Roman Naval and Amphibious Warfare


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


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.

Ancient Warship Archaeology Program

The Ancient Warship Archaeology Program (AWAP) was initiated after the discovery of numerous warship rams in the Egadi Islands, Sicily. Together with previous ram discoveries, this increase in the corpus of rams provides a signficant body of evidence for warships studies from an archaeological perspective. Having relied almost solely on literary, iconographic and indirect architectural evidence to date, it is now possible to bring archaeological evidence, direct evidence, to this study. Research objectives include warship construction, ram construction and function, warship tactics, warship deposition. 

Is a bronze warship ram a weapon? The definition of weapon is really quite broad being anything used to cause harm, injury, or damage. Such a definition can include almost anything including a roof tile that killed an invading King Pyrrhus in Greece. More instructive for this discussion is to limit ‘weapons’ to those objects that were purposefully manufactured for use in warfare, and are a composite of several materials. In antiquity weapons can be broken into two main categories: ranged and melee. Ranged weapons are designed to shoot a projectile and inflict harm at a distance from the wielder of the weapon. These type weapons included javelins, bows, catapults, and slings. Melee weapons were used in a manner that the wielder maintained contact with the weapon as it inflicted harm. The most common weapons of this type were swords, spears, axes, daggers, clubs, maces, and hammers. A warship’s ram was part of a larger weapon, the warship, which falls within the broad category of melee weapons. The warship was powered and wielded by individuals who were required to stay with it and directly operate the vessel for it to function. Warships were not propelled forward to travel unmanned with intention to strike another warship, a case where they would be ranged weapons, rather the crew and officers directly propelled and steered them into their intended targets.

In addition to being a component of a weapon, the warship, a bronze ram also served in the capacity of armor. Armor is a covering of material that is designed to offset the penetration or impact force of projectile or melee weapons. Clear examples are the body armor worn by soldiers in antiquity that protected the soldiers’ skin, and in some cases helped to protect the bones. One of the key personal armor elements was the helmet that was typically constructed of bronze or iron and had an intervening padded section with the wearer’s head; this system helped to protect the skull from being easily penetrated or shattered. Not unlike the helmet, or the hilt guard on a sword, the ram had a protection role. As noted, a bronze ram on the bow of a warship helped to project the timbers that most often came into direct contact when delivering the weapon’s blow. Without a protective function as consideration, there is little need for the cowl and bottom plate/tailpiece. The important structural keel and stem timbers required protection as did the intricate scarfs at the bow; damage here could easily render the entire warship unserviceable.

The Egyptian Navy

A large relief shows the Egyptian navy fighting the Sea Peoples during the reign of Ramesses II.

Although boats are a common factor of everyday Egyptian life, sailing the open sea is another matter, but for the adventurous young man a career in the navy might be appealing. Egypt keeps several squadrons of speedy ships to patrol the eastern Mediterranean. The sailors, however, rarely do any fighting, which is done by land troops carried onboard—sometimes as many as 250 men.

The ships can be sailed and rowed, which gives them an advantage over most enemies, who only sail, and powerful archery wins many battles without the need for hand-to-hand combat. In most cases, however, the navy is used to transport troops to where they are needed—on the coast of Canaan or upriver to Nubia, when the boats need to be dismantled and carried up the cataracts.

The expedition to Punt Queen

Hatshepsut commissioned a trading venture to the distant, legendary Land of Punt, probably situated on the coast of Somalia, East Africa. The fleet sailed from Thebes, down the Nile almost as far as modern Suez, crossed over by canal into the Red Sea, and then undertook the long voyage southward.

The expedition’s progress was recorded in detail by scribes in a series of painted reliefs, including the tall, thin chief of Punt, Perehu, and his deformed wife Ety. These are preserved in the queen’s great funerary monument at Deir el-Bahari in Western Thebes.The expedition returned safely with its rich cargoes of ebony, ivory, gold, electrum, aromatic woods for perfume-making, cosmetics, and panther skins, not to mention apes, dogs, and natives of Punt.

Rhodes Ancient Fleet

Carving of a triemolia (Rhodian ship), 2nd century BC, Lindos. Carved into the rocks on the route to the Acropolis at Lindos. On the bow there stood a statue of General Hagesander Mikkion, by sculptor Pythocritos. Dates from c 180 -170 b.c.

Most easterly of the islands in the Aegean, situated off the coast of Caria in Asia Minor. From the time of Vespasian (ruled 69-79 A.D.), Rhodes, known as Rhodus, was attached to the province of ASIA. The island had a long history of excellent relations with Rome, helping in the Macedonian and Mithridatic Wars. Supporting the cause of Julius Caesar during the Civil War, Rhodes was plundered mercilessly by Gaius Cassius in 42 B.C. but was richly rewarded by Augustus for its loyalty. Starting in 6 B.C., Tiberius took up residence on the island in a self-imposed exile from the disappointments of Rome; he would depart to become adopted by Augustus in 4 A.D. Because of their act of crucifying several Roman citizens, the Rhodians were deprived of their independence in 44 A.D. by Claudius. Appealing to Nero in 53, they were given their own government again, although prosperity was never actually attained. An earthquake in 155 A.D. flattened most of the island, and henceforth it remained one of the least developed corners of the Empire.

Though never large, this should be the best fleet of the ancient period. Excellent seamanship coupled with generally heavier types than the Carthaginians. Superior Rhodian naval architecture was a state secret, with the sentence death passed on unauthorized persons in military shipyards. Frequently allied to Rome, the Rhodians provided the major check on pirate activity in the Mediterranean. When Roman policy later diverted trade revenue from Rhodes destroying the economic basis of the fleet, the Mediterranean largely fell under the control of pirates.

Ally of Rome

By the late third century BC, the expansionist ambitions of Philip V of Macedon threatened Rhodes and in 208 BC, they joined other Greek states in an embassy to mediate with him;14 an exercise repeated in the following year. The First Macedonian War ended in 205 BC, with Rhodes’ sympathies leaning towards Rome who, having suppressed Illiyrian piracy and removed the Carthaginian’s power, had provided stable conditions for Rhodes’ trade in the West. The Rhodian’s concerted action against Crete and its pirates also alienated Philip, as president of the Cretan confederacy.15 Philip’s increasing aggression and build-up of naval power led to open war between them in 202 BC.

The following spring, Philip’s fleet seized the Cyclades and Samos. Rhodes sent a fleet of thirty ships to Lade, where they were bested by Philip’s greater numbers in a brief batrle, losing two quinqueremes. They did subsequently recover most of the Cyclades. Pergamum, also threatened, now joined Rhodes in the war, their joint fleets meeting and defeating that of Philip at the battle of Chios.16 A further battle near Miletus resulted in a Pyrrhic victory for Philip and cost him nearly half of his fleet. Rhodes and Pergamum appealed to Rome for help and with the addition of a Roman fleet of thirty-eight ships and those of the allied Athenians, Philip was unable to mount any further challenge at sea. The allied fleets harried enemy coasts, with the Rhodians blockading Philip’s ships at Volos (Demetrios) until the end of the war in 197 BC. In 194 BC, Rhodes sent eighteen ships to join those of Pergamum in defeating the bellicose King Nabis of Sparta.

Fighting Crew of a Greek Trireme

According to Herodotos (6.15.2), the 100 Chiot triremes at Lade in 494 BC each carried 40 picked hoplites serving as epibatai Herodotos (7.184.2) mentions that Persian triremes carried, in addition to native marines, 30 additional fighting men who were Persians, Medes or Sakai, the last of whom were a nomadic people of central Asia, highly valued for their archery skills. Every Persian ship was supplied by Persian subjects, including Phoenicians, Egyptians, Carians, Cypriots and Greeks, among others. The non-seafaring Persians supplied only admirals and marines. The last were probably on board to ensure the loyalty of the ship’s company and for that reason they were undoubtedly carried in battle.

The ten epibatai on an Athenian trireme had the highest status in the ship after the trierarchos. They are mentioned second in the Decree of Themistokles, and this is the position they occupy in the 4th-century crew lists (IG 22 1951.79-82). Thucydides notes that they joined the trierarchos in pouring libations at the ceremonial departure of the Sicilian expedition (6.32.1).

One reason for the Athenian practice of taking only a few hoplites on deck to serve as marines was that the crew’s pulling efficiency was seriously jeopardized if there were too many people moving about topside. Such movement inevitably caused the ship to roll. Under oar, therefore, the epibatai had to be seated (Thucydides 7.67.2), and the procedure appears to have been to keep them centred on the middle line of the ship. Once the vessel had stopped to board an enemy vessel, the epibatai would leap up to fight once the ships grappled. In his speech before the final sea battle in the Great Harbour at Syracuse, the Athenian commander Nikias revealed another reason: ‘Many archers and javelineers will be on deck and a mass of hoplites, which we would not employ if we were fighting a battle in the open sea, because they would hinder us through the weight of the ships in exercising our skill.’ (Thucydides 7.62.2) Weight, particularly on deck, prevented the triremes doing what they did best, namely, conducting the tactical manoeuvres in which speed and agility were essential.

The four toxotai were distinct from the ten epibatai, namely they were not carried on deck. An inscription (IG I2 950.137), dated to 412/411 BC, gives them a descriptive adjective, paredroi, meaning ‘sitting beside’. It seems that they were posted in the stern beside the trierarchos and kubernetes and acted as their bodyguard in action. The helmsman would certainly have been vulnerable and would have needed protection, being too busy to defend himself. The Athenian playwright Euripides (Iphigenia among the Taurians 1377) talks of archers stationed in the stern, giving covering fire during an embarkation.