People who enjoy reading about ancient Rome are fascinated by the strength and capabilities of the Roman Legions. Perhaps not so much of the brilliance of Rome’s generals, but the capacity of 5,000 to 6,000 men advancing 50 miles in a single day, establishing a well-defended bivouac, tearing it down the next morning, and then marching another 50 miles — is nothing short of extraordinary.
Of all the things we know (or think we know) about the ancient world, there is one aspect of that history we know very little about — the Roman Navy. Even considering eight hundred years of faithful service to Rome, modern historians know far more about Rome’s legions than they do its Navy. It is a sad fact because Rome’s navy was the instrument through which the Republic (and later the Empire) transformed the Mediterranean Sea into Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) — and the loss of naval power contributed to the fall of Rome in 426 A.D.
We know very little about the Roman Navy’s early history because so few records of naval activities exist. In any case, Rome was always a land-based society. The Romans only occasionally went to sea, and until around 311 B.C.E., if any size of Roman fleet existed, hardly anyone took notice of it. But 311 B.C.E. was when Rome ordered the construction of a fleet of twenty ships and appointed two magistrates to command it.
Before the Punic Wars (264 – 146 B.C.E.) Rome’s fleet (classis) was restricted to minor coastal operations mainly centered on defending commercial ships from raiding pirates. We understand this from a chronological standpoint by realizing that Rome first had to conquer and consolidate its power on the Italian Peninsula before it could look outward. This was an effort lasting roughly 500 years.
Nor should anyone think that creating a navy was a simple task. An effective Navy must have a sufficient number of ships capable of imposing its will on an enemy fleet. The captains of such vessels must be skilled pilots and employ strategies and surface warfare tactics that allow them to defeat their enemies.
A Short History
As legions of land infantry sought to expand Rome’s influence on the land, a small naval force was trying to develop some degree of power at sea, but before the First Punic War, Rome’s fleet confined itself to coastal patrols to protect trade routes. If Roman commanders decided they needed naval blockades, they called upon their Greek allies in Southern Italy for assistance. That situation changed when Rome went to loggerheads with Carthage in 264 B.C.E.
The Punic Wars was a series of conflicts between Rome and Carthage lasting from 264 B.C.E. to 146 B.C.E. The first of these broke out in Sicily and lasted 23 years. The conflict was primarily naval warfare conducted in the Mediterranean Sea surrounding the island of Sicily. When war erupted, Carthage was the dominant power in the western Mediterranean, and insofar as the Carthaginians were concerned, Sicily was part of the Punic Empire.
Once they decided to dispute the Carthaginian claim over Sicily, the Roman Senate ordered a massive construction effort of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes. Quinqueremes were large galley ships with five rows of oarsmen; triremes were smaller ships hosting three rows of rowers. Over more than two decades of fighting, both sides suffered tremendous human and material losses. Ultimately, the Romans defeated Carthage in 241 B.C.E., even if the quest for supremacy remained undecided. A 2nd Punic War was fought between 218 – 202 B.C.E., ending with another Roman victory. In 146 B.C.E., Rome assaulted Carthage, slaughtered most of its inhabitants, and demolished the city and its fortifications. Afterward, North Africa became a Roman province.
Rome’s new fleets fell under the direct command of elected magistrates, men elected for one year. Because they were politicians with no expertise in naval warfare, the navy’s principal advisors and ship captains were Greek seamen. The Greeks provided the Romans with a large amount of knowledge, but the Carthaginians, formerly known as Phoenicians, invented seafaring — and the Romans ranked inferior to the Carthaginians for many years.
One maxim is that necessity is the mother of invention. During the First Punic War, the Romans sought ways of compensating for their lack of seafaring skills with new naval warfare technologies. One was a sea bridge (shown right) called a Corvus. Measuring roughly 4 feet by 36 feet, the device was (likely) placed in the prow of a galley where a pole and a system of pulleys permitted the raising and lowering of a bridge. A heavy spike acted as an anchor on the enemy ship’s deck, allowing marines to cross over onto the enemy ship and engage them in direct combat. Rome’s first success with the Corvus occurred during the Battle of Mylae, which the Romans won.
Despite the Carthaginian advantage in experience, they only won one major sea battle at Drepana in 249 B.C.E. By 120 B.C.E., Rome was the undisputed Mediterranean power and remained so for the next 546 years. Rome’s navy helps to explain this success.
Rome’s first sea battle outside Mare Nostrum occurred in 56 B.C.E., during the Gallic Wars. When a maritime tribe of Veneti rebelled against Rome’s authority, it was up to Julius Caesar to respond to it. Caesar, the great land general, was at a disadvantage because the Romans were unfamiliar with the coastline, struggled against tides and currents, and they had lost their surface warfare expertise. Additionally, Veneti ships were made of sturdy oak, stood taller than Rome’s lighter galleys, and relied on sail for propulsion. These factors gave the Veneti important advantages over the Romans. Still, the Romans were clever engineers. When the Veneti and Romans finally clashed in Quiberon Bay, the Roman Navy used hooks at the end of long poles and cut the halyards supporting the Veneti sails. It didn’t end well for the Veneti after Roman marines boarded their ships. In the following year, Caesar used his Roman galleys to invade Britain.
Ancient Rome can take no credit for inventing ships or surface warfare. It has been going on for a long time. Nearly 2,000 years before Italian tribalists began identifying as Roman, Egyptian ships patrolled the Nile River. Because of a lack of suitable wood for shipbuilding, Egypt constructed its earliest vessels from woven papyrus reeds. They were large enough to accommodate 30 rowers and two men on the rudder. Scholars claim that Egyptian surface warfare is as old as Egypt itself.
Next came the Phoenicians, who, around 1,500 B.C.E., gave the Egyptians a seaborne thrashing. Scholars tell us that the Phoenician culture developed from the ancient Canaanites (present-day Lebanese). The Phoenicians dominated the Mediterranean Sea around 500 B.C.E., establishing settlements in Cyprus, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, and Carthage.
The Persian navy developed within its first empire between 525 – 330 B.C.E. We know it is pure speculation because there are no existing written records of the Persian Navy. Scholars believe the Persian naval force came about because Cambyses wanted to use it to conquer Egypt, strengthen a Persian presence on the coast of Asia Minor, assert its authority over Samos, conquer Thrace, and war against Scythia. In its time, the Persians developed 1,200 warships and three times that number in transport ships.
Greece was never a nation-state until long after the Roman period. Before Rome, Greece consisted of independent city-states that were happy to fight with other Greeks when not warring with foreigners. Of the strongest city-states, Athens had the most formidable navy, its ships no doubt influenced by the Phoenicians, and created out of necessity as a defense against Persia’s attempts at conquest. The Persian wars were fought between 499 – 449 B.C.E.
The earliest Greek ship of war was known as a penteconter. This ship emerged when there was no distinction between merchants and warships. They were versatile, long-range vessels used for sea trade, piracy, and warfare and capable of transporting freight or troops. A penteconter was rowed by fifty oarsmen, arranged in a row of twenty-five on each side of the ship. A midship mast with sail could also propel the ship under favorable conditions. The Penteconter design provided a long ship with sharp keels (thus referred to as “long boats”). Typically, they lacked a full deck — or were unfenced ships.
The Greeks later copied and produced the Phoenician bireme, a ship with two rows of oarsmen on each side. Later, a trireme design increased the number of oarsmen to three rows. Triremes were first used against Corinth around 700 B.C.E. What we know about these ships comes from archeological investigations. Modern analysts claim that these ships “most likely” pushed the technological limits of the ancient world. By “technology,” historians refer to what humankind knew or understood about human accommodation, propulsion, weight, waterline, the center of gravity, stability, strength, and feasibility. Each of these was an interdependent variable — even if one became more important than another according to the ship’s purpose.
Shipbuilders would determine the size of a ship based on the number of men needed to crew it. A trireme demanded a crew of 200 men, 170 of which were involved in its propulsion and steering mechanisms. A demand for greater speed required high oar-gearing — the ratio between the outboard length of an oar and the inboard length, which made the trireme so effective at sea.
Shipbuilding was a science and a delicate balance. The original construction of a trireme was intended to maximize its performance. Should a shipwright later modify the ship, its design would become compromised. Designers attempted to optimize speed to the point where any less weight would result in losses to the ship’s integrity. They placed the center of gravity at the lowest possible position — just above the waterline — which retained the ship’s resistance to waves and capsizing.
How good were these ancient shipbuilders? The purpose of the area just below the center of gravity and the waterline (known as the hypozomata) was to allow the bending of the hull when faced with a 90-knot force. The fact that these ancient thinkers could put such technology into practice is mind-bending.
Even so, the intricacy of triremes was such that they demanded a great deal of maintenance to stay afloat. Ship’s lines, sails, rudders, oars, and masts required frequent replacement, and if left at sea too long, they would become waterlogged. To extend the life of such ships, they were pulled out of the water at night (whenever possible). Even though constructed with light wood, drawing the ship out of the water took 140 men. Properly taken care of, the vessel might last 25 years.
Construction of a trireme took 6,000 man-days. That’s 40 men, 150 days per ship. Archeologists believe the vessel measured 120 feet in length and 18 feet wide. The height of the ship sitting in the harbor was almost 7 feet. When under power, the ship was capable of 6 knots as leisurely effort. At average cruise speed, the ship could travel 50 – 60 miles in a day. The Roman quinquereme was much larger.
In classical antiquity, the primary purpose of these galleys was to ram an enemy ship — to cause the enemy ship to sink or become disabled. They called this ram rostra, giving the name Navis Rostrata for “warship.” Ship ramming took skill, luck, and a ship capable of surviving the act of ramming another ship at 8 to 10 knots speed.
It is important to remember that Rome turned to the Greeks for their expertise in its early days of investigating naval warfare.
Roman Navy High Command
During Rome’s Republic, command of a naval fleet was given to a serving magistrate or pro-magistrate — men of consular or praetorian rank.
Note: Rome thrived for well over 1,300 years. As Rome Proper developed, it underwent three systems of government. The first was a kingdom. In this arrangement, the king served as the executive magistrate. The king’s power was absolute. He was the supreme ruler, high priest, chief lawgiver and judge, and sole army commander.
When the king died, his power reverted to the Roman Senate, a body of around 100 men who served by virtue of their wealth and influence in the Roman city-state. The senate ruled Rome until electing a new king. When that occurred, the senate relinquished its sovereign power back to the king.
A succession of kings became abusive and much resented by the people. When the people overthrew the monarchy and adopted a republic, the constitutional balance of power shifted from the sole executive to the Roman Senate.
During the republican stage, the number of senators increased from around 100 to between 300 – 500 lifetime appointments. After establishing a republic, the Senate assigned executive power to two elected consuls. The consuls shared state power as chief executives for one year. During the imperial period, power shifted from appointed consuls to a single executive, the emperor (who served for life). Note: The Roman Senate continued until 603 A.D. — 177 years after the “fall of the Roman Empire.”
It was during the republican period when Rome abandoned permanent political assignments (except the Senate) and began the practice of limiting high-ranking appointments to one year. But there was a problem … the Romans soon discovered that appointments made for periods of only one year denied the state practical advantages of experience and the flexibility needed to ensure the availability of knowledgeable men to perform important functions. So, without making any changes to the limitations imposed by one-year appointments, the Romans decided to temporarily extend certain officials’ authority (imperium) for as long as needed. Pro-magistrates, therefore, were former consuls or praetors with extended authority. They were also called pro-consuls and pro-praetors.
In the Punic Wars, one consul commanded the fleet; the other controlled the army. These men were politicians and, therefore, incompetent to command or direct fleet or squadron operations. The actual command was instead entrusted to experienced legates and senior tribunes.
In ancient times, navies and trading fleets did not have the logistical capabilities of modern ships — which means that if they needed stores, repairs, or re-equip, they would have to go ashore to see to those needs. Nor was a Roman Navy headquarters element directing the fleet’s missions. Roman navies operated as extensions of the Roman Legions.
The helmsman, an experienced seaman, headed the ship’s deck and command element. Experienced sailors were always upper-deck hands, as were lookouts on the bow, boatswain, quartermaster, shipwright, piper, and two rowing assistants. Whether rowers or helmsmen, ancient sailors needed physical stamina. Previous battle experience was a “given.” These men were probably in their late 30s or early 40s. Ten additional hands cared for and deployed the ship’s sails and masts.
Contrary to Hollywood depictions, the rowers of ancient navies were free men of society’s lower classes. Enslaved people may have been employed, but if they were, it was only out of necessity rather than standard practice. These men were the greyhounds of the fleet, so they were likely young and powerful.
We believe Roman marines served aboard ships during the Punic Wars — but there is a shortage of specific information about these men that allows much insight into their duties, training, rank classifications, or uniforms. We think the naval infantry component of a Roman galley numbered between ten and fifteen men experienced in boarding enemy ships, closing with them, and engaging in combat with their enemies. Such men had to be fearless in the performance of their duties.
I think marines (naval infantry) joined the fleet during the 1st Punic War when the Roman Navy understood they could not defeat the Carthaginians by ship-ramming alone. It would be necessary for marines to help defeat enemy crews, and when Roman leaders found that even spear throwers and archers had limitations, they came up with the idea for a Corvus. Then, with that innovation, the Romans began defeating enemy ships. It may have been a marine who came up with the concept of the Corvus — and it may have been then that the Roman marine proved his worth to naval battles.
A Roman soldier served for 25 years; it was probably no different for sailors and marines. Like the army, the Roman Navy trained its men to perform necessary tasks. Sailors learned their tasks; Marines learned theirs. It is also possible that marines/sailors cross-trained — that marines learned how to perform certain naval tasks, and sailors learned how to perform marine tasks. When quinqueremes and triremes were alongside each other, marines would deploy to kill enemy crew with their spears or bows and arrows or board the enemy ship with drawn swords. Surface warfare was a dangerous game. The boarder could be killed, of course — and probably many were. But if too many marines boarded the enemy ship, the galley might capsize. No doubt, many did. We think a marine in the 3rd century A.D. may have looked like the caricature shown at right.
 If these men were able to advance 50 miles in a 12 hour period (daylight hours), they sustained a pace exceeding 4 miles per hour. Impressive.
 Modern-day Tunis.
 The word Punic refers to the language spoken by ancient Carthaginians, who evolved from Phoenician culture. There were three Punic wars.
 Scholars claim that the Romans captured a Carthaginian quinquereme and used it as a blueprint for its own ships.
 Few warfare technologies are “perfect,” and neither was the Corvus. The downside of this device was that if not properly secured, or if it became unsecured during rough seas, it could cause a galley to capsize.
 In subsequent wars, praetor’s assumed command of a fleet. A praetor was the title of either a military commander or an elected magistrate.