Tuesday, December 21, 2010


After Actium, as we have seen, Augustus concentrated his ships at two bases, Misenum and Ravenna, to watch the western and eastern Mediterranean. These two ports continued to be the chief bases of the Roman fleets for three centuries or more. Under the Empire, the fleets had, we may think, not much to do. Little is heard about piracy or other seaborne hazards. The ships served to transport troops to new postings, and protect the grain supply to the city.

Detachments from both Misenum and Ravenna were based in Rome, to handle the awnings at theatres and amphitheatres there. The overall manpower of both fleets remained at a high level, with about 10,000 sailors at each base. Under Augustus and his immediate successors the fleets were commanded by equestrian officers, often ex-legionary tribunes, and later by freedmen of the Emperor’s household. But after AD 70 the commands were integrated into the equestrian civil service, and became two of the most senior posts; the Elder Pliny, encyclopaedist, naturalist and a senior procurator in the government service, was prefect of the fleet at Misenum when he lost his life in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.18 Professional admirals in the Hellenistic mould, briefly renascent in the Civil Wars of the Late Republic, are not heard of again, nor (with very few exceptions) are the squadrons of the eastern dynasts; these were incorporated along with the kingdoms and principalities into the Roman system. Control of a fleet no longer required any professional skills in seafaring, or a particular interest in naval warfare; administrative competence was the only expertise demanded. Detached squadrons on the Rhine, Danube and the English Channel played a more serious role in the maintenance of security in the frontier context. Here again their commanders were equestrians in the course of a procuratorial career.

The fleets’ manpower was drawn from free-born provincials, like the auxiliaries; slaves were not used, as in popular modern tradition. The Ravenna fleet drew a substantial number of men from the Balkan provinces and Pannonia, the Misenum fleet from Sardinia, Corsica, Africa and Egypt. No experience of sailing, or a home on the coast, were deemed of special importance in the selection of men, any more than in modern navies. The men served 26 years (one year more than the legionaries and auxiliaries), receiving—like the latter —citizenship and regularisation of marriage on discharge. From the time of Vespasian sailors began to use Latin names, and this general improvement in status is marked also by the award, probably made under Domitian, of the title praetoria to both main fleets, indicating an acceptance of their role in the central defence of the Emperor’s position. The title matches the cohortes praetoriae of the imperial bodyguard. The civil war of AD 68–69 saw the creation of legio I Adiutrix from the fleet at Misenum, and legio II Adiutrix from Ravenna; the latter saw service under Agricola in Britain. The title Adiutrix indicates that they were envisaged at first as offering ‘Support’ or ‘Assistance’ to the regular forces. It seems that founder members of both legions remained non-citizens until discharge, but fresh drafts were drawn from the normal sources thereafter so that they were quickly assimilated.

After Actium we hear no more of legions serving on shipboard, presumably because the military presence of such heavily armed infantry was deemed no longer necessary.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


A painting by Agostino Tassi or Buonamico (1565-1644) shows a ship under construction at the leading Tuscan port of Livomo. The painting illustrates the large quantities of wood required for shipbuilding, and the immensity of the task posed by the construction of large warships using largely unmechanized processes. The capital investment required was formidable, but ships generally had a life of only twenty to thirty years.

Naval warfare entailed a commitment of resources which was often greater than that required for warfare on land. The failure of Philip II's huge and costly attempt to mount an invasion of England in the summer of 1588, and of subsequent expeditions, both Spanish and English, demonstrate the limits of sixteenth-century seapower.

The wooden warship equipped with cannon, whether driven by sails, muscle-power, or both, was the single most costly, powerful, and technologically advanced weapons system of the entire early modem period. The construction, equipment, manning, supply, and maintenance of a fleet required considerable financial and logistical efforts. Warships and equipment were durable, a heavy capital investment requiring maintenance; they therefore demanded not only technologically advanced yards for their construction, but also permanent institutions to manage them.

Warships provided effective mobile artillery platforms, and an individual vessel might carry the heavy firepower capacity comparable to that of an entire army. The trading wealth unlocked by the 'Age of Discoveries' encouraged the development of naval power to both protect and attack long-distance trade routes. Warships were also the most effective means of attacking distant hostile bases. In European waters, the strategic commitments of many powers involved maritime links, as for example between Spain and both Italy and the Low Countries, or Sweden and the eastern Baltic.

The sixteenth century saw the establishment and growth of state navies and the greatly increased use of heavy guns in sailing warships: heavy guns were carried in the Baltic from the early 1510s, and by English and French warships in the same period. Carvel building (the edge-joining of hull planks over frames) began to replace clinker (overlapped planks) construction in about 1500, contributing significantly to the development of hulls which were stronger and better able to carry heavy guns. Also, their sizes grew: there were warships of up to 2,000 tons (2,032 tonnes) displacement from early in the century. The English Henry Grace d Dieu (also known as Great Harry) had a 15 14 specification of 186 guns and 1,500 tons (1,524 tonnes) deadweight. The French, Scottish, Maltese, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Lubeck, and Portuguese navies all included ships of comparable size during the course of the century.

Medieval naval warfare had been dominated by boarding, and this continued to play a role. The rising importance of firepower, however, led to a shift towards standoff tactics in which ships did not come into direct contact and boarding became impossible. The Portuguese were the first systematically to exploit heavy guns to fight standoff actions against superior enemies, a development often incorrectly claimed for the English at the time of the Armada. In northern Europe, the shift towards stand-off tactics can be seen by contrasting the Anglo-French war of 1512-14, in which the fleets fought in the Channel in the traditional fashion, with the gunnery duel in which they engaged off Portsmouth in 1545. This shift had important implications for naval battle tactics - though truly effective ways of deploying naval firepower were not found until the next century - and it further encouraged the development of warships primarily as artillery platforms. Forged-iron guns were dangerously unreliable, while the manufacture of large cast-iron weapons was beyond the technological scope of the period, but from mid-century firepower was increased by the development of large guns cast instead from lighter, more durable, and workable 'brass' (actually bronze). Simultaneously, improvements in gunpowder increased their range.

Reale De France Galley

Lateen rigged galleys like this one were the backbone of Louis XIV's Mediterranean fleet. The "Reale" in the name means that the ship belonged to the king.  She carried 8,000 square feet of sail and 427 oarsmen. Because of her low hull, water swamped her deck even in slight seas. Reale De France model ship kit by Corel features double plank-on-bulkhead construction in beech and walnut with pre-cut wooden parts. Decorated by the famous sculptor Pierre Puget, some of the stern ornaments are displayed in the Musée de la Marine in Paris which holds the original plans and many documents about the ship.Stern ornamentation is gilded cast metal. Other decorations are etched brass. Armament includes five cannon and eleven turned brass falconets. Rigging is supplied in five diameters. Also included are 59 pre-shaped oars, cloth sails, and silk-screened flags. Thirteen sheets of detailed plans plus instruction book show you how build a magnificent replica that's almost four feet long.