The powerful, efficient fleets built and men trained by the Romans in order to maintain their world dominance. Unlike the Etruscans, the Romans were not a great seafaring people and maintained an aversion to such activities right until the last years of the Empire. For this reason the development of the navy was delayed in favor of the LEGIONS until the emergence of Rome as a legitimate world power necessitated a naval program.
The Punic Wars with Carthage, fought as much at sea as on land, gave Rome a chance to dominate the Mediterranean, an opportunity it nearly lost because of its ignorance in maritime areas and because the remaining navies of Greece were vastly superior in craftmanship and skill. But the conquest of Greece, Asia Minor and ultimately most of the East, put at Rome’s disposal the extensive shipyards, sailors and vessels of many foreign fleets. These acquisitions were particularly important in the 1st century B.C., when pirates were preying on commerce throughout the Mediterranean. These brigands sailed in all seasons and kidnapped high-ranking persons, sank one consular fleet and received tribute from coastal cities. By 67 B.C., the pirates from Cilicia had become too dangerous. Pompey was granted an extraordinary command to clear them from the sea lanes. He discovered over 1,000 such pirate ships roaming over vast regions, but pressed into service every available vessel from the Greeks and supplemented these with fleets from the Republic. With strategic genius, Pompey crushed the Cilicians in only three months (spring 67) and returned home in triumph.
Henceforth the Romans depended heavily upon vessels built by Greeks or other foreigners and manned by them as well. The role of such fleets in the Civil Wars at the end of the Republic was absolutely critical. Caesar used his own fleets to transport his reliable legions from Italy to the theater of operations against Pompey in Illyricum and then sailed after his vanquished foe to Egypt, where again fleets contested control of the harbor of ALEXANDRIA.
Naval engagements were even more important in the years to come. Sextus Pompey commanded a large pirate fleet that briefly brought even Octavian to the bargaining table (see MISENUM, CONFERENCE OF). Octavian (AUGUSTUS) turned to his ever reliable Marcus Agrippa and together they shaped an excellent navy, armed with Agrippa’s invention, the HARP AX. They destroyed Sextus at Naulochus in 36 B.C. and then proved their superiority over Antony and his Greek-Egyptian ships at Actium in 31 B.C. As was the case with the post-Civil War legions, Augustus had to reform and reorganize the hundreds of ships left over from the years of conflict. He incorporated most of them into the Imperial Navy.
The tradition against sea travel continued under the emperors. Rome’s navel arm was placed under the supervision of the army, and service terms were for 26 years, a period longer than the auxiliaries’. Sailors completing their service, however, were rewarded with citizenship and with an impressive looking DIPLOMATA. These seamen led a hard life, with the exception of the lucky few who were stationed in Rome and given the task of handling the velarium or canvas awnings in the COLOSSEUM. The structure of the naval service continued to be Greek, with various commands and organization that have remained unclear. Each ship had a captain (a triearch), with a staff, headed by a beneficiarius, a centurion and his own aides. A grouping of vessels formed a squadron under the control of a navarch, probably. This rank was the top post attainable through promotion, for the fleets were under prefects (praefecti) from the Equestrian Order (EQUITES). From the reign of Claudius until the time of Vespasian there was a habit of appointing freedmen to the prefectures. Initially considered a relatively unimportant posting, by the 2nd century A.D. the office of prefect of a fleet, especially that at Misenum, the headquarters of the Roman Imperial Navy, was very prestigious. Individual fleets were distributed throughout the ports of the Empire, as they were needed, but each so-called classis had a home port and an area of patrol.
Misenum -> The port at Misenum replaced the one at Forum Julii (Forum lulii) as the center for protection of the Western Mediterranean. Its ships patrolled the waters around Spain, Gallia Narbonensis, Sardinia, Capri, Corsica, the Balearic Islands, Sicily and the Italian coast in the West.
Ravenna-Aquileia -> Shipping to the Adriatic was of concern to Rome because its waters connected Italy with the Illyrian coast and the Aegean. Piracy also occurred on this coast, mainly due to the superb sailors of Liburnia.
Pannonia -> One of the two fleets stationed on the Danube River, the Classis Pannonica, watched the waterways of the Danubian frontier and probably helped in the campaigns fought on both sides of the river. Its sister was the Classis Moesica.
Moesia -> Farther east and downriver from Pannonia was the Classis Moesica, and its area of operation was the Lower Danube from the start of Moesia Superior until the river emptied into the Black Sea. The ships of the Classis Moesica were used in campaigns against Dacia and the barbarians who perennially threatened the Danube frontier near Thrace. Depleted by the 5th century, the squadrons were markedly improved by the Prefect Anthemius and subsequently served as one of the first defenses of Constantinople.
Black Sea -> The Black Sea squadrons guarded the Roman shipping there, especially the grain ships from the Caucasus. Most of the vessels were taken from the old Thracian fleet and became the Classis Pontica, which operated out of Nicomedia or Trapezus. In the 3rd century, A.D., the Classis Pontica was driven from the sea by the water-borne invasions of the Goths in that area.
Syria -> The long, Mediterranean coastline of Asia Minor and the northeast corner of the Mediterranean at Cappadocia and Syria. Included in their jurisdiction was Cilicia, previously the home of the dreaded pirates. The fleet bore the name Classis Syriaca.
Alexandria -> Egypt was, arguably, the most important province in the Roman Empire. Its grain supply and strategic location had to be safeguarded. The seagoing responsibility was entrusted to the Classis Alexandrina (or Classis Augusta Alexandrina). It also sailed the waters of eastern Africa.
Britain -> Although the Classis Britannica was assigned to roam the coasts of Britain, its ships were docked at the port of Gesoriacum (Boulogne) on the Channel coast of the Continent. When not helping in the subjugation of the British tribes or in defending the provinces there from assault by the northern tribes, the Classis Britannica joined in the watch on the northern coasts of Gaul. Agricola, in his time as governor of Britain (78-85 A.D.), probably used this fleet in his circumnavigation of the isles.
Germania -> The waterways of the Rhine River were the province of the Classis Germanica, based at the port facilities of Cologne. It sailed from the southern edges of Germania Superior to Germania Inferior and the dangerous waters at the mouth of the North Sea.
By the 3rd century A.D., the lack of priority given to the navy came back to haunt the Empire. Ships and the quality of navigational skills had deteriorated to such an extent that the Black Sea was lost for a time to barbarian vessels. In the 4th century, the fleets were placed under the MAGISTER MILITUM of Italy in the West and ceased to have any organization in the East. The old ports fell into disuse, and any skillful enemy could develop a rival naval force, as happened in the 5th century when Geiseric and the Vandal kingdom of Africa laid claim to stretches of the Mediterranean. The debacle of the attempted sea invasion of Africa by Leo I in 468 proved that the old Roman Imperial Navy no longer existed. See also MARINES; SHIPS.
The men pressed into service on board ships of the Empire. The Imperial Marines of the Roman fleets were not members of a “Marine Corps,” because of the traditional methods of Roman warfare at sea. In the birth and flowering of the NAVY in the Punic Wars, Rome used its vessels as heavy flotillas transporting units of regular infantry into battle against other ships. The success of this system against Carthage, combined with the lack of subsequent attention to its naval arm, ensured the failure to develop a large, organized marine force. Essentially, the Roman marines, called the classiarii, were divided into squads on board imperial ships and were led into combat by a centurion. Above the centurion in rank was probably the so-called trierarch, but the exact nature of this chain of command is unclear. Any fighting done by the vessel in close quarters was usually handled by the marines, although the rowers and most of the crew had experience with hand-to-hand encounters and some weapons training. As marines were part of a larger fleet, they could be used for a variety of tasks when a group of ships was stationed permanently in one of the major ports throughout the Empire. By far the busiest of the classiarii were those situated at Misenum. Aside from the duties that called them to Rome, including the possibility of work at the Colosseum, in 59 A.D. a detachment was organized by the admiral of Misenum, Anicetus, to commit the most famous murder of Nero’s reign, the assassination of AGRIPPINA THE YOUNGER.
SHIPS Seagoing vessels were improved and modernized during the imperial epoch as a result of Rome’s expansion throughout the Mediterranean, the continued work of the Alexandrian shipbuilders and the large amounts of capital spent by Roman merchants. Although there were many differently rigged and designed vessels, most of them served either as merchant vessels or warships.
» Merchant Ships
Traditionally, the vessels designed for commerce and trade were shorter, wider and of a heavier build than their military counterparts. Being stouter in design, such ships were more seaworthy in all weather, especially when filled with goods. As their purpose was purely economic, space was devoted to storage instead of weapons or implements of war. Oars were normally limited in number, as the crews were small. Merchantmen relied upon sails, using oars only for maneuvering in special situations or in an emergency. These limitations made merchant ships easy prey for a quick attack, even in convoys, although in a good wind and with enough warning sails made them faster. For defense they required assistance from the navy of Rome.
The Roman fleets that were created for the Punic Wars were, for the most part, based on Carthaginian design. CARTHAGE boasted the powerful ship called by Rome the quinquereme, or “Five,” so named because of the five banks of oars used to propel it. By the end of the wars with Carthage, this was the principal design used by Roman builders. Afterward and up to the battle of ACTIUM, warships tended to be bigger and even heavier.
Octavian (AUGUSTUS) and his gifted admiral, Marcus AGRIPPA, chose to counter the heavy warships of Marc ANTONY and Cleopatra off the coast of Actium in 31 B.C. with a new naval strategy. Agrippa’s fleet was composed of faster, lighter triremes and the so-called liburnicae, vessels constructed by the builders of LIBURNIA in ILLYRICUM. Agrippa’s brilliant tactics, the HARPAX (a special weapon for attacking and damaging enemy vessels) and the internal disorder of the Egyptian fleet contributed to Octavian’s decisive victory. The battle of Actium ushered in a new era for the Roman world and signalled the supremacy of the trireme and liburnicae in the Roman imperial navy. These ships became the mainstay of the naval arm, although there were also smaller transports, privateers and cutters, all of Greek design.
No longer concerned with massive warfare, Rome was now preoccupied with safeguarding the seas against infrequent but dangerous piratic activity and the defense of the merchants. This policy was successful only so long as the navy was capable of mounting operations. With the eventual deterioration of the navy, the Mediterranean and the north coast of Gallia and Germania became susceptible to aggressive piracy by the VANDALS of AFRICA and the SAXONS in GERMANIA, both in the 5th century A.D.
Typically, all warships were decorated with eyes painted on their bows just above the beak, the ram (rostrum) of three spikes used to smash an opponent or to destroy enemy oars. The corvus was attached to the bow during the Punic Wars; it was a boarding plank with another spike that connected the quinquereme to the enemy vessel. Agrippa’s harpax replaced the corvus, proving more effective in combat, especially when used by the lighter ships in Octavian’s fleet.
The trireme and the liburnicae were based on the older Greek pentekontos, which had reigned for centuries as the supreme weapon of naval warfare. On average, the trireme was some 110 feet long and 12 feet wide, with a crew of 200, not including detachments of marines. The quinquereme (also spelled quinquireme) was around 120 feet long and 20 feet wide, with a crew of 300, not including marines. If the quinquereme was big, the deceres was huge. This dreadnought was the fashion toward the end of the 1st century B.C. and could be considered the apex of massive ship building. It stretched 145 feet and was 20 feet wide, with a crew of nearly 600. Its value was limited tactically, as Antony, who had several at Actium, discovered. The triremes of Octavian and Agrippa proved victorious and set the naval standard for the next age.
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