Roman Imperial fleets II

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West Roman Triremis Vehiculum, Dromon, 530 AD

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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

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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

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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 Harpax

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very Early Warships

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Piracy was an ancient custom in the eastern Mediterranean. But none of this normally involved fighting at sea. Pirates rarely pursued merchants on the open sea because all ships carried both sails and oars and were therefore difficult to catch. (Pure sailing ships did not appear until the late sixth century BC.) The standard piratical procedure was doubtless that described in the Odyssey: the raiders beached their boats in the vicinity of a coastal town and then captured the place by land. Raiders could also blockade harbours by intercepting ships at the harbour mouth, and we hear of Levantine ports in the Bronze Age being blockaded in wartime, but as no ship could stay out to sea for very long this strategy required prior control of the coast so that the port could be besieged by land and sea simultaneously. In all these cases it would obviously have been desirable to cut off and board enemy ships at sea, but for the reason already mentioned this was difficult to do. The relief at Medinet Habu shows Egyptian ships intercepting the invading Philistines; but that was in the mouth of the Nile, and even there the feat must have required good timing.

None of the ships in the Medinet Habu relief have rams, so this device did not exist around 1200 BC. But the evidence of Greek vase paintings shows that by around 800 BC the practice of fixing bronze rams to the prows of ships so that they could be used as weapons against other ships had become standard in the Mediterranean. Owing to the lack of pictorial records from the intervening centuries we cannot say with certainty when or where this device was invented, but it seems likely that it appeared within a century or so after 1200 BC, for much of the sacking of cities at that time was the work of coastal raiders, and there was urgent need for some method of coastal defence. It is unlikely to have been invented by the raiders, as it is not in the interest of pirates to sink their prey; but after coastguards had rams, pirates of course acquired them too. The likeliest inventors of ramming were the Phoenicians, the leading seafarers of the time.

The standard warship of the early Iron Age was the penteconter, a 100-foot galley propelled by fifty oarsmen, twenty-five on each side; the word ‘warship’ is somewhat misleading, as there was no distinction between ships of war and merchant vessels, and the penteconters were equally useful for transporting trade goods (which were of small bulk at this time) and protecting them. In such ships the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, opened up the whole of the western Mediterranean to trade and colonization. Originally penteconters were built with only one bank of oars. The next step was the bireme, a shorter and more seaworthy vessel with its fifty oars arranged in two superimposed banks. This was in use by 700 Be; an Assyrian relief of that date shows the king of Tyre embarking in a bireme.

None of this amounted to much ‘sea power’ in the modern sense of that term; it was more like coastal power. We do not hear of sea battles before the seventh century, not even between Phoenician cities, and no big battles until the sixth, which suggests the fifty-oared galleys were for defensive purposes, to guard harbours and repel pirates. It is doubtful there were any naval tactics, which would require concerted action by a number of galleys. Real sea power had to await the invention of the trireme, a highly specialized ship with 170 oars in three banks, with more than three times the propulsive power of a penteconter, and useful for nothing but warfare. These expensive technological marvels were probably beyond the reach of a city state. They did not become common until the late sixth century, when the Persian Empire became a Mediterranean power, and the Persian king Cambyses, according to Herodotus, became the first man to aspire to command of the sea.

Roman Naval and Amphibious Warfare

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It is ironic that, at the very time Rome established its naval forces on a permanent footing with fixed bases, large-scale naval warfare became obsolete, at least for the next couple of centuries. Actium and the destruction of the Egyptian fleet led to the reduction of the last remaining kingdom in the Mediterranean with any significant naval forces; the newly created Roman imperial fleets patrolled the seas, dealt with pirates and raiders, provided support for land operations and worked the velarium on the Colosseum. The hypothetical army of the military surveyor Ps.-Hyginus does contain marines, but for the purposes of route clearance and road building rather than any maritime role. None the less, the few fleet actions that occurred in our period illustrate many of the same concerns relating to deployment that we see in land battles. Naval battles were more likely to be influenced by the vagaries of weather and wind than those on land, so there could be some delay before conditions allowed a battle to take place, and there was also a much greater random factor than existed in land battles. At Actium Antony was greatly outnumbered by Octavian and so risked being outflanked and his ships taken from both front and rear. As with a landbased battle he made use of the terrain, deploying as close inshore as he could, with his wings protected by the shallow waters that Octavian’s ships could not enter.

As in land engagements missiles played an important role in Roman naval warfare and the ships were frequently equipped with towers to give slingers, archers and artillery greater range and power. Incendiary missiles, particularly fearful weapons at sea, formed part of the arsenal. A missile barrage was fired before ships closed for close combat, and missiles continued to fire throughout the engagement, though not incendiary devices once the ships were at close quarters (App. B Civ. 5.119). Tactics varied depending on the size and manoeuvrability of the ships. The imperial navy, which was unlikely to face a large-scale naval engagement, consisted mostly of smaller ships appropriate to their duties – triremes and two-banked liburnians. The civil wars at the end of the Republic provided the last encounters that involved the larger quadriremes and quinqueremes that had been developed in the arms race of the Hellenistic era (see vol. i, pp. 357-61, 434-43); in the naval battles of the 40s bc size and design proved significant.

At Mylae, Sextus Pompey had smaller, more easily manoeuvrable ships manned by more experienced sailors, so he avoided ramming the enemy head on and instead concentrated on disabling Agrippa’s ships by breaking off the oars and rudders (which required considerable skill and timing), or isolating them and attacking them from all sides. With his sturdier, taller ships which were probably designed with his intended tactics in mind, Agrippa aimed to ram Sextus Pompeius’ ships anywhere and bring the battle to close quarters as soon as possible. Here he had the advantage of size, since his ships could hold more troops, and had the additional height to bring fire to bear on the Pompeian ships. His ships also used a grappling hook to haul the Pompeian ships in to the point where they could be boarded, a device that worked very well both at Mylae and Naulochus (App. B Civ. 5.106, 119). At Actium both sides were content to engage at close quarters, boarding ships and capturing them or destroying them, and this was probably not because of inexperienced or incompetent rowers. The preferred Roman tactics allowed them to play to their strengths in numbers and heavily armed infantry and were probably developed (along with the sturdier ships) for that reason, rather than because the Romans made poor sailors.

As with land battles, once the integrity of the line of battle was broken one side might turn to flight, at which point ships became isolated and more vulnerable to enemy attack. Because naval battles usually took place near to land, fleeing ships might be driven on shore, but pursuing ships had to curb their enthusiasm for the chase or they might end up on shore too (App. B Civ. 5.121). The majority of casualties drowned because they could not swim or because they could not get out of swamped ships, but at Mylae Sextus Pompeius’ smaller boats rowed round picking swimmers out of the water, and it is possible that such lifeboats were deployed in other naval battles (App. B Civ. 5.107).

Command and control in naval warfare was challenging because of the difficulties in seeing what was going on in the midst of battle from the deck of a ship, and also given the problems in communicating. Generals seem to have acted in much the same way as in land battles, commanding from the rear, often on land, or from a flagship in the middle of battle, as both Antony and Agrippa did at Actium. Agrippa had smaller auxiliary craft available at Actium to relay orders and information in the same way that cavalry did in engagements on land (Dio Cass. 50.31), and this was most probably a regular feature of naval battles. Sextus Pompeius controlled his fleet at Mylae from a hill and was able to signal them to disengage because he could see, probably more clearly than anyone commanding on the water, that they were being beaten (App. B Civ. 5.107).

In the Empire, naval operations tended to be on a much smaller scale and usually, with no other naval powers surviving, part of land-based operations such as supporting Trajan’s campaigns across the Danube and into Parthia. Even when fleets and marines were not available, soldiers still made use of the water when appropriate, and were able to operate effectively, mounting artillery on boats at Cyzicus in the civil war between Severus and Niger to fire at the flanks of the enemy armies that had deployed near the lake in an attempt to secure their wings (Dio Cass. 75.6). On Lake Gennesaret, in response to the Jewish waterborne attack, Roman soldiers ensured that their infantry skills could still be an advantage, building rafts which provided a relatively sturdy fighting platform from which soldiers fired on the Jewish boats and boarded them when they came too close (Joseph. BJ 3.505).

Caesar’s warships in the Channel played a key role in supporting the transports involved in his first landings, providing covering fire from slingers, archers and artillery, and ultimately driving the Britons back sufficiently for the infantry to start landing (B Gall. 4.25). The disadvantage with landing troops from warships was that their keels were too deep to beach properly, and the infantry were less than keen to jump into the deeper water; Caesar had transports with him that had a shallower draught, but was unable to use them under the threat from the Britons. For other waterborne operations armies usually had to construct small craft which were agile and had a shallow draught, able to transport infantry and cavalry and capable of acting as landing craft. They were used extensively in raids in northern Germany and in Suetonius Paulinus’ attack on Anglesey in AD 60 (Tac. Ann. 2.6, 14.29). These transports were less suitable for working at sea than on rivers, and nervousness on the part of soldiers in the vessels contributed to the huge losses sustained by Germanicus’ fleet when it was wrecked on the German coast in autumnal storms (Tac. Ann. 2.23-4).

Waterborne operations eased logistical difficulties and enabled troops to be moved swiftly into terrain that would have otherwise been difficult to penetrate, taking the enemy by surprise. Operating in that terrain once there, though, was a particular difficulty for legionary troops who, as we have seen, were not well equipped for operating in wetlands. Such amphibious operations regularly involved auxiliary units of Batavian infantry and cavalry. They, along with other tribes living in the Rhine delta such as the Cherusci and Canninefates, were skilled at fighting in flooded and marshy terrain, and caused major problems for successive Roman armies operating in northern Germany by meeting them on ground that they had chosen. As usual Rome recruited from the areas in which it was fighting and raised units of both Batavians and Canninefates, though it is the former who get all the glory. Batavians carried the river crossing in Kent that caught the Britons by surprise in AD 43, and were very probably the auxiliaries who crossed the Menai straits to capture Anglesey for Agricola. They could cross fast-flowing rivers under arms, providing a valuable element of surprise and fear. They provided both cavalry and infantry (who could also fight highly successfully in the front line of pitched battle) and were inordinately proud of their abilities. Their boastful behaviour and eagerness to show off their skills might be suggestive of the behaviour of ‘elite troops, but Rome had no `special forces’ and generals probably made the best use of the particular skills their units possessed.

Navis lusoria

Roemerschiff1

A reconstructed navis lusoria at the Museum of Ancient Seafaring, Mainz

A navis lusoria (from Latin, meaning “dancing/playful ship”, plural naves lusoriae) is a type of a small military vessel of the late Roman Empire that served as a troop transport. It was powered by about thirty soldier-oarsmen and an auxiliary sail. Nimble, graceful, and of shallow draft, such a vessel was used on northern rivers close to the Limes Germanicus, the Germanic border, and thus saw service on the Rhine and the Danube. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus mentioned the navis lusoria in his writings, but not much about it could be learned until the discovery of such boats at Mainz, Germany in 1981–82

In November 1981, during excavation in the course of a construction of a Hilton Hotel at Mainz, wooden remains were found and identified as parts of an old ship. Before construction resumed three months later, the site yielded remnants of five ships that were dated to the 4th century using dendrochronology. The wrecks were measured, taken apart, and, in 1992, brought to the Museum of Ancient Seafaring (German: Museum für Antike Schifffahrt) of the Romano-Germanic Central Museum (Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum) for further preservation and study.

Scientifically the wrecks were termed Mainz 1 through Mainz 5 and generally referred to as the Mainzer Römerschiffe, the Mainz Roman ships. They were identified as military vessels that belonged to the Roman flotilla in Germania, the Classis Germanica. The vessels could be classified into two types, namely small troop transports (Mainz 1, 2, 4, 5) termed navis lusoria and a patrol vessel (Mainz 3). The lusoria is narrower than the navis actuaria, an earlier and wider type of Roman cargo vessel.

A full-sized reconstructed vessel is on display at the Museum of Ancient Seafaring, Mainz, and serves as a representative of the lusoria. For the reconstruction of this vessel specifically Mainz 1 and 5 served as templates. The replica measures 21.0 by 2.8 m (68 ft 11 in × 9 ft 2 in) while the gunwale measures 0.96 m (3 ft 2 in). Again oak is used. The planks are 2 cm (0.8 in) thick, generally 25 cm (10 in) long and are carvel-built. The keel is only 5 cm (2 in) thick and constructed of planks; it contains a central channel to collect water. There is no keelson. The frames are placed 33.5 cm (13.2 in) apart corresponding to the measuring unit of a pes Drusianus. The frames hold the ship together. The mastframe contains a hole to place the mast. While the ship could be sailed, the main method of propulsion was rowing by one open row of oarsmen on each side. The gunwale displays an outside fender and is topped by a covering board. The covering board contains the support for the oars. The protective effect of the gunwales is further extended by the shields of the soldiers which were hung on the outside. Boats were steered by a double rudder aft. Sails have not survived the centuries, so their reconstruction relies on ancient depictions. A navis lusoria was crewed by the steersman, two men to handle the sail, and about 30 soldiers who manned the oars.

It has been calculated that the narrow and relatively long lusoria could attain a travel speed of 11 to 13 km/h (6 to 7 kn) and a maximum speed of 18 km/h (10 kn).

The significance of the findings led to the establishment of a specific research center to study Roman ship transport at the Romano-Germanic Central Museum and of the Museum of Ancient Seafaring as its parent division. The latter museum has been in operation since 1994 and displays replicas of the lusoria and the patrol vessel as well as original artefacts. It specializes in Roman shipbuilding and ship transport, in the Germanic provinces and in the whole empire.

After the establishment of the military castrum (fort) of Mogontiacum (modern Mainz) in 13–12 BC, ships of the Classis Germanica became stationed at its harbor. Mogontiacum soon became the capital of the Roman province of Germania Superior and ships from its harbor could travel up and down the Rhine and east to the Main river. The military fleet was upgraded when the Emperor Julian increased defensive measures along the Rhine in the 4th century, and Marcellinus reported that the Emperor had 40 lusoriae that were used for his troops at Mogontiacum. At that time the border was increasingly threatened, and lusoriae became useful to ship troops to outposts or to points of crisis. Eventually however, Vandals, Suebi, and Alans moved across the Rhine and sacked Mogontiacum in or about 407. As Roman control ended, the local Roman fleet decayed and, over time, became covered with debris, mud and earth.

The Successors and Naval Competition

Hellenistic war galleys with a Trireme on bottom, Quinquereme in middle, and the top is a massive Polyreme with a crew of 4,000.


In the wake of the disastrous Athenian invasion noted above, Dionysus of Syracuse had seized power and built up the influence of Syracuse over eastern Sicily, working mainly against the increasing influence of Carthage, originally a Phoenician colony in North Africa, over the island. It was probably the maritime power of that opponent, rather than the experience of the war with Athens, that prompted him to use the increased resources of the city and its expanding possessions to build up his navy. Crucially, he did not simply build large numbers of triremes but began experimenting with tetreres and penteres-four-fitteds and five-fitteds-purportedly inventing the latter. What the arrangement of rowers in these larger ratings was is still a matter of some, but they were clearly larger, more powerful, ships than triremes, and they upped the ante still further in naval competition. By the time of the Battle of Amorgos, in 322 BCE, both the Athenian and Macedonian fleets had substantial numbers of fours and fives (50 fours and 7 fives for Athens) alongside their triremes, while Dionysus II, son of the inventor of fives, had introduced sixes into the Syracusan navy by the 340s.
After Alexander died, the competition among his generals resolved itself after two decades into a three-way competition between the Seleucid dynasty in Asia, the Antigonids in Macedon, and the Ptolemies in Egypt. The first remained exclusively a land power, but the latter two engaged in a fierce naval competition that stimulated further developments in the architecture of warships. Antigonus and his son Demetrius initially led the way, with Ptolemy and his successors playing catch-up, although eventually the largest ships were Ptolemaic. 
Fours, fives, and sixes could have been created simply by adding an extra rower to the oars on one, two, or all three tiers-that is, by slight modifications to the trireme. But putting more than two men on an oar entails a significant change in the style of rowing. More than two men cannot row from a seated position but must, due to the length of the oar, stand to get the oar into the water at the start of the stroke and then fall back onto the bench. It seems to have been Demetrius who initially designed the new kind of ship that could accommodate this style of rowing when he introduced sevens into his navy. 
The broader hulls required to accommodate extra rowers on the oars would have reduced maneuverability somewhat at the expense of raw power and size, but such ships had corresponding advantages. Putting multiple men on an oar provided extra power without demanding extra numbers of skilled rowers, for only the man at the head of the oar needed to be trained; the others simply supplied muscle. For the large kingdoms with abundant untrained manpower, such ships thus allowed expansion of naval manpower without the training- or indeed, political-issues raised by the skilled crews of triremes. Furthermore, while reduced maneuverability corresponded with a decrease in ramming tactics (though all warships retained rams for opportunistic use), broader hulls meant more deck area on which to carry marines for boarding tactics and catapults or other large missile weapons as anti-personal or possibly even ship-killing weaponry. Here, too, such navies favored large, autocratic states with abundant manpower. 
The obvious advantages of size and numbers of marines for naval combat in this environment pushed designers to build ever-larger ratings. Tens and elevens became common, and from twelves to twenties not uncommon, and by the mid-200s, Ptolemy II was building thirties that performed well and saw action. But there is no arrangement of three tiers of oars with up to eight men to an oar that can produce a thirty, never mind the forty constructed by Ptolemy IV around 205. These two, the top ratings ever built, were clearly double-hulled ships-oared catamarans made of yoked together fifteens or twenties, connected by a broad deck that could have carried hundreds of marines. 
The sight of these monsters, almost like oared aircraft carriers, clearly impressed contemporaries who wrote about them. And they were meant to. Ptolemy IV’s forty never saw action and was probably designed from the start as a ceremonial ship meant to show off the monarch’s wealth, power, and grandeur. In this respect, the Hellenistic naval competition was psychological as well as military and paralleled cultural and political developments in other areas of the Hellenistic world, which had moved a long way from the small, sometimes democratic city-states that had launched trireme fleets. 
But the naval arms race between the Successor Kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean had reached a sort of stalemate by the beginning of the second century BCE and would be brought to a conclusion not by any of the powers engaged in it, but by the winner of another naval competition going on at the same time in the western Mediterranean.