“Roman quinqueremes and Lembos biremes, 3rd to 2nd Century BC”

“Roman Triremes and Quadriremes, 2nd Century BC”



The fleets and their soldiers fought in wars, transported troops and goods, provided manpower for building military installations, and operated mines. The Roman Empire had spread so far by the mid-first century AD that seaborne military power was extremely important, especially for protecting the grain supply to Rome, the frontiers on the Rhine and Danube, and the coasts of Britain and Gaul. In 52 Claudius decided that the crews should be entitled to the same legal privileges as other veterans, and he issued a decree accordingly Fleet troops had however to serve longer than other soldiers at 26 years, rising to 28 under Septimius Severus, and were probably paid less too. Whether the marines were treated the same as the crews, or were on equal terms with auxiliaries, remains a mystery.

The Classis Germanica is the only fleet for which any data about its size is known. During the Civil War in 69 it had 24 ships and all of them joined the revolt of the Batavian tribal leader Civilis. That makes it likely many of the crewmen had been recruited in the region, probably because of their knowledge of local waterways. Few of the Classis Britannica’s naval activities are known, unlike its land-based duties. In 70 it was poised to support Legio XIIII Gemina in the war against Civilis by raiding the Batavian homelands. In the event it was badly damaged by the Cannenfates, allies of Civilis, who destroyed most of it. An inscription from Hadrian’s Wall records the fleet’s construction of a granary at the fort of Benwell between 122 and 126, during the period in which the first forts were being built along the new frontier. The fleet detachment was being used to perform a routine military construction task, reflecting the way fleet troops were so often used as any other detachment of the army might have been.

An incomplete inscription concerning the Classis Britannica at the Beauport Park fleet bath-house in Sussex records a man called Bassianus who may have been an architectus; a small trace of the word possibly survives. The iron-smelting activities of the Classis Britannica are almost entirely attested from the discovery of stamped tiles at installations found in southern England close to sources of iron ore. The Beauport Park bath-house, which operated between c. 120 and 250, was buried by the collapse of a slag heap created by the smelting, which used vast quantities of charcoal obtained from the forests in the region. When the building was excavated, remains of almost the entire roof were found in and around the ruins. Although many tiles were smashed, a considerable number were not. This made it possible to calculate that the baths, covering 1,227 sq ft (114 sq m), had required a minimum of 5.7 tons (5,170 kg) of roof tiles, in addition to 7.1 tons (6,440 kg) of tiles of other sorts or indeterminate fragments.35 The survival on a large floor tile of the impression of a tile comb, used to create a key for plaster on flue tiles, and bearing the CLBR mark of the fleet, shows that the tiles were made at a dedicated fleet works depot probably nearby

The fleet’s involvement is easy to explain. Although today the Roman iron-working sites of south-east Britain are landlocked, in antiquity much of the area concerned could be reached by navigable inlets that stretched inland. The fleet ships were therefore able to transport out the iron pigs so that they could be carried to military sites in Britain and on the Continent where they were needed.

Other fleet vexillations turn up in a variety of places. A detachment of Saxons serving with the Classis Germanica worked in the quarries at Bröhl near Bonn, where the men set up a dedication to Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Hercules under Rufrus Calenus, the trierarchos. This is particularly interesting because the context appears so incongruous for a sea captain, who might well have been surprised to find himself overseeing his men’s efforts in a quarry rather than sailing on the Rhine.

Men from the Classis Misenensis were put to work on the awnings which covered the audience at the Colosseum. The reason was probably their expertise in handling ropes and sails. A number of tombstones found in Rome of fleet soldiers probably belonged to those allocated to these and other official duties in the city. Titus Amydus Severus was one of them. He came from the Black Sea region, and served in the Misenum fleet on the roster of the trireme Concordia. He died at Rome aged twenty-five some time between the late first century and the end of the second.

Detachments were also stationed at various locations on the Italian coast, such as Ostia and Puteoli. This information comes from a strangely amusing story in Suetonius’ life of Vespasian. Suetonius calls the naval troops classiarii (‘men of the fleet’), a word normally translated now as marines, though on their tombstones and other inscriptions they are usually called milites, ‘soldiers’. The classiarii were annoyed at the cost of boots so the detachments at Ostia and Puteoli, the main ports serving Rome, went to Rome to see Vespasian and ask for a special allowance. They had not reckoned with Vespasian’s legendary meanness and wit. He told them to march barefoot in future, and so they did. The anecdote also suggests that the marines spent most of their lives with their feet firmly on dry land.

The ordinary soldiers of the fleet were allocated to centuries as legionaries and auxiliary infantry were but in their case centuria meant a ship’s company. Like other auxiliaries, they shared the privilege that on retirement any existing children were enfranchised at the same time as their fathers. The records of the ordinary classiarii of the fleet show that they could come from far and wide. Some of the tombstones found in Rome of Misenum fleet men show that they came from places as far apart as Cappadocia, Syria, Dalmatia, and Greece. Egypt was another major source of fleet recruits, like Apion (Antonius Maximus), the enthusiastic recruit of the Classis Misenensis and Apollinarius. Fleet names were geographic descriptors of where they were stationed and not ‘ethnic’ labels in the manner of auxiliary units. Aemilius, son of Saenius, for example, was a Briton from the Exeter area, but he served as a soldier in the Classis Germanica under a captain called Euhodus (a Greek name) and died at Cologne. Another Briton called Veluotigernus, son of Magiotigernus, was honourably discharged as a veteran from the Classis Germanica, then under the command of the prefect Marcus Ulpius Ulpianus, on 19 November 150, along with veterans from auxiliary cavalry and infantry units in Germania Inferior. His discharge diploma was found in Britain near the northern fort of Lanchester in County Durham, where he had perhaps retired and which might have been where he came from. He had enlisted in 124, around the time Britain’s nearby northern frontier was being dramatically modified with the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. He and his father’s native British names both end ‘-tigernus’, which means ‘king’ or ‘master’. Magiotigernus meant something like ‘great master’, but the meaning of the Veluo-component of the veteran’s name is unknown. On discharge Veluotigernus would have been Latinized into Titus Aelius Velvuotigernus (sic), taking the emperor Antoninus Pius’ forenames as he became a Roman citizen.

Surviving inscriptions record members of the fleets who, unlike other Roman troops, were sometimes inclined to mention both their Roman and their original names, with the formula qui et (‘and who [were also named]’). Gaius Julius Victor was a soldier with the Classis Misenensis. He died at Misenum aged thirty, having served ten years but his tombstone adds that he was also known as ‘Sola, son of Dinus’. Lucius Antonius Leo, a Cilician who served with the same fleet, having signed up at nineteen and dying at twenty-seven, had been known as ‘Neon, son of Zoilus’.

The division between the fleets and the regular army units is not clear, if indeed it really existed. Sometimes fleet troops were withdrawn from the navy and used to create a new legion. Soldiers from the Classis Misenensis were used by Nero to create Legio I Adiutrix (‘the Rescuer’). Members of the Classis Ravennatis were used to form Legio II Adiutrix as part of the campaign to end the Revolt of Civilis. Within a year or two II Adiutrix had been moved to Britain, it remained there until 87, when it was sent permanently back to the Continent, ending up at Budapest. The tombstone of Valerius Pudens, a soldier of the legion who died only six years later in Britain, had a trident and a pair of dolphins carved into it to symbolize the new legion’s origins.

Where appropriate, a legion might include men with sailing skills, apparently independent of the fleets, only serving further to show how blurred the Roman military world was. Minucius Audens was a gubernator, a legionary helmsman, though he is the only such man known. He made an offering to the mother goddesses of Italy, Africa and Gaul at York during his service with Legio VI Victrix, when he perhaps helped deal with the massive influx of men and materials during the Severan campaigns of 208–11. He may have served with a fleet before joining the legion, but on a religious dedication he would not have bothered to mention that. His role is a reminder that the army’s colossal logistical requirements meant transportation of men and materials was an ongoing and essential part of its duties.

Fleet personnel were sometimes involved in major historical events. Anicetus, prefect of the Misenum fleet in 59, was one of Nero’s freedmen and loyal stooges. He agreed to murder Nero’s mother Agrippina the Younger by means of a specially designed collapsing boat in the Bay of Naples near the fleet base. Indeed, the scheme was his idea. But it went disastrously wrong. Agrippina survived and had shortly afterwards to be murdered on land by Anicetus and a soldier from the fleet.

It seems the navy was no less likely to be used for the emperor’s personal purposes than the Praetorian Guard. In 69, during the Civil War, a dishonest centurion called Claudius Faventinus had a grievance. Having been cashiered by Galba, who had been toppled and murdered, Faventinus decided to do what he could to damage Vitellius, who was challenging Galba’s successor Otho. He forged a letter, purportedly from Vespasian, offering the men of the Classis Misenensis a reward if they went over to him and abandoned Vitellius. The prefect of the fleet, Claudius Apollinaris, was not a man of reliable loyalty so he was easily bought. The upshot was that the cities of Puteoli and Capua decided to take sides too. Puteoli went over to Vespasian. Capua supported Vitellius and appointed Claudius Julianus, a former prefect of the Classis Misenensis, to lead some city troops and gladiators on their behalf. Julianus promptly changed sides and joined Vespasian. Faventinus’ scheme had worked, and the fleet’s actions helped hasten Vitellius’ downfall.


Ships of the fleets during imperial times are virtually unknown, either from sources or physical remains. There are however various references to quinqueremes, triremes, transports and even rafts. Some individual vessels are named. As we know, the Egyptian recruit Apion (Antonius Maximus) apparently joined the ship’s company of the Athenonica at Misenum. Titus Memmius Montanus, a soldier of the Classis Ravennatis, served on the quinquereme Augustus in the year 150. Tombstones of fleet soldiers in Rome give a variety of ship names drawn from the names of deities and also the personifications of virtues such as Hercules, Apollinus, Minerva, Fortuna, Pollux and Fides. One was called Isis, an appropriate echo of the Egyptian homeland of many of the recruits, served in by a Cilician called Gaius Mucius Valens. A small bronze model found in London of a warship’s prow with the inscription AMMILLA AVG FELIX probably names one of the Classis Britannica vessels, Ammilla Augusta. A coin of the usurper Carausius, known from only one example, depicts a galley and the legend PACATRIX AV(G) (‘Peacemaker? of the Emperor’), perhaps his flagship.

It would be a mistake to imagine that fleets consisted exclusively of warships with multiple banks of oars and battering rams. The liburna was a light warship, designed for speed. Some of the Misenum fleet soldiers who died in Rome came from their crews. Marcus Ulpius Maximus was a Thracian who served on the liburna Armata (‘The Armoured’). He died at forty-seven, after 28 years’ service.

The fleets also included transports. The Classis Misenensis might have possessed a raft (ratis) called the Minerva, though this relies on an uncertain reading of the tombstone, found in Sardinia, of the infant son of Valerius Frontus who was a soldier with the fleet; Minerva might be the name of a vessel, but it is an odd item to include on a child’s memorial. ‘Heavily manned’ rafts were used with great success by Vespasian in a small naval engagement on Lake Gennesaret during the Jewish War and indeed seem to have been the main vessels used to defeat the enemy boats and, apparently, kill the entire Jewish force. In the winter of 214–15 Caracalla was preparing for war against Armenia and Parthia. He ordered the construction of ‘two large engines’ (siege or artillery machinery) to be used in the fighting. They were specifically designed to be taken to pieces so that they could be more easily carried to Syria by his naval transports.

If a fleet was ever short of real ships there was always the possibility of pretending there were more. In the early second century BC Cato the Elder arrived with his fleet at Ambracia, a city at the time a member of the Aetolian League which was at war with Rome. Since his fleet had been blockaded by the Aetolians, Cato had arrived with only the ship he was sailing in. He resorted to making audible and visual signals as if the rest of the fleet was nearby and was now being summoned to follow him, and that his troops were on hand too. The Aetolians were fooled and called off the blockade out of fear that the Roman fleet was on the point of annihilating them.


In AD 15 Germanicus, during his campaign in Germany, ordered the II and XIIII legions to make a journey by land so that the fleet ships would be less heavily loaded and better able to negotiate the shallows. All went well until a storm flooded the land where the legionaries were, the water carrying off baggage animals and the soldiers’ packs and causing havoc with the marching formations. Eventually the surviving men caught up with the fleet and were taken on board.

No doubt this prompted Germanicus to avoid a repeat performance the following year. But instead of keeping his men safe, a spectacular storm hit Germanicus’ huge fleet when he set out at the end of his campaign. With the intention of returning the majority of the legions to their winter quarters by ship, the fleet sailed out to the North Sea down the river Ems. But soon hail wiped out any visibility and was accompanied by a dangerous swell that prevented the steersmen from maintaining course. This terrified the legionaries on the ships; as ordinary soldiers, most of them had no idea what was going on or how to react. They obstructed the sailors by panicking or made inappropriate attempts to help. As if that was not bad enough, a severe gale blew the ships in all directions.

The crews were left desperately trying to avoid being washed up onto rocks, but all their efforts came to nothing when the tide turned and joined in with the wind. Desperate conditions meant desperate measures, so the men started throwing cavalry horses, pack animals, equipment and weapons overboard. Their efforts were futile. Some of the ships sank when the sea overcame them. Others were blown onto the shores of islands around the North Sea, where the soldiers starved unless they were lucky enough to find the rotting bodies of their horses washed up there too. Though the crew of Germanicus’ trireme managed to bring the ship safely to shore on the German coast, his sense of devastation and disaster was so great that he contemplated suicide.

When the storm finally subsided the surviving ships managed to regroup, some of their crews having to use their clothing as sails. The ships were patched up and sent out again to find as many of the lost soldiers as possible. The coastal German Agrivarii tribe only gave up marooned soldiers when a ransom was paid, although tribal chieftains in Britain handed over any men who had been washed up there. Yet the terrible storm paid a form of dividend. The men who lived and were found came back with extraordinary tales to tell in the grand tradition of mariners of all ages. No doubt inspired by the adventures of Odysseus, Aeneas and the Argonauts that they had read or been told about as boys, they insisted they had seen whirlwinds, unknown varieties of birds, monsters from the deep, and fantastic beasts who might have been men or animals or both.

It was not the first time Roman forces told tales of terrible creatures. In 256 BC Atilius Regulus had won the naval battle at Cape Ecnomus in the First Punic War before invading Africa. The following year his army was confronted at the mouth of the river Bagrada by a giant snake 120 ft (36 m) long. The animal seized soldiers with its mouth and crushed others with its tail. Spears proved useless. Only bombardment by catapults and with stones finally killed it. The snake’s skin was removed and sent to Rome, while the reek from the decaying body was so repulsive the Roman army camp had to be moved.

The role of naval ships at Actium made that occasion one of the most important and game-changing sea battles of all time. More often the Roman army turned the tide of history on dry land, and frequently in unedifying ways. With their shifting loyalties and willingness to be bought, Roman soldiers were often ready to join mutinies and rebellions that changed the course of history – especially once they discovered that an emperor was only as good as his word, while they were as good as their swords.

Navis lusoria

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