Colonization and Rome’s Early Navy

In this period of political fragmentation amongst the Latins, marked by the rise of more powerful and cohesive polities, we also have some very intriguing developments in the area of colonization. As noted previously, early Roman colonization probably resembled the Greek practice in many ways. This was not because the Italian practice was in any way based on the Hellenistic model. In fact, the Italians had most likely been founding colonies before the Greeks arrived in the early Iron Age. There is a long tradition of Italic tribes, when their population reached a critical amount, splintering off to form new groups and settlements. This was sometimes accomplished with the splinter group sighting and following a particular animal, often a boar or a wolf, until the animal settled down, and then founding the new settlement at that location. This practice was naturally laden with ritual and religious connotations, but was also incredibly practical as the locations where these animals settled down were usually well away from existing populations and contained the basics needed for a small settlement, including food and water. This practice naturally became more formal and sophisticated as time went on, but the basic system of forming new colonies in order to keep a population within the carrying capacity of the land was one with which the Romans and Latins were very familiar. As with Greek colonies, these new settlements usually became entirely independent after they were founded, although they often maintained sentimental links with their mother community, in addition to the very real bonds of kinship and blood. Despite the anachronistic assertions of Rome’s late Republican historians, who viewed all colonization through the lens of ‘empire’, this more independent type of colonization probably typified the Roman practice during the Regal and early Republican periods. As a result, the concept of Roman or Latin colonies during this period is arguably inapplicable. Although possibly founded by Roman or Latin populations, or indeed jointly, the colonies would have effectively become new Latin settlements (based solely on culture and language) once they were founded, and would not have owed any real allegiance to their mother communities. Although there seems to have been a rough sense of Latin identity, there was no such thing as Latin ‘citizenship’ (and even Roman citizenship is problematic), even in the middle of the fifth century BC – ‘Latin Rights’ being likely based on cultural identity and not political affiliation. As a result, early colonization seems to have had the same fluid character as much of the rest of Latin society during this time.

With the advent of the fourth century BC and the rise of more cohesive urban polities, it seems that the community of Rome recognized that the old way of colonizing was no longer in the city’s best interests. The needs which drove colonization in the Archaic period were naturally still there. Rome had to be very careful that her population did not exceed the carrying capacity of the land around the community and indeed it is likely that she was pulling more and more resources from further and further afield in order to feed her growing citizen body. Additionally, the literary sources and archaeology are unanimous in suggesting a growing desire for and exploitation of land by the Romans in the fourth century BC. As already argued, this is one of the reasons behind Rome’s increasing bellicosity during the period, but it is likely that it would also have led to an increased desire to found new colonies – as this represented the traditional, and by far the easiest, mechanism for acquiring new land for poorer citizens. However, colonization would have also served to weaken Rome, taking citizens away from the community and spreading them across new lands, right when she was desperately attempting to increase her manpower reserves. As a result, although Rome founded four new colonies (Satricum, Sutrium, Nepete and Setia) in the 380s BC, she did not create any further colonies for an entire generation. Instead, Rome attempted a number of new ways to deal with this situation, including the creation of municipia, like that at Tusculum, and the increased use of ager publicus. It was only in the final decades of the fourth century BC that Rome returned to colonization as a viable option, when the city founded a series of new colonies along the coast. It is clear from the nature of these new colonies, however, that things had definitely changed during the intervening years. While Rome’s earlier colonies seem to have been independent, and indeed even the late foundation at Satricum (founded in the 380s BC) evidently had to be recaptured in 346 BC, these new colonies were ‘full citizen colonies’ and extensions of Roman military might. The colonists at these new foundations, dubbed coloniae maritimae (maritime colonies), all explicitly retained their Roman citizenship and association. Although limited in size, with only 300 initial colonists, these new foundations were also planned as part of a new, larger military strategy. This can be seen through their grant of sacrosancta vacatio militia, a military exemption supposedly held by all members of the coloniae maritimae which required them to stay on site at the colony but, evidently in recognition of their importance in guarding the coastline, exempted them from normal military obligations and duties. Between 340 and 240 BC, Rome founded ten of these colonies down the west coast of Italy (Ostia, Antium, Tarracina, Minturnae, Sinuessa, Sena Gallica, Castrum Novum, Pyrgi, Alsium and Fregenae) as part of a concerted pattern of expansion aimed at controlling the sea.

Rome’s apparent interest in naval affairs during this period might strike the casual observer as a bit odd. After all, Rome was supposedly a novice in naval combat in the First Punic War (264 to 241 BC), without a ship of her own and entirely reliant on her allies’ navies until stolen Carthaginian naval technology (the fortuitous wreck of a Carthaginian trireme which gave the Romans the plans for their construction) allowed the creation of her own fleet. Or at least that is the traditional narrative. There are some slight discrepancies to this story, however. The creation of the coloniae maritimae clearly signals an increased interest in at least controlling the coast from the late fourth century BC, although this was done from the land in what might be considered a more traditional Roman approach. Linked to this interest, however, was the creation in 311 BC of the duovir navalis, a team of two magistrates tasked with buying or building ships and conducting naval operations. This indicates that, contrary to the generally accepted narrative, Rome did in fact have at least a nascent navy active in the late fourth century BC, almost fifty years before the First Punic War. In fact the sources record that one of these new naval magistrates was active the year after the office’s creation, raiding near the Bay of Naples in 310 BC. So the Romans seem to have had a navy of their own from at least 310 BC, although how this is reconciled with Polybius’ claim that the Romans did not build their own ships until the 260s BC is uncertain. It is possible that the Romans actually purchased their ships in this early period, thus making Polybius technically correct in that they did not build them, or perhaps they utilized the more common, multipurpose ships during this time and did not have custom-built warships until the 260s BC.

The advent of Rome’s navy and the coloniae maritimae not only suggests that Rome’s interests were expanding beyond the confines of Central Italy and towards the Mediterranean more generally, but also an increasing strategic awareness and both the foresight and ability to invest in military infrastructure. The creation of both the coloniae maritimae and a fleet required a form of delayed gratification on the part of the Romans. With regards to the coloniae, despite the Romans’ evident desire to increase their military manpower during the fourth century BC, they granted the colonists sent to these new foundations an official exemption from service – provided that they maintained Rome’s naval security at these new coastal locations. This hints that the Romans recognized that the long-term control of the coast was a benefit which outweighed the short-term boost in manpower which these colonists would have provided. The creation of a fleet represents an even more extreme example of this. Roman warfare was generally a rather inexpensive enterprise; it was primarily about acquiring portable wealth as opposed to spending it. In the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Roman soldiers would supply their own equipment and often their own supplies, with some of this cost being offset by the stipendium collected from the populace. The army would then venture out, acquire wealth via either raiding or conquest in the fourth century BC, and then return home at the end of the campaigning season. The only costs for the community as a whole was therefore the stipendium, which was both limited and irregular. Instead, it was generally assumed that any costs of warfare incurred by the army would be taken out of the spoils of war, and the stipendium was supposed to have been refunded out of these – although how often this actually happened is debated. Indeed, the reason Roman soldiers fought during this period was unlikely to have been from either a sense of protonationalism or duty, or because of the limited stipendium, but rather from the desire for booty and spoils – this was the main motivator. Warfare was therefore something which occurred largely out of the civic sphere. The generals were elected by the community and the soldiers were associated with Rome, either as citizens or allies, and of course there was a stipendium available in case the war was unsuccessful or did not recoup its expenses. But once the army was in the field, it existed as a discrete and separate entity from the urban city of Rome and was generally supposed to earn its own keep. Navies, however, were very different creatures – particularly by the fourth century BC.

The earliest ancient navies, both in Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, seem to have followed roughly the same model as Rome’s early armies. In a time of need, wealthy individuals would lend their ships (and likely their crews) to the community for use in war. Many of these ships, although primarily used for trade, were eminently serviceable as warships as well – as noted before, the difference between an ancient merchant and an ancient pirate was often simply a question of opportunity. So although they were not custom-built for war, they could easily handle a complement of soldiers and were reasonably manoeuvrable and effective fighting platforms. From the seventh and sixth centuries BC, there was an incremental move in the eastern Mediterranean toward more purpose-built warships, most notably triremes (named because of their three banks of oars), although the cost and single function limited their popularity. Although triremes were incredibly effective in military situations, being far faster and more manoeuvrable than the multipurpose ships utilized before, it was hard to convince the wealthy citizens to invest in them. To build, equip, and staff one trireme seems to have cost between 10,000 and 12,000 drachmas, which was a significant outlay. While a multipurpose ship could be used for trade and other activities when the community was not at war, a trireme was suited for no other purpose and had to be carefully maintained (kept out of water in a ship shed) in order to maintain its seaworthiness. These ships were the high-end sports cars of their day – expensive luxury items which were not suited for everyday use. During the fifth century BC, however, the rise of the powerful Greek navies (like that of the Athenians) and the wars against the Persians changed the equation. In conflicts with these types of enemies, the old-fashioned, multipurpose ships were simply outclassed, although they did continue to play a role, and triremes were a ‘must-have’ item if one wanted to compete. As a result, communities like Athens and others around Greece poured immense amounts of state money into their navies – investing heavily in this technology. Moving away from privately-funded initiatives, Greek states built hundreds of triremes and their associated ship sheds, in addition to spending huge amounts on the salaries of rowers – in the case of Athens, effectively creating an entirely new class of citizen. This development turned warfare, or at least naval warfare, into an almost entirely state-based, state-centred activity. This would, eventually, have a knock-on effect on land warfare, which became increasingly mercenary in nature and which ultimately, by the fourth century BC, had also become effectively a state expenditure with the rise of professional and mercenary armies like those of Philip II and Alexander the Great of Macedon. This was the world of naval warfare into which Rome was venturing in the late fourth century BC – a world of highly professional and specialized fleets which required an enormous ‘buy in’ from the state in order to simply participate. Given this situation, it is no surprise that Rome took so long to get involved and, even once the city did, was not completely sold on the idea. The requirements of naval warfare went against many of the basic premises which underpinned Roman warfare to that point.

But in the late fourth century BC, Rome did slowly invest in naval infrastructure. Although the details are hazy to say the least, Rome’s duoviri navalis evidently acquired ships and were active in raids up and down the coast of Italy. So, although it represents an arguably minor and often ignored aspect of Roman warfare, it actually represents a significant turning point in Rome’s approach to war. It suggests that Rome was willing to invest a significant amount of state money, something which was limited given the absence of taxation at this time, in order to buy and maintain ships as part of a larger strategic plan. When this is combined with the contemporary construction of the Via Appia (Appian Way), a military road designed to move Rome’s armies south faster and more effectively, an entirely new phase in Roman warfare seems to have dawned. Gone were the days when warfare was expected to pay for itself, an activity which occurred largely outside of the state’s concern, and instead there existed a mindset where Rome was willing and able to invest state resources in military infrastructure to encourage and allow long-term success. Rome seems to have finally entered an era of truly state-based warfare.



The type of bow most people are familiar with is the “post Corinthian” bow. Previously, triremes had a ‘hollow’ bow. See Connolly’s reconstruction of this type, p.265 “Greece and Rome at War”, and the coin reverses on p.264 giving a good ‘before and after’ idea of the old and modified bows.

What Thucydides says can be translated thus: “They shortened the bows of their ships and strengthened them;they laid out stout ‘epotides’, and fixed stays from the ‘epotides’ to the ships sides both inside and out” (the ‘epotides’ lit: “ears” were the transverse beams across the hull supporting the ‘paraxereisia’ = outrigger that supported the upper bank of oars, sometimes in English called ‘catsheads’).

The Greek word for ‘fixed’ is the same derivative as the English term ‘hypotenuse’. The stays thus formed a “Y” support to each of the the “T” shapes formed by the ‘epotides’ running at 90 degrees to the ship’s sides. This strengthened ‘epotides’ meant that the opponent’s epotides and paraxereisia would be smashed in a near head-on collision, allowing the scraping off of the opponent’s oar-banks…….

Although the repulse of the Persians in the Aegean did not end hostilities, it provided the catalyst that elevated Greek culture and society to unprecedented heights, creating the Golden Age of Athens. Supported by a vast commercial system and a most formidable navy which commanded the Aegean and adjacent waters, Athens from the early fifth to the mid-fourth centuries became the focus of urban Western thalassocratic activities, a magnet which attracted learned and ambitious Greeks from everywhere. A partial list of thinkers and artists who reflected this dynamic society (from the sixth century) is stunning in its brilliance: in poetry Pindar, in painting Polygnotus, in drama Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, in history Herodotus and Thucydides, in rhetoric Isocrates, in philosophy and physics Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Zeno, Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Protagoras, Plato, Democritus, and such later universal characters as Xenophon and Aristotle. Like the high Minoan civilization before it, however, the Athenian maritime-centered state of the Aegean rested not on political tranquility but on perpetual tension-first from the continuing external threat of Persia, then that of Sparta and from the directly related internal divisiveness of the peoples and states made subject to the fifth-century Athenian Empire. Although the endless wars of these times would sap the wealth and power of Athens, its intellectual vigor would eventually conquer and Hellenize the entire Western world.

Formed as a voluntary anti-Persian defensive and offensive alliance in 478, the Delian League of Ionian islands and coastal cities followed Athenian leadership in the spirit of Marathon and Salamis to rid the Aegean of the Persians and Phoenicians altogether. From the beginning, however, Spartan refusal to join and Athenian demands for Panhellenic cooperation and tribute brought resentment and revolts by several city-states that had to be coerced back into the alliance. In that very summer of 478 the Greeks improved their strategic position by sending naval expeditions to support a successful revolt against Persian rule over the island of Cyprus and to seize Byzantium, which commanded the approaches to the Black Sea, thus restoring the grain route thence. Two years later another force captured Eion in Thrace, ending Persian influence there and convincing nearby islands to submit to Athenian rule. But other cities, especially Naxos and Thasos, resisted or seceded and over the next ten years were forced to submit, losing their autonomy as a penalty. Under the leadership of Themistocles, until his dismissal for overambitious tendencies, Athens annually added 10 to 20 new triremes to its 200-vessel war fleet and depended upon naval vessels also from several major subject allies. Utilizing a new and stronger type trireme that could carry more troops, the Athenian admiral Cimon crossed the Aegean with 200 triremes in 466, crushed and destroyed the Persian fleet of equal size at the Eurymedon River in southern Asia Minor, then turned to destroy a reinforcing squadron off Hydrus.

The back of Persian sea power thus shattered and the Empire in chaos since the death of Xerxes in 465, Athens in 460 mounted a naval offensive throughout the Eastern Mediterranean which brought on the consternation of the League members who felt Athens had exceeded the original intent of the alliance. Powerful Aegina and Corinth, encouraged and occasionally assisted by both Persia and Sparta, revolted in 459, so that Athens had to fight a two-front war-in the Aegean and in the Eastern Mediterranean. With consummate skill, Athenian vessels crushed the Aeginetan fleet and took 70 vessels in a naval battle in 458 and raided the Peloponnesus; ground forces battled the Spartans and Corinthians and conquered Boeotia; and a League fleet cruised to Egypt via Cyprus to assist the Egyptian revolt against Persia. Moving up the Nile, the Greeks brushed aside a Persian squadron and took Memphis, only to be defeated during a Persian counteroffensive in 455-454. This reverse ended Greek aspirations in the Eastern Mediterranean and encouraged more Ionian revolts, which the Athenians suppressed in the late 450s. In 451 Cimon used his 200 triremes again to attack the delta of the Nile and then to destroy a major Persian fleet of Phoenicians and Cilicians at the beach of Salamis in Cyprus, though Cimon died during the campaign. By the end of the year Athens, able to conclude favorable peace treaties with Persia and Sparta, stood at the pinnacle of her power.

The end of the hostilities with Persia heralded an acceleration of Athenian culture and overseas trade and the institution of a Pax Atheniana over the Aegean and Black seas-the greatest stability over these waters since the days of Minos. The architect of this period of Athenian Empire was Pericles, an experienced naval commander who directed Athenian naval-maritime policies and codified them in Athenian laws and the Constitution of 432. At the heart of Periclean strategy lay the notion of command of the sea over real and potential rivals: Phoenician and Greek pirates, restless subject states like Samos, and the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League. Extending the walls of Athens to include the port of Piraeus, Pericles garrisoned troops in the overseas possessions and drew upon a great fleet of 300 triremes (plus another 100 in reserve) to police Athenian trade routes, keeping a permanent squadron of 60 ships at sea on maneuvers eight months out of every year. Continuing strife and reverses in mainland Boeotia, fed by Spartan intervention, convinced Pericles to abandon any continental pretensions in 446 and to rely totally on Athens’ insular position-the final cornerstone in his logical maritime strategy.

A long-term peace treaty between Athens and Sparta in 445 proved illusory, though, for as Pericles put down several revolts within the empire he alarmed the Spartans. In 440-439, for instance, Samos revolted and received some aid from Persia, only to be crushed in an eight-month blockade and siege by Pericles and his reinforced fleet of 160 triremes of Athens and another 55 from Chios and Lesbos. As penalties, Samos lost her autonomy and navy altogether. Then, in 435, war broke out on the Adriatic coast-Corinth of the Peloponnesian League and Epidamnus (later Dyrrachium, modern Durazzo) against Corcyra (Corfu)- during which, the next year, the Corcyran fleet destroyed or captured 75 Corinthian triremes in a naval battle off Actium, then blockaded and captured Epidamnus. Angered by this reverse, Corinth created a 150-trireme fleet of new and allied Peloponnesian vessels, whereupon Athens gave support-10 triremes-to Corcyra. In the naval battle off the Sybota Islands in 433 Corinth claimed 60 Corcyran ships, but was checked from finishing the job by the Athenian intervention.

Athens’ brief war against a Spartan ally, Corinth, now precipitated the general Peloponnesian War in 431 between the two major powers of the Greek world-already mutually suspicious competitors. For ten years Athens pitted her maritime strategy against the armies of continental Sparta. Aided by allied vessels from Chios and Lesbos, the Athenians used their navy to blockade and raid the Peloponnesus, the Ionian coast of Asia Minor and the Gulf of Corinth, while Spartan and Boeotian armies ravaged the Attican countryside, leading to a strategic stalemate. When, in 429, a Corinthian-Spartan fleet of 47 and then 77 triremes attempted to wrest command of the Gulf of Corinth from an Athenian squadron of 20 galleys under Phormio, he routed it in two successive engagements at Chalcis and Naupactus (Lepanto). However, the cramped conditions of insular, walled-in Athens gave rise to a disastrous plague which claimed the life of the brilliant Pericles in 429. His successors, notably Cleon and Demosthenes, continued his strategy by suppressing revolts in Lesbos and Corcyra in 427, but began to overextend Athenian energies by carrying the war overland into Boeotia and overseas into Sicily.

Then, in 425, Demosthenes brought the war home to Sparta by taking the coastal city of Pylos and offshore Sphacteria by amphibious operations, capturing a Spartan fleet in the process. Athenian warships also occupied the island of Kythera to further strangle Peloponnesian overseas communications, and the theater of active fighting shifted northward to mainland Boeotia and Thrace, where the Spartans tried to cut the Athenian grain routes to the Black Sea. Refusing to make peace following the success at Pylos, Athens suffered sufficiently in the north-where Cleon met his death-to accept a settlement in 421.

But Athens had become so aggressive, particularly under the new leadership of Alcibiades, that cold war ensued throughout the Aegean and finally grew into a full-blown world war. While Sparta crushed a revolt by Argos and other cities, Alcibiades used 30 triremes to virtually annihilate the small island state of Melos in 416 and then to extend the Athenian Empire west to Sicily. Little had happened there until 415 when the cities of Segesta and Leontini appealed to Athens for help against Syracuse, ally of Corinth. The next year Alcibiades and Nicias led a fleet of 136 galleys to Catana, Sicily, followed later by reinforcements under Demosthenes. Alcibiades fled his political enemies by defecting to Sparta, which now rallied to the side of Syracuse and again declared open war on Athens.

An Athenian blockade of Syracuse was broken by a skirmish with a Spartan Corinthian squadron in 413, thus opening maritime communications between Syracuse, Sparta and Corinth. Athens tried to disrupt these connections by stationing a 33-ship squadron off the Gulf of Corinth, only to have it ravaged by 25 Corinthian triremes equipped with a new, reinforced prow for bows-on ramming. Then the Syracusans blocked the 115 Athenian triremes returning to the blockade in the harbor of Syracuse by sinking several hulks at the harbor entrance. There, after several skirmishes, on September 9, 74 Syracusan triremes – all reinforced with the new Corinthian prow-pressed in on the cautious Nicias and aggressive Demosthenes. In cramped waters that prevented the use of their diekplous and periplous maneuvers, the Athenian fleet was roundly defeated, losing 50 triremes sunk to 30 of Syracuse. Trapped, the Athenians scuttled their surviving craft and attempted to escape overland, only to be pursued and captured, Nicias and Demosthenes being executed. Still, the loss of 200 triremes did not deter Athens from raising another fleet and conniving successfully to get Alcibiades back from Sparta to command it. More colonies revolted, Persia intervened on the side of Sparta, and long-quiescent Carthage became involved in the Sicilian theater. The Peloponnesian War had become general.

Because of the remarkable Athenian ability to recover from the disaster in Syracuse and retain command of the Aegean, the issue would have to be settled at sea-for which non-maritime Sparta only slowly and with great difficulty prepared itself. A general Ionian revolt against Athens in 412 resulted from the news from Syracuse, but under the inspired political and naval leadership of Alcibiades between 411 and 407 Athens so isolated rebellious Lesbos, Chios, Thasos and Euboea by his naval and amphibious victories that pro-Athenian parties managed to return to power throughout the Aegean, with Samos being restored as the staunchest of Athenian allies and main naval base in the eastern Aegean. Sparta developed a fleet to cut Athenian supply routes to the Black Sea, but its various inexperienced commanders suffered disastrous defeats at the hands of Alcibiades, in 411 at Cynossema and Abydos and in 410 at Cyzicus, where the main Spartan fleet was wiped out. Alcibiades restored Athenian control over the Hellespont, only to be removed from command by his political enemies in 407.

Sparta built another fleet of 170 triremes, a contingent of which under Lysander won a small engagement at Notium in Asia Minor, and then moved against Lesbos under Callicratidas. This fleet trapped 70 Athenian triremes under Conon in the roadstead of Mytilene, only to be attacked and defeated by a relieving force of 150 triremes from Athens off Arginusae which sank or took 70 ships and killed Callicratidas. By now, the Athenian thalassocracy had degenerated into a military despotism which executed six admirals, allegedly for their poor performance at the battle. By contrast, Sparta placed its fortunes in the hands of Lysander, who cemented relations with Persia and took the offensive at sea with yet another fleet. The Athenian fleet of 180 ships under Conon moved to Aegospotami near the Hellespont to guard the supply route and in 405 was there surprised at anchor and on the beach by Lysander, whose fleet made quick work of the helpless Athenians, destroying some 170 triremes. With Athenian lifelines to the Black Sea now severed and the fleet destroyed, all Aegean cities submitted to Spartan sea power, and Lysander commenced a land-sea siege of Athens itself. In April 404 Athens surrendered.

As long as Athens had followed Themistocles and Pericles in their maritime strategy aimed at commanding only the sea, she had prospered, but Athenian commitments on the mainland and abroad in Sicily had dangerously overextended her resources and irreparably undermined the thalassocracy. With the demise of Athens, maritime stability collapsed in the Aegean, and the victor states hastened to improve their fortunes.

Roman Imperial fleets I



Drawing by Graham Sumner What you see is the Roman naval base at Velsen, just west of Amsterdam, which was in use during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. It is almost certainly identical to the fort named Flevum mentioned by Tacitus.

At the conclusion of the civil wars in 30 BC, Octavian had acquired fleets of his own and of his former enemies, totalling nearly 700 warships of all types, far more than could be afforded or, in the total absence of any opposition, would be needed. With the start of the Imperial period the whole concept of fleet organisation changed in parallel with the change in its role for the future. Having become a Roman lake, the Mediterranean and, increasingly, the Black Sea, had to be consolidated and policed. To do this, Octavian (now Augustus) and Agrippa established permanent, separate fleets, each with its own identity, commander, headquarters home base and defined area of responsibility. The system was to be formed around two main classes or fleets, based in Italy, with subsidiary fleets at strategic points around the Empire.

The first was the Classis Misenensis, based at Misenum at the northern tip of the Bay of Naples. Established by 22 BC, this was to be and remain the senior fleet of the navy and was ranked as praetorian, i.e. part of the emperor’s personal guard. The fleet’s area of operations was the entire western Mediterranean basin, but it could also (and did) project its power into the Atlantic and established a subsidiary squadron on the Mauretanian (Algerian) coast. This fleet was maintained at a strength in ships and men much greater than was strictly needed to perform its duties. As the senior fleet of the empire, it covered the western Italian coast and transported emperors, members of the imperial family and other notables; it also, importantly, acted as a training centre and a reserve of trained personnel for all branches of the service. These men could be and were sent to supplement other forces throughout the empire and even to provide the manpower for the foundation of other fleets. As an example, men from the Misene fleet were sent to establish the Classis Britannica in AD 43.

The Misene fleet remained the principal and strongest of the empire’s fleets almost to the end of the Western Empire. It was close enough to be able to be directed from Rome, as relay riders could deliver despatches between Rome and Misenum in one day. It was ideally positioned to be able to project its power across any part of the western Mediterranean basin, as well as to screen the ports of western Italy and the ends of the trade routes to the capital itself. The fleet had local facilities at various other ports and naval stations, for example at Cagliari (Carales), Civitavecchia (Centumcellae) and Aleria in Corsica. Ships were sent further afield from time to time, either for a particular mission or as a temporary detachment, inscriptions of members of the fleet having been found, for example, in Syria and Piraeus. There was a permanent detachment at Ostia and Portus, (when built); another was stationed at Rome, initially quartered in the praetorian barracks, but from the Flavians (later first century AD) until at least the mid-third century AD in their own permanent barracks in the city. There, one of their duties was to attend to the awnings that gave shade to the Colosseum.

The size of this fleet, and indeed that of all of the fleets, is unknown. The names of many ships of the fleet appear on grave stelae and votive altars and Nero was able to enrol a legion (approximately 4,500 men) from among the marines of this fleet in AD 68, later named I Adiutrix by his successor, Galba. At this time, it has been estimated, the fleet had over 10,000 sailors (whether this included marines is not said); at an average of 200 men to crew a trireme, this would indicate a fleet of about fifty ships. This is, of course, a very crude way of estimating numbers when considering a period of several centuries and a variety of ship types, each with differing crew numbers. Nevertheless, the base itself was the size of a town and the fleet establishment was many thousands of men deploying dozens and dozens of ships for most of its existence.

The second of the Italian fleets was the Classis Ravennate, established in about 23 BC at a new base built a short way south of the city of Ravenna, at the upper end of the Adriatic Sea. Slightly smaller than the Misene fleet, it was also rated as praetorian and had as its area of responsibility the Adriatic and Ionian Seas and, being adjacent to the mouth of the River Po (Padus), the navigation of that river system. This enabled the fleet to be a part of the protection of Italy north of the Apennines. The fleet could and did also operate around the Peloponnese and into the eastern Mediterranean.

Like the Misene fleet, a detachment from this fleet was stationed in Rome, again with their own quarters. The fleet’s harbour was one of the best on the Italian Adriatic coast, which has few natural harbours and the location also linked with the northern end of the Via Flaminia, a direct link to Rome. From their location, the fleet could provide rapid connections and communications with the north end of the Adriatic (through the port of Aquileia), to the eastern Alpine and upper Danube regions, or across to Split (Salonae), the Dalmatian coast (previously, with its myriad islands, a notorious haunt of pirates) and connections with the middle Danube area. In the south, stations were maintained at Ancona and Brindisi, the latter one terminal of the route to Durres in Albania (Durazzo, Dyrrhachium) connecting with the Via Egnatia through the Balkans to Thessaloniki (Salonica) and Byzantium (later Constantinople/Istanbul). There were two other stations in western Greece, to cover the Gulfs of Patras and Corinth and the Ionian Islands and passage along the western Peloponnese. Units of the fleet operated from time to time in support of the Misene fleet, especially in the third century AD, with frequent campaigns in the East.

Provincial fleets

Two other fleets were established for the eastern Mediterranean, the Classis Alexandrina and the Classis Syriaca. The former was to control the sometimes troublesome North African and Palestinian coasts and to oversee the increasingly important trade route, including grain transports, from Egypt to the West. The policing and regulation of traffic on the River Nile was the responsibility of the potamophylacia, a separate river police force organised by and inherited from the Ptolemies that had its own men, ships and bases on the river. This could be, and was from time to time, augmented by the fleet when needed; the potamophylacia was wholly absorbed by the fleet in the second century AD.

One other area of operations for this fleet was the Red Sea. The Romans did not maintain a permanent fleet on this sea, but did organise a fleet in 26 BC with personnel drawn from the Alexandrine fleet for a military expedition to what is now Yemen. This fleet had eighty warships and 130 transports, the latter being requisitioned local merchant ships. The warships, which in the absence of any anticipated opposition (there was in fact none) need only to have been of the smallest types, were ‘built’ on the Red Sea shore, presumably from prefabricated parts brought overland. Some were provided by the allied kings of Nabatea and Judaea, who also contributed forces for the venture. It is possible that the Nile-Red Sea canal was in use and that some of the ships could have been brought from the Mediterranean by this route. The canal was prone to silting if not constantly maintained; Trajan (ruled AD 98–117) restored the canal and with his annexation of the kingdom of Nabatea in AD 106, had both sides of the northern Red Sea under Roman control. Even so, there remains no evidence for any but occasional forays by the Alexandrine fleet on to the Red Sea.

The Classis Syriaca had its headquarters at Seleucia near Antioch on the north Syrian coast and was placed to cover the Levantine coast as well as the south coast of Asia Minor, also previously a notorious centre of piracy. The fleet also extended into the southern Aegean Sea and being the closest to the ever-present threat of Parthian and Persian power to the east, was instrumental in maintaining transport and communications links with the West, frequently having to transport troops to oppose threats or attacks from the east.

Although each fleet was a totally independent entity, their spheres of responsibility could and did overlap. Ships from separate fleets operated together seamlessly for differing operations, ships from other fleets being drafted to assist in major operations, such as the transport of troops and supplies for campaigns against the Parthians, or Trajan’s campaigns across the Danube.

The North African littoral of what is now Algeria and Morocco had been in a state of unrest and occasionally open revolt after the emperor Gaius (Caligula, emperor AD 37–41) had its ruler murdered. Under his successor, Claudius (emperor AD 41–54), the whole territory was brought under direct Roman rule in AD 41 and 42 and formed into the provinces of Mauretania Caesariensis (the eastern part) and Mauretania Tingitana (the western part). These campaigns were supported by the Classis Misenensis, augmented by ships of the Alexandrian and Syrian fleets. The capital of Caesarea (Caesariensis) received a naval base with its own harbour, distinct from the merchant harbour and which became home to a permanent naval detachment or squadron. This unit was made up from ships and men from the Alexandrine fleet, but was not constituted as a fleet in its own right, but remained an adjunct of its parent fleet, which was well able to supply the required ships and men as well as support, from the relative tranquillity of the eastern Mediterranean.

The squadron, although sufficient to patrol the coasts, including the Atlantic seaboard,, was not able to deal with major conflagrations and Misene ships had to intervene to suppress raiding by Mauretanians in AD 170 and 171. It intervened again in AD 260, to help suppress revolts in Africa and Numidia (part of modern Algeria). There were more peaceful interventions when naval personnel were employed to apply their abilities in civil works, for example, in AD 152, the engineer in charge of building an aqueduct at Saldae in Mauretania reported that ‘the constructor and his workmen began excavation in their presence, with the help of two gangs of experienced veterans, namely a detachment of marine infantry and a detachment of alpine troops…’

The expansion of the empire to the line of the Danube under Augustus, completed by 12 BC, engendered the formation of two more fleets for the defence of that river. The Danube was naturally divided into upper and lower parts by the Iron Gates Gorge (between Orsova and Donti Milenovac, about 100 miles (160 km) east of Belgrade), which was at that time an impassable torrent. For the new border adjacent to the provinces of Noricum, Rhaetia and Pannonia (approximately modern Switzerland, Austria and western Hungary), flotillas previously formed and used in the advance on the rivers Sava (Savus) and Drava (Dravus), were moved up to the Danube and reinforced to form the Classis Pannonica, with headquarters at Zamun, near Belgrade (Taurunum).

Roman Imperial fleets II


West Roman Triremis Vehiculum, Dromon, 530 AD


Enneris, Imperial Roman time

For the lower Danube, from the Iron Gates to the Black Sea, the Classis Moesica was formed, with headquarters at Isaccea (Noviodunum) in Romania. This location is nearer to the Danube delta than the centre of the fleet’s stretch of the river because this fleet’s responsibilities extended into the western Black Sea and the sea routes between the river mouth and the Bosporus. With the increase of Roman power into and around the Black Sea area, the fleet acquired the further duties of protecting Roman interests in the western half of the Black Sea, including the Hellenistic cities around its northern shore and the strategic link with the Bosporan kingdom of the Crimea and adjacent lands, an important producer of grain. The fleet later established a naval base at Chersonesus.

To cover the southern shores of the Black Sea and to maintain a watch over its east coasts, the Classis Pontica was formed. The Romans had had some forces on the north coast of Asia Minor since they were organised by Pompeius in the sixties BC. The last client king of Eastern Pontus, Polemo II, was ‘retired’ in AD 63 and his kingdom annexed and made part of the province of Galatia. The former royal fleet was taken over and merged with the Roman ships to form the fleet, with its headquarters at Trabzon (Trapezus), later moved to Cyzicus (on the Sea of Marmara). For once there is a little evidence of the strength of this fleet, which was noted at some forty ships. This fleet extended its influence into the south-eastern Black Sea to eradicate the spasmodic piracy there and to cover the important military supply route from the Bosporus and Danube Delta, to north-east Asia Minor, to supply Roman forces facing Armenia and the Parthians. Subsidiary bases were set up in the second century AD near Poti (Phasis) in Georgia and Asparis, near the present-day Turkish-Georgian border.

The other great riverine frontier of the empire, the Rhine, also had its own fleet, the Classis Germanica. Caesar had established the border of the Roman Empire on the Rhine in the mid-first century BC, leaving garrisons with some small craft for patrolling, at intervals along its length. Legionary bases grew into towns at, for example, Mainz, Koblenz and Xanten. In 12 BC Augustus resolved to advance the border to the River Elbe (Albis) and in that year the future emperor Tiberius and his brother Drusus crossed the Rhine. Drusus concentrated the Roman’s existing ships and boats at Bonn and formally constituted them as the Classis Germanica, with its own praefectus and administration, as for the other fleets. He also had new ships built and brought trained crews from the Italian fleets by way of reinforcement. Fleet headquarters was at Cologne (Colonia Agrippinensis) and apart from the Rhine and Moselle, it was charged with patrolling and incursions into the tributaries entering from the right bank, such as the Neckar, Main and Lippe. Seagoing ships had to be acquired to cover the mouth of the Rhine and adjacent coasts. Later, with the addition of Britain to the empire, it had to operate jointly with the Classis Britannica to maintain the essential link between the armies of the Rhine and Britain. After the loss of the embryo province east of the Rhine after AD 9, the river became the permanent border, later altered from the middle reaches up by the advance into the Agri Decumates (the re-entrant between the Rhine and Danube) between the late first and third centuries AD.

After his conquest, Caesar had left ships on the north coasts of Gaul to patrol, deter any piracy and secure the trade in the English Channel. A few such ships under local military control had been sufficient for the predominantly peaceful area but in the forties AD Claudius resolved to add Britain to the empire. The ships were formally redesignated as the Classis Britannica and reinforced by new building and by ships with crews and specialist personnel brought around from the Mediterranean by sea. Preparations for the invasion had most likely, in view of their extent, started in the reign of Gaius, but were completed by his successor, whose forces invaded in AD 43. The new fleet was augmented by ships from the Classis Germanica and was vital to the success of the invasion which depended wholly on supplies from Gaul. After the initial invasion, the Classis Britannica had to continue to grow and extend its area of operations, as the Romans expanded their area of occupation, the fleet eventually operating right around the British Isles. The fleet’s prime purpose would remain however, to maintain the essential links with the mouth of the Rhine and the armies there, as well as with Gaul and the fleet headquarters was accordingly established at Boulogne and with another, a little later, at Dover (Dubris).

There were two other formations classified as fleets which do not seem to have been permanent, but pass briefly through the surviving records, indicating that they were formed for a particular purpose, at the ending of which they were disbanded. The first was the Classis Perinthia, formed by Claudius in AD 46 to cover his annexation of Thrace, after which there is no other indication of its continued existence. Thereafter responsibility for the Thracian coast passed to the Classis Moesica.

The other formation was the Classis Nova Libyca, which appears from the scant references, to have been formed in the late second century AD to reinforce the Libyan shores at a time of unrest there. It is not heard of again beyond the mid-third century AD and either was disbanded, it’s ships returned to their parent fleets, or was lost in the great upheavals of that time.

The late Empire

These nine imperial fleets continued to operate for nearly 200 years until caught up in the upheavals of the third century AD. With the Empire hard pressed by internal dissention and external pressure, the fleets could not be maintained as before, as the first call on available manpower, resources and money was the army. Neglected and denied resources, the great praetorian fleets deteriorated to a shadow of their former selves, as did the other Mediterranean fleets. The Black Sea was progressively abandoned and the riverine fleets seriously overstretched and at times overwhelmed.

With the accession as sole emperor of Diocletian in AD 285, stability was returned to the empire, together with the need to reorganise the remains of the fleets that he had inherited. The Classis Britannica, due to its particular location and function as a mainstay of the province’s garrison and defence and in the face of increasing barbarian seafaring activity and ability, had remained the least neglected and probably the best fleet left in the empire. It was part of the command of Carausius, commander in Britain, who improved its strength and efficiency and went on to the offensive against the sea raiders. It alone continued as recognisably the classis of yore.

The rest of the fleets in the Mediterranean were reorganised into a greater number of smaller squadrons, rather than try to reconstruct the great fleets. Each squadron was commanded by a praefectus and assigned to a military district and placed under the overall command of the military commander-in-chief for that district; in so doing the fleets lost their former independent identities as classes. Thirteen such squadrons were formed and became the basis of naval organisation in the Mediterranean thereafter.

The Danube border was reorganised into four new provinces, Moesia Prima and Secunda, Scythia and Dacia Ripensis. The former Classis Moesica was also divided into four parts, one allotted to each of the new provinces and again, under overall command of the local military commander. The fleet remained independent only insofar as that part of it based in the Danube delta and responsible for the Delta and with the Thracian coast. The Classis Pannonica disappears from the record in the third century AD, but Roman naval forces on the Upper Danube are known from the fourth century AD, once again as units forming part of the border forces, rather than as an independent fleet as before.

The Classis Germanica had all but ceased to exist by the mid-third century AD, local commanders having to employ whatever ships and crews they could acquire on an ad hoc basis. On the restoration of the Rhine frontier by the co-emperor Maximian after AD 286, naval forces were again built up but again on an area by area basis and allocated to local military commanders, the classis was not reconstituted as such.

These dispositions continued to serve through to the late fourth century AD, when with the loss of territory, including increasing parts of the Mediterranean seaboard, even the squadrons lessened in numbers, especially in the west until Roman naval forces were formed from whatever ships could be amassed and crewed.

The Islands and Italy, 210–207 BC: The Romans Defeat the Carthaginian Fleet


Marcus Valerius Laevinus sailed to Rome in 210 to report that the war for Sicily was over and that a deserted land was again in cultivation. However, it is obvious that the Carthaginians had not given up and that the Romans still had to defend the islands. The consul sent praefectus classis Marcus Valerius Messalla to Africa to make a plundering and espionage expedition. He approached the coast with fifty ships before daybreak and made an unexpected landing on the territory of Utica. He ravaged it far and wide, captured many people and much booty, returned to his ships and sailed back to Lilybaeum. Livy does not relate any Carthaginian resistance during this two-week operation, so it seems that the Romans were able to sail without being stopped. The captives were interrogated and the information was reported to Laevinus:

That five thousand Numidians were at Carthage under Masinissa, son of Gala and a most impetuous young man; and that other soldiers were being hired everywhere in Africa, to be sent over to Hasdrubal in Spain, so that he should cross over into Italy with the largest possible army as soon as he could and join Hannibal; … furthermore that a very large fleet was being made ready, for the purpose of recovering Sicily.

Consequently, Quintus Fulvius Flaccus was appointed dictator to hold the elections and Marcus Valerius Laevinus continued in Sicily as proconsul. The Carthaginian naval attack on Sicily never took place. Nevertheless, the Carthaginians attacked Sardinia with a fleet of forty ships. First they laid waste to the region of Olbia; then, after the praetor Publius Manlius Vulso appeared there with the army, the Carthaginian fleet sailed to the other side of the island and ravaged the territory of Carales. The fleet returned to Africa with a large amount of booty.

In 210, the Tarentines intercepted the Roman convoy that was sailing from Sicily along the Italian coast to bring supplies to the garrison in Tarentum. Democrates defeated Decimus Quinctius’ fleet of about twenty ships with an equal number of ships at Sapriportis, about 22 kilometres west of Tarentum. The transport ships escaped to the sea. The Romans prevailed on land and kept the citadel. Here we have some rare information about how ships were collected from the cities that were under obligation to supply them. To begin with, Decimus’ fleet at Rhegium consisted of triremes and smaller ships and some quinqueremes. Livy states: ‘By personally demanding from the allies and from Rhegium and Velia and Paestum the ships due under the treaty, he [Decimus Quinctius] formed a fleet of twenty ships … in the neighbourhood of Croton and Sybaris he had fully manned the ships with oarsmen, and had a fleet remarkably equipped and armed considering the size of the ships.’

In 209, the Romans took advantage of the absence of the Carthaginian fleet as it had sailed to the Greek coast and recovered Tarentum. Quintus Fabius Maximus pitched his camp in the mouth of the harbour to besiege the city. Here we see a plan to use some of the ships as a naval siege unit, carrying artillery for shooting missiles at a long range:

Of the ships which Laevinus had had to protect his supplies, the consul loaded some with devices and equipment for attacking city walls, while some of them he fitted out with artillery and stones and every kind of missile weapon. And so also with the merchantmen, not merely those propelled by oars, in order that some crews should carry engines and ladders up to the walls, and others from ships at long range should wound the defenders of the walls. These ships were equipped and made ready to attack the city from the open sea. And the sea was unmolested by the Punic fleet, which had been sent over to Corcyra, since Philip was preparing to attack the Aetolians.

As this was taking place, the city was betrayed to the Romans by the commander of the group of Bruttians that Hannibal had put in place to protect the city. The Romans took a huge amount of booty and 30,000 slaves. Hannibal marched to Tarentum but realized that nothing could be done and retired to Metapontum; his plot to make Fabius follow him there failed.

Lack of resources became an issue in the same year when twelve Latin colonies informed that they were no longer able to send soldiers or money to support the war effort. The senate could do nothing to change their refusal but made sure that the remaining eighteen colonies fulfilled their duty.

In 208, there was another report of naval preparations being made at Carthage with the intention of blockading the whole coast of Italy, Sicily and Sardinia with 200 ships. We cannot pay too much attention to the number of ships, which we have from one source only; what matters is the fact that the Carthaginians could have put pressure on the ports and interrupted shipments, a problem the Romans had faced since the beginning of the war. Consequently, the Romans repositioned their ships. Publius Scipio was ordered to send over to Sardinia for the defence of the island fifty of the eighty ships that he had either brought with him from Italy or captured at New Carthage. The imperium of Marcus Valerius Laevinus was continued in Sicily and the seventy Roman ships there were increased with the addition of the thirty ships that had been stationed at Tarentum the preceding year. With this fleet he was to cross over into Africa and collect booty, if he thought the time was suitable. The praetor urbanus was given the task of preparing the thirty old warships that were in Ostia and of manning twenty new ships with crews, so that he could defend the coast near Rome.

The building of the fleet shows the serious intention of the Carthaginian government to continue the struggle for the islands. It should be seen as a reaction to the loss of New Carthage and Tarentum. There is no information of any Carthaginian attack taking place, apparently because the Romans did not give them any opportunity. Livy gives a frustratingly short description of what became the biggest sea battle in the Second Punic War:

The same summer Marcus Valerius crossed over from Sicily to Africa with a fleet of a hundred ships, and making a landing at the city of Clupea [Aspis], he ravaged the country far and wide, meeting hardly any armed men. Then the foragers were hurriedly brought back to the ships, because suddenly came the report that a Carthaginian fleet was approaching. There were eighty-three ships. With these the Roman fought with success not far from Clupea. After capturing eighteen ships and putting the rest to flight, he returned to Lilybaeum with a great quantity of booty from the land and from the ships.

Livy states that the Roman fleet ravaged the African coast again the following year. Despite the many similarities in stories from 208 and 207, they are not dupli cates of the same event. Marcus Valerius Laevinus was leading the fleet that sailed from Sicily and laid waste the territory of Utica and Carthage. When the Roman fleet was returning to Sicily, a Carthaginian fleet with seventy warships met them. Again, Livy does not give any details but only states that seventeen Carthaginian ships were captured, four sunk at sea and the rest of the fleet routed and put to flight. We do not know the size of the Roman fleet. It returned to Lilybaeum with much booty. Livy adds that thereafter, since the enemy ships had been expelled from the seas, large supplies of grain were brought to Rome.

This information looks like any other story of raids on the enemy territory but the significance is that now there was a Punic fleet confronting the Romans and that it suffered serious losses. Consequently, the possibility of attacking the islands and the coast of Italy was lost. The Romans had taken the edge off the new Punic campaign before the fleet had had the chance to do anything. Now we see the Romans implementing the strategy they had in mind at the beginning of the war, when Titus Sempronius Longus was sent to Lilybaeum with the mission to prepare for the invasion of Africa. Because of the failure to defeat the Punic fleet then, the Romans had to defend the islands for a decade more but these two battles made the turning-point in the war and now the Romans could go back to their original plan. The Carthaginian losses probably explain why there was no attempt to stop Scipio from crossing to Africa in 204.

The Romans awaited the approach of Hasdrubal in Italy in 207 with great anxiety. The sea route from Spain to Italy was still unusable for the Punic fleet, as it had been in 218, and Hasdrubal took the same route that Hannibal had used. However, the Roman situation was now different from 218. The Romans had had experience and time to get ready. They were informed by the Massilians that Hasdrubal had passed over into Gaul. Once in Italy, Hadsrubal sent messengers to find Hannibal and give him instructions to link up with Hasdrubal’s army in Umbria. The Romans, however, caught the messengers – four Gauls and two Numidian horsemen – who had come all the way to Metapontum to find Hannibal. Livy’s narrative is difficult to follow and we cannot be sure of all the routes Hannibal took but he moved around southern Italy to break away from the Romans. The Romans made sure that the brothers could not meet. Livy explains the Roman strategy:

For they felt that Hasdrubal must be met as he came down from the Alps, to prevent his stirring up the Cisalpine Gauls or Etruria, which was already aroused to the hope of rebellion, and likewise that Hannibal must be kept busy with a war of his own, that he might not be able to leave the country of the Bruttii and go to meet his brother.

The pressure from the Punic fleet had eased and the Romans could prepare for Hasdrubal’s arrival by transporting troops from several fronts. Livy refers to some unnamed authors and states that Scipio sent 8,000 Spaniards and Gauls, 2,000 legionary soldiers and 1,000 cavalry of Numidians and Spaniards. Marcus Lucretius brought these in ships. Gaius Mamilius sent 4,000 archers and slingers from Sicily. Slave volunteers were recalled to their standards. The senate gave the consuls Gaius Claudius Nero and Marcus Livius Salinator unrestricted freedom to fill up their numbers from whatever source they pleased, of selecting men from whichever army they liked and of exchanging and removing men from one province to another. They also resorted to a resource so far unused: the settlers on the sea coast, who had been exempt from service. Alsium, Anxur, Minturnae, Sinuessa and Sena Gallica were compelled to furnish soldiers. Antium and Ostia were still exempt. The number of soldiers thus enrolled did of course not change the total significantly but all this shows the need to use exceptional methods to find men. The consuls destroyed Hasdrubal and his army in the Battle of the Metaurus in northern Italy in June 207. Livius celebrated a triumph and Nero an ovation. After the defeat, Hannibal withdrew to Bruttium.

Crews in Byzantine fleets


A modern depiction of a Byzantine flamethrowing warship, using Greek Fire against an enemy ship (probably of the opponent Muslim fleets). In the foreground: the mechanism and the siphon of ejection of Greek fire in the interior of a Byzantine Dromon (artwork by Giorgio Albertini)

By John H. Pryor

In spite of the fact that some crews in Byzantine fleets at various times were well regarded, for example the Mardaites of the theme of the Kibyrrhaiōtai, there is little evidence to suggest that, in general, Byzantine seamen were so skilled that this gave Byzantine fleets any edge over their opponents. It is true that Byzantine squadrons managed to defeat the Russians on all occasions when they attacked Constantinople: in 860, probably in 907 under Oleg of Kiev, in 941 under Igor, and in 1043 under Jaroslav. A fleet also defeated the Russians on the Danube in 972. However, rather than being attributable to any qualities of Byzantine seamen, these victories were due to the triple advantages of Greek Fire, dromons and chelandia being much larger than the Norse river boats of the Russians, and (except in 972) being able to fight in home waters against an enemy far from home. The last is true also of the defeat of the Muslim assaults on Constantinople in 674–80 and in 717–18. In both cases, it was the advantage of home waters against the disadvantage of campaigning hundreds of miles from sources of supplies, the problems faced by the Muslims of surviving on campaign through the winter, and Greek Fire that proved decisive. The same is probably true of the victories over the fleets of Thomas the Slav in 822–3.

In general, the record of Byzantine fleets from the seventh to the tenth centuries was hardly impressive. To be sure, they did achieve some notable victories: the defeat of the Tunisians off Syracuse in 827–8, the defeat of a Muslim fleet under Abū Dīnār off Cape Chelidonia in 842, the victory of Nikētas Ooryphas over the Cretans in the Gulf of Corinth in 879 and of Nasar over the Tunisians off Punta Stilo in 880, the victory of Himerios on the day of St Thomas (6 October), probably in 905, the defeat of Leo of Tripoli off Lemnos in 921–2, the victory of Basil Hexamilitēs over the fleet of Tarsos in 956, and the defeat of an Egyptian squadron off Cyprus in 963. Against that record, however, have to be balanced many disastrous defeats: of Constans II at the battle of the masts off Phoeinix in 655, of Theophilos, the stratēgos of the Kibyrrhaiōtai, off Attaleia in 790, a defeat off Thasos in 839, the defeat of Constantine Condomytēs off Syracuse in 859, the annihilation of a fleet off Milazzo in 888, a defeat off Messina in 901, the disastrous defeat of Himerios north of Chios in 911, the defeat of a Byzantine expedition in the Straits of Messina in 965, and of fleets off Tripoli in 975 and 998.

Although the tide of Byzantine naval success ebbed and flowed over the centuries, as other circumstances dictated, nothing suggests that the quality of the Empire’s seamen was in any way decisive. Indeed, there are occasional pieces of evidence that suggest that all was not always happy in the fleets. Some time between 823 and 825, John Echimos, the ‘deputy governor’, (ek prosōpou), the acting stratēgos, of the theme of the Kibyrrhaiōtai, confiscated the properties of seamen of the fleet. After he had become a monk and taken the name Antony, later to become St Antony the Younger, he was interrogated as to his reasons for doing so on the orders of the new emperor, Theophilos (829–42). According to the author of his Life, his explanation was that they had been partisans of Thomas the Slav in his rebellion of 821–3 and were ‘hostile to Christians’, thus implying that they were iconoclasts, and that he had confiscated their property and given it to supporters of Theophilos’ father, Michael II (820–9). In spite of this explanation, the emperor initially imprisoned him and had him interrogated, suggesting that there was more to the story and that he rejected the explanation. The fleet of the Kibyrrhaiōtai had, indeed, joined Thomas the Slav, as it was also later to join the rebellions of Bardas Sklēros in 976–9 and Bardas Phōkas in 987–9, and it is clear that, at times, there must have been serious disaffection in what was the front-line fleet of the Empire in the ninth and tenth centuries.

In 880, the expedition sent under the command of Nasar, the droungarios touploimou, to counter an attack in the Ionian sea by a Muslim fleet from Tunisia was forced to a temporary halt at Methōnē by the desertion of a large part of the crews. Why they deserted is unknown, but we can be fairly sure that it was not a simple question of their having ‘lost their nerve’, as the Vita Basilii suggested.

The Byzantine warships and their tactics


Reconstruction of an early 10th-century Byzantine bireme dromon by John H. Pryor, based on references in the Tactica of Emperor Leo VI the Wise. Notice the lateen sails, the full deck, the fore- and mid-castles, and the Greek fire siphon in the prow. The above-water spur is evident in the bow, while the captain’s tent and the two steering oars are located at stern.

The typical high-seas elite warship of the empire in the period was the dromon (from the Greek dromeas, meaning `the runner’). This was a two-masted fully decked bireme with two banks of oars, one rowed from below the deck and one from above it. There were twenty-five oarsmen on each side of each deck, thus raising the total number of oarsmen to a hundred, all fully seated. The marines and the officers of the ship numbered around fifty men, while the ousia, the standard complement of a war galley (its crew excluding the marines and the officers), totalled 108 men. Another type of warship that had the same features as the dromon was the khelandion; both Ahrweiler and Pryor consider these two types of vessel to be almost identical. However, although the Greek primary sources used these two terms indiscriminately, it is interesting to mention that Theophanes identifies the khelandia primarily as horse transports. The Arabic primary sources, however, use only the term khelandion to describe Byzantine warships.

A smaller but much faster type of ship compared to the dromon and the khelandion was the galea. It derived from the same design mentality for a war ship and it had two sails (the one amidships being smaller by a third) and probably one bank of oars on the deck. Because of its speed, however, this type of ship was used primarily for courier service and, during campaigns, for the transport of orders. There is also mention of galeai being used in espionage. Other types included the supply and carrier ships like the pamphylos, which was `like a baggage-train, which will carry all the equipment of the soldiers, so that the dromons are not burdened with it; and especially in time of battle, when there is need of a small supply of weapons or other materiel, [these] undertake the distribution’.

In the non-tidal waters of the Mediterranean war galleys, like the dromons and the khelandia, would have been suitable for any sort of landing on a hostile beach, unlike the heavy and round-hulled pamphylos, which required a dock. The horse-transport units of the Byzantine fleet had been equipped with a climax since at least the early tenth century, which was a ramp used for the loading and unloading of the horses from the ship’s gunwales, either from the stern or usually from the bow. This term is mentioned in the De Ceremoniis for the Cretan expeditions of 911, 949 and 960/126 and reveals the necessary modifications to the ships when they had to carry horses, such as hatches not just to the sides but also on the decks, leading down into the holds, while further modifications would have been engineered in the hulls of the ships concerning the stabling of the horses. According to Pryor, the khelandia were indeed specialised horse transports, able to carry between twelve and twenty horses. But these must have been built differently from dromons when it comes to the dimensions of the ship’s beam, which would have been much wider to accommodate both the lower bank oarsmen and the horses. A significant structural difference between the tenth-century Byzantine transport ships and their Italian counterparts in the twelfth century was that the latter placed both banks of oarsmen on the upper deck, thus making more room for the horses in the ship’s hull.

Turning to the battle tactics of the Byzantine navy, the existence of an above-water beak in the larger warships reveals a fundamental difference between the ancient Greek and Roman naval tactics and those used by the Byzantines, at least after the early tenth century. This beak, replacing the below-water ram, possibly as early as the sixth century, indicates a change in the objectives of naval engagements, from penetrating the enemy ship’s hull below the water line to damaging the ship’s oars and upper hull and bringing it to a stop in order to board it and capture or burn it.

What is obvious in all contemporary treatises of naval warfare is the same spirit of avoidance of battle at all costs, identified as Vegetian strategy by modern historians, which characterised the Byzantine attitude towards warfare on land. The basic idea of Byzantine warfare at sea follows the simple dicta by Syrianus Magister (c. 830-40s) that `if the enemy is overwhelmingly stronger than us and a great danger hangs over our cities, then we should avoid war and overcome the enemy by wisdom rather than might’. Leo VI also strongly urges an admiral that:

You must indeed deal with the enemy through attacks and other practices and stratagems, either with the whole of the naval fleet under you or with part of it. However, without some urgent compelling reason for this, you should not rush into a general engagement. For there are many obstacles [in the workings] of so-called Tyche [Luck] and events in war [are] contrary to expectation.

When a decision to engage the enemy was taken by the senior officers, then the fleet would deploy its squadrons in several formations depending on a series of factors such as `time, by attacking the enemy at a moment when we have the winds as allies, as happens frequently with off-shore winds; place, [by using] the sea between two pieces of land, or a river, [areas] in which the numbers of the enemy are useless because of the narrowness of the sea’. The author of the Taktika provides his readers with a variety of naval formations to engage the enemy (§§50-6); the two most commonly used were the crescent-shaped and the straight line:

Sometimes [you should draw up] a crescent-shaped or sigma-shaped [i. e. C-shaped] formation in a semi-circle, with the rest of the dromons placed on one side and the other [i. e. of the flagship] like horns or hands and making sure that the stronger and larger [ships] are placed on the tip. Your Gloriousness [should be positioned], like a head in the deep of the semi-circle [. . .] The crescent arrangement should be such that, as the enemy attack, they are enclosed within the curve. Sometimes you will form the ships on an equal front in a straight [line], so that, when the need calls, [you can] attack the enemy at the prow and burn their ships with fire from the siphones.

The tactical objective of the crescent-shaped formation was for the stronger ships on the sides of the formation to overwhelm the enemy ships and then turn around and attack the rest of the formation on their exposed flanks where they were most vulnerable. Once the opposing units came into close proximity with each other they would attack the enemy ships and their crews with bows and arrows, snakes, lizards and other dangerous reptiles, pots with burning lime or tar and, of course, with Greek fire, projected either through the ship’s siphones, through small hand-siphons or thrown against the enemies in a form similar to small hand-grenades. The importance of the proper management of the preliminary missile phase was indicated by the emperor’s insistence on using the projectiles effectively, not wasting them against an enemy protected by shields, and ensuring that neither supplies were exhausted nor the crews exhausted themselves in hurling them. When the ships were close enough, boarding detachments were sent to the enemy ship and the result of the naval battle largely depended on the courage and the fighting abilities of the boarding teams. For that reason,

apart from the soldiers or the upper oarsmen, [all others] however many there might be, from the kentarkhos down to the last [man], should be kataphraktoi – having weapons such as shields, pikes, bows, extra arrows, swords, javelins, corselets, lamellar cuirasses, helmets, vambraces – especially those engaged in fighting hand to hand in the front line of attack in battle.

Finally, if we follow the writings of Leo VI, a potentially decisive weapon that came to the fore at this point of the naval engagement were the `gerania [cranes] or some similar contrivances, shaped like a gamma [A], turning in a circle, to pour either wet flaming pitch or the processed [fire] or anything else into the enemy ships when they are coupled to the dromons when the manganon is turning over them’. This technique was coupled with the thrusting of pikes from the lower bank of the dromons through the oarports, a tactic that Leo claims had only recently been devised.