Cleopatra almost two centuries later. In order to appreciate the reasons behind Antony’s construction of multiple ships in the range of “sixes” to “tens,” we should first review the Roman accomplishments in naval siege warfare that occurred during the third century.

Battle of Actium 33 B.C.

An engagement was fought on the Ionian Sea on September 2, 31 B.C., just off the coast of this site, near the Ambracian Gulf, between the fleet of Octavian (Augustus) and the armada of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. This naval battle, in which Octavian proved victorious, decided the fate of the Roman world.

By 33 B.C., most political factions striving for power in the Republic had faded, leaving only the Triumvirs Octavian and Antony as rivals. In May 32, they became dire enemies when Antony divorced Octavian’s sister, Octavia, and married Cleopatra. Claiming that Cleopatra aspired to become the queen of Rome, and that in his will Antony distributed the Eastern provinces among his illegitimate children by Cleopatra, Octavian roused the Senate and the Roman mob. They called for war against Antony, stripping him of his offices.

Both sides gathered large fleets and assembled legions, but Octavian, with his normal prudence, took his time. Finally, in 31 he set out with hundreds of ships and 40,000 men, landing in Greece and marching south to Mikalitzi, north of Nicopolis on the Bay of Comarus. Antony, possessing a like number of land forces, also had at his command a combined Roman-Egyptian fleet of 480 ships. The advantage rested with Antony in naval terms, because his vessels were large and heavy. Octavian, however, possessed two elements that were to prove pivotal to the outcome: his admiral Agrippa, and his lighter Liburnian ships, which were equipped with the Harpax, a ram that pinned the opposing vessel and allowed for boarding and capture. Antony, encamped just south of Actium, nevertheless stood a good chance of victory.

The battle was really two encounters in a single day, the fierce naval conflict in the morning and a half-hearted rout on land that afternoon. The naval engagement began with the two fleets facing one another. Octavian’s force was divided into three sections – a center and two wings. Agrippa commanded the northern wing and was admiral in chief. Arruntius led the center, and Octavian was in charge of the southern wing. On the Egyptian side, Antony took command of the northern squadrons, opposite Agrippa. Marcus Octavius was opposed to Arruntius, and Savius sailed against Octavian’s ships. Cleopatra headed a reserve squadron of 60 ships behind the center of the Egyptian fleet.

The tactical advantage would fall to the commander who penetrated the other’s flanks, and here the battle was won by Agrippa. Antony fought valiantly, but the unreliable and disloyal ships of his center and south wing broke ranks. Cleopatra sailed to safety, probably signaled by Antony to do so, although the historian Dio Cassius dismissed her flight as the act of a woman and an Egyptian. Antony, with his own ship pinned by a harpax, transferred to another vessel and also fled toward Egypt. Victory at sea was total for Octavian, and Antony’s general, Candidus Crassus, faced a mutiny in his own ranks and surrendered.

An invasion of Egypt followed in July of 30, but Actium had already established Octavian as the undisputed master of Rome and its far-flung world. By August, Antony and Cleopatra were dead by their own hands. Octavian returned to Rome to become the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Plutarch and Dio Cassius wrote extensive versions of the battle.

The Harpax

HARPAX Roman word for the Greek harpagos or grappling hook used by the Roman NAVY; a combination harpoon and grappling iron consisting of a spar five cubits (2.25m, or 7ft 3in) long with a ring at each end. An iron hook was fastened to one of the rings, and a large number of ropes, twisted together into one cord, to the other. Fitted for use with the ballista, it would be embedded in an enemy vessel when fired, enabling the ship to be hauled in and boarded. An iron casing surrounded the spar, preventing the enemy from hacking it free.

The harpax enjoyed its greatest hour at ACTIUM, on September 2, 31 B. C., when the fleet of Octavian (AUGUSTUS) routed the ships of Antony and Cleopatra. Using the lighter Liburnian vessels, Agrippa, Octavian’s admiral, moved around Antony’s heavier ships, pinning and boarding them.

The naval Battle of Actium (Marc Anthony and Cleopatra versus Octavian) saw yet another ingenious new naval weapon, the harpax, an iron grapple hurled by a catapult at an enemy ship, which was then hauled in by a winch for boarding.

Both sides gathered large fleets and assembled legions, but Octavian, with his normal prudence, took his time. Finally, in 31 he set out with hundreds of ships and 40,000 men, landing in Greece and marching south to Mikalitzi, north of Nicopolis on the Bay of Comarus. Antony, possessing a like number of land forces, also had at his command a combined Roman-Egyptian fleet of 480 ships. The advantage rested with Antony in naval terms, because his vessels were large and heavy. Octavian, however, possessed two elements that were to prove pivotal to the outcome: his admiral AGRIPPA, and his lighter Liburnian ships, which were equipped with the HARPAX. Antony, encamped just south of Actium, nevertheless stood a good chance of victory.

The battle was really two encounters in a single day, the fierce naval conflict in the morning and a halfhearted rout on land that afternoon. The naval engagement began with the two fleets facing one another. Octavian’s force was divided into three sections – a center and two wings. Agrippa commanded the northern wing and was admiral in chief. ARRUNTIUS led the center, and Octavian was in charge of the southern wing. On the Egyptian side, Antony took command of the northern squadrons, opposite Agrippa. Marcus Octavius was opposed to Arruntius, and Savius sailed against Octavian’s ships. Cleopatra headed a reserve squadron of 60 ships behind the center of the Egyptian fleet.

The tactical advantage would fall to the commander who penetrated the other’s flanks, and here the battle was won by Agrippa. Antony fought valiantly, but the unreliable and disloyal ships of his center and south wing broke ranks. Cleopatra sailed to safety, probably signaled by Antony to do so, although the historian DIO CASSIUS dismissed her flight as the act of a woman and an Egyptian. Antony, with his own ship pinned by a harpax, transferred to another vessel and also fled toward Egypt.

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