At Actium Antony’s fleet held out for a long time against Octavian. Only after it had been badly damaged by the high sea which rose against it did it reluctantly, and at the tenth hour, gave up the struggle. There were no more than 5,000 dead, but 300 ships were captured.

Plutarch describes the last phase of the naval Battle of Actium which brought the Republic to an end in 31 BC.

Unlike the Roman army, whose origins lay at the beginnings of Rome’s history, the navy came into existence in piecemeal and haphazard fashion. But it was still on hand to play a decisive part in Roman and even world history. Fleets featured in many campaigns, acting as transports for men, animals and equipment, and sometimes even as the fighting platforms on which fleet troops fought their opponents.


The Roman navy was created during the First and Second Punic Wars, though like the army at that time and throughout the Republic it was not a permanent institution. Since the Carthaginians were expert sailors and masters of the Mediterranean, war at sea was essential and unavoidable if they were to be challenged. The Romans had to learn and learn fast; yet until the First Punic War it had never occurred to them that they might need to become a naval power. ‘Not only did they have no decked ships, but also they had no warships at all’, explained Polybius. To begin with they borrowed ships to carry their troops over to Sicily, but when they captured a Carthaginian vessel they realized they had acquired a template whose specifications they could copy. Armed with a fleet of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes designed in imitation of their prize, the Romans were able to set about training crews. They also developed the remarkable ‘raven’, which used a pole, ropes and a pulley to drop a gangplank with an iron spike from the Roman ship onto the deck of an enemy vessel. Roman troops could then dash across and fight the enemy crews and troops. It is an extraordinary fact that some rams from the front of Roman ships used in the First Punic War have been recovered from the sea off Sicily.

Astonishingly, the Romans won their first naval battle against the incredulous Carthaginians, at Mylae off the north-east coast of Sicily in 260 BC. Further victories followed at Sulci (259 BC) and Cape Ecnomus (256 BC). Although problems were to come, it was the naval Battle of the Aegates Islands in 241 BC that finished off the Carthaginians and forced them to sue for peace. Rome was now not only a naval power but also pre-eminent in the Mediterranean. Like the army though, during the Republic fleets had to be formed on an as-need basis.

In the aftermath of Cannae in 216 BC during the Second Punic War naval forces were organized to protect Rome: 1,500 naval troops were sent from Ostia to the capital, and a naval legion was sent to Teano, a town in Campania. When Scipio invaded North Africa in 205 BC his fleet included 50 men-of-war and 400 transports to carry not only the men and their equipment, but also over six weeks’ supply of cattle, food and water. This single instance gives an idea of how complex a Roman waterborne military operation could be. Their soldiers were brave and effective, but the relatively cumbersome nature of their ships continued to be a potential liability.

The final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC in the Third Punic War removed the seaborne threat to the burgeoning Roman Empire until the emergence of Cilician pirates in the first century BC. The pirates’ activities seriously compromised trade, and their strength grew with backing from Mithridates VI of Pontus between 76 and 63 BC because he knew the pirates were a useful means of damaging Roman interests in the Mediterranean. The pirates were also able to take advantage of Rome’s civil wars, which enabled them not only to attack maritime trade but also to raid islands and coastal cities, plundering and taking away prisoners for ransom. Their numbers increased during the Mithridatic Wars because dispossessed people in Asia turned to piracy as the only option open to them, and support came from allies of Mithridates such as Crete. The profession was developing into a glamorous and ostentatious career with a network of support installations where the pirate crews could put in for supplies and to re-equip. ‘It was’, said Plutarch, ‘a disgrace to Roman supremacy.’ Eventually, crisis point was reached: trade on the Mediterranean had become crippled.

In 67 BC a law was passed that gave Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey Magnus, ‘the Great’, as he was later known) a three-year command to clear the seas. By requisitioning existing ships from Greek cities, Pompey was able to put together a fleet of 500 ships and a force of 120,000 men. Within an astonishing three months he had destroyed the pirate problem by dividing the Mediterranean into 13 zones and distributing the fleet among them.8 Naval power was an important factor in the civil wars that followed, Pompey’s son Sextus becoming a major threat to the triumvirs Antony and Octavian until he was defeated in 36 BC at the Strait of Sicily (Fretum Siculum) off Cape Naulochus by Agrippa with Legio X. The legion’s achievements that day meant it was awarded the permanent title Fretensis in commemoration.

Fleets were often built on the spot to meet an immediate need. In 56 BC Caesar was fighting the Veneti in Gaul. The tribe lived in predominantly coastal locations and their strongholds were virtually impossible to attack by land. A naval assault was the only possibility, so Caesar built a fleet. But the tides made any attack by sea extremely challenging; the situation looked hopeless until Decimus Brutus arrived with a flotilla of vessels from the Mediterranean designed for speed, and much lighter and smaller than the ships of the Veneti. Even so, it was not till the wind died down and the heavy Gaulish ships were left unable to move that Brutus was able to attack them with great success.

Fleet achievements were celebrated, though they were generally peripheral to the army’s success. In the four triumphs he held in Rome after his war in Africa, Caesar celebrated the navy’s contribution. As well as displaying the booty which he later distributed to the soldiers and the citizenry, the various military displays included a naval battle with 1,000 soldiers on each side, and 4,000 oarsmen propelling the vessels.10 Over a century later Vespasian produced coins honouring naval victories, the only emperor ever to do so. Struck in his name and that of his son Titus, they bore the legend VICTORIA NAVALIS, and apparently commemorated a Roman victory in the Sea of Galilee during the Jewish War (see below).


The final showdown between the forces of Antony and Cleopatra and those of Octavian at Actium off the north-west coast of Greece in 31 BC was primarily a naval battle. In fact it was the most decisive naval engagement in Roman history: the victory of Octavian’s fleet, under the command of his general Agrippa, marked the end of the Republic. Plutarch likened the battle, though, to one fought on land. Neither side rammed the other’s ships. Antony’s ships were too heavy and could not build up the speed necessary to allow their bronze prows to pierce Octavian’s ships. He had already deliberately destroyed the weaker ships in the Egyptian fleet and kept only the strongest, distributing 20,000 men and 2,000 archers among them. Antony’s legions included Legio XVII Classica, whose name was derived from the Latin word for a fleet, classis; it must have been formed specifically to provide troops trained to travel and fight on ships.

The conduct of the battle depended on the ability of the crews to row. Antony had chosen ships that had from three to ten banks of oars. Rowing was the only reliable way to control movement in battle; wind was far too unpredictable. The Roman soldiers, accustomed to fighting on land, were singularly unconvinced. A centurion was said to have protested to Antony, ‘General, why do you distrust these wounds and this sword and (instead) put your trust in miserable logs of wood? Let the Egyptians and Phoenicians do their fighting at sea, but give us land on which we are used to standing and either conquer our enemies or die.’ His ships’ captains wanted to leave their sails behind, but Antony optimistically told them they must carry them so that no fugitive from Octavian’s fleet could get away.

Octavian did not want to ram his ships’ prows into those of Antony’s vessels, while a sideways assault would have seen his rams broken off because of the huge heavy timbers used in Antony’s vessels. Instead groups of three to four of Octavian’s ships each attacked one of Antony’s, the soldiers using spears, poles and missiles, while Antony’s defenders fired catapults from towers. Then, when Agrippa on Octavian’s left moved to encircle Antony’s fleet, 60 of Cleopatra’s ships took advantage of a favourable wind and made their escape. When Antony saw Cleopatra leaving, he followed her in a galley and abandoned the battle. Despite that, his fleet – largely unaware that their commander had left – held out for another ten hours, losing only 5,000 men before they gave up and handed over 300 ships to Octavian, followed soon after by Antony’s land army.

Just how dangerous it could be to rely on ships was highlighted that winter when Octavian faced a mutiny among troops he had sent to Brindisi in Italy while he wintered in Samos. Forced to sail back as a matter of urgency, on the voyage his fleet was struck by storms; some of the ships were sunk and his own vessel lost part of its rigging and had its rudder broken. Luckily he survived to suppress the rebellion; only then could he sail to Egypt to chase down Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian had already survived a shipwreck as a young man, and lost two fleets to storms in the Sicilian war against Sextus Pompey before managing to defeat him in the end. Had his ship been sunk this time, the entire course of western European history would have been altered.

Octavian later erected a monument at Actia Nicopolis (‘the city of victory at Actium’), overlooking the maritime setting of Actium where he had camped before the battle. It was constructed as a sanctuary dedicated to Neptune, Mars and Apollo, and embellished with at least 23 prows (possibly originally as many as 35) of captured galleys fitted to sockets on the front of the wall of the monument. Since as Augustus he later claimed to have seized 300 ships, a number which probably omitted smaller vessels, each prow may represent ten of the seized vessels. Above the prows a monumental inscription with his titles for 29 BC declared that:

Imperator (‘the General’) Caesar, son of the deified Julius, after the victory which he waged on behalf of the Republic in this region, when consul for the fifth time and declared imperator for the seventh, after peace had been secured at land and sea, consecrated to Neptune and Mars the camp from which he set forth to attack the enemy, now decorated with naval spoils.


Under Octavian – now Augustus – and the later emperors, the Roman navy consisted of a number of fleets berthed at key locations around the imperial coastline. A rough estimate of the numbers of men involved in the late second century AD is 30,000, the equivalent of about six legions. The two most important fleets were the Classis Misenensis and the Classis Ravennatis, based respectively at Misenum and Ravenna in Italy. Others dotted around the Roman world were probably both smaller and perhaps only made up to full strength when needed. They included those based in Britain (Classis Britannica) with a main fort at Dover, on the Rhine and the North Sea coast (Classis Germanica) and in Egypt (Classis Augusta Alexandrina). A number of others, such as the Classis Pontica in the Black Sea, are also known to have existed.

Each fleet was commanded by an equestrian prefect under the emperors. Marcus Mindius Marcellus is one of the earliest known and was a praefectus classis under Octavian some time between c. 36 and 27 BC, recorded on an inscription found at Velitrae, a few miles southeast of Rome Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder), in command of the Classis Misenensis in 79, took ships across the Bay of Naples to rescue people escaping the devastating effects of the eruption of Vesuvius. Famously, he lost his life to the toxic fumes on a beach while investigating the effects of the disaster. Lucius Aufidius Pantera was prefect of the Classis Britannica in the late 130s. Appropriately enough he erected an altar to Neptune at another fort used by the fleet, Lympne in Kent. An unnamed fleet prefect rescued Caracalla after he was shipwrecked en route from Thrace to Asia and had to climb into a skiff. The fleet concerned is unknown but the prefect was said to have been on board a trireme, presumably his flagship. Tiberius Claudius Albinus was a nauarchus, ‘captain of the squadron’, in the fleet, and second in the chain of seniority after a prefect. An individual ship (trireme or quinquereme) was commanded by a trierarchos, who presided over a crew that included a proreta in charge of the oarsmen, a gubernator (helmsman; our word ‘governor’ comes from the Latin) and a medicus, as well as centurions, the oarsmen themselves and marines.

One of the most memorable fleet prefects was Quintus Marcius Hermogenes, commander of the Classis Augusta Alexandrina in the year 134 during the reign of Hadrian. He had time to head up the river Nile to explore the celebrated sights, as Hadrian himself had done four years earlier. Hermogenes crossed the Nile at Thebes (Luxor) and headed towards the famous Colossi of Memnon, which stood in front of what had once been the mud-brick mortuary temple of the Egyptian Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III (c. 1388–1349 BC). One of the statues had a natural fault in the stone. As the rising sun warmed the monolith each morning, it emitted a groaning noise. Visiting the statues and hearing the sound was considered to be a prime tourist attraction in antiquity. Hermogenes was lucky. ‘At half past the first hour Quintus Marcius Hermogenes heard the Memnon’, he proudly recorded in a third-person Latin graffito which he inscribed on the statue’s lower leg, adding to a wealth of other Latin and Greek inscriptions still visible today. He was in the nick of time. Within a few years an earthquake had toppled the statue. The enterprising Romans re-erected it, but the necessary repairs to the statue meant it never made the sound again.

The prefecture of a fleet could be one of the highest posts attainable in an equestrian’s military career. Gaius Vibius Quartus started out as an ordinary soldier in Legio V Macedonica. From there he progressed to the rank of decurion in the Ala Scubulorum, prefect of the Cohors Cyrenaica, tribune of Legio II Augusta (in Britain) and prefect of Ala Gallorum, before becoming prefect of the Classis Augusta Alexandrina. He appears to have had no experience whatsoever of naval affairs prior to his appointment to the fleet. Just as in the army, professional expertise does not seem to have been an essential component of a fleet officer’s skill set. Tiberius Julius Xanthus, who lived to the remarkable age of ninety before dying in Rome, had two claims to fame. One was that he was the subpraefectus, possibly a deputy to the prefect, of the Classis Alexandrina at some time during his career. His tombstone, set up by his wife Atellia Prisca, also proudly recorded his role as a tractatorus of the emperors Tiberius and Claudius. The principal meaning of tractatorus at the time was ‘masseur’, but the word also came to have other meanings such as ‘inspector’ or ‘accountant of finances’, because the root word tractatio meant the handling or management of almost anything. None of Xanthus’ roles have an obvious nautical connection; the subprefecture seems to have been the only such position he ever held.

Misenum’s strategic value was clear, and when Augustus reorganized the armed forces of Rome, he chose the spot and its bay to build an excellent harbor.

Misenum was the largest base, Portus Julius, of the Roman navy, since it was the base of the Classis Misenensis, the most important Roman fleet. It was first established as a naval base in 27 BC by Marcus Agrippa, the right-hand man of the emperor Augustus.


Fleet bases are not well known: either coastal erosion has destroyed them or their utility as harbours means they are now buried under modern ports. The Classis Britannica in Britain had a fort at Dover, fragments of which lie under the present-day port town. Built under Hadrian, Dover covered 2.5 acres (1 ha) and seems to have been broadly similar to an auxiliary cohort’s fort, but with accommodation for as many as 600–700 men. The fort had easy access to the harbour and evidently operated in association with a pair of lighthouses (one of which still stands), guiding ships into dock. Excavations on the site suggested several periods of occupation, punctuated by years of disuse, presumably reflecting times when the fleet was stationed elsewhere.

Across the Channel the fleet’s main base was at Boulogne. Given the importance of London as a port, the presence of the governor and his garrison, it seems highly likely that the Classis Britannica had moorings there. It may even have been responsible for building some of the huge timber wharfs that have been found. The Classis Germanica was based at Alteburg, 2 miles (3 km) south of Cologne on the Rhine, in a much larger fort (17 acres, 7 ha). In the third century the Classis Britannica probably used the new coastal forts of the Saxon Shore in Britain and Gaul, such as Reculver, Richborough and Portchester which were built to help in the campaign to fend off coastal raiders from northern Europe. The usurper Carausius (286–93), who used his command of the Classis Britannica to seize power in Britain and northern Gaul, may have played a role in commissioning additions to the series of forts. Their remains are the most prominent relics of fleet bases anywhere in the Empire.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.