The Roman Navy was always considered an inferior arm and was strictly under army control.
But already during the First Punic War, Rome proved itself capable of launching a fleet capable of checking an established naval power such as Carthage.
Romans were no sailors though. They had no knowledge of ship building. Their ships were in fact built copying the example of captured Carthaginian vessels, combined with the expertise supplied by the Greek cities of southern Italy.
Rather unexpected success in battle was obtained by a logical Roman idea that a warship was little more than a floating platform on which the soldiers could be brought into close contact with the enemy.
For this purpose they invented a huge boarding plank with a large spike on the end, which could be raised and lowerd like a drawbridge. Before battle it would be raised and then dropped onto an enemy’s deck. The spike would embed itself into the oppnent’s deck planking and the legionaries could board the enemy vessel across it. This elaborate contraption was called ‘the raven’ (corvus) This invention gave Rome five victories at sea. However, it is believed that it’s weight, carried above the water line, also made the ships unstable, and could in rough seas cause them to capsize.
In effect, much of this achievement of their sea victories was minimized by the losses the Romans hence suffered at sea. Partially the corvus might well be responsible for some of these losses. But generally it was the inept way the Romans handled their vessels as well as their ill fortune in running into several tempests.
It is possible that Rome’s losses at sea through lack of seamanship and ignorance of navigation had her rely completely on the Greek cities to provide ships when they were required. But as Rome gained control of the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, so the sea power of the Greek cities declined, and in the years 70-68 BC the pirates of Cilicia were able to carry on their trade with impunity right up to the Italian coastline.
The threat to the vital corn supply was such that the Senate was stung into action and gave Pompey an extraordinary command to clear the seas of pirates. He achieved this in only three months. Far too short a period in which to have built any ships of his own. His fleet was largely composed of vessels pressed into service from the Greek cities. After this there is evidence of fleets kept in the Aegean, although they may not always have been in great fighting condition.
It was the civil war between Caesar and Pompey which so clearly demonstrated the true significance of sea power and at one time there had been as many as a thousand ships engaged in the Mediterranean. As the struggle continued Pompey’s son, Sextus, acquired a fleet sufficient to keep Octavian at bay and endanger the grain supply to Rome.
Octavian and Agrippa set to work to construct a large fleet at Forum Iulii, and train the crews. In 36 BC Sextus was finally defeated at Naucholus and Rome became, once more, mistress of the western Mediterranean. The final event of the civil war was the Battle of Actium, which destroyed Antony.
Octavian was left with some 700 ships of various sizes, ranging from heavy transports to light galleys (liburnae, which were his private property and which he manned with slaves and freedmen of his personal service. – No Roman citizenry ever handled an oar !
These ships formed the first standing fleet, the best ships forming the first permanent squadron of the Roman Navy and established at Forum Iulii (Fréjus).
Augustus saw, as with the army itself, the need for a permanent arrangement for maintaining the peace, but the most strategic and economical situations for the main bases had yet to be evolved. Forum Iulii controlled the north-western Mediterranean, but soon further bases were needed to protect Italy itself and the corn supply to Rome and the Adriatic. an obvious choice was Misenum on the Bay of Naples, and considerable harbour works and buildings were started by Augustus, the port thereafter remaining the most important naval base throughout Imperial times.
Augustus also constructed a new naval harbour at Ravenna at the head of the Adriatic, helping to deal with any potential trouble form Dalmatia and Illyria, should it arise.
Another important area which Augustus felt needed special care and protection was Egypt, and it is probable that he founded the Alexandrine Fleet. (For services to Vespasian in the civil war it was rewarded with the title Classis Augusta Alexandrina).
the squadron had a detachment along the African coast at Caesarea when Mauretania became a province and may have been responsible for supplying the armies sent there under Claudius.
A Syrian squadron, the Classis Syriaca was believed by later Roman historians to have been founded by Hadrian, but it is believed that is was created much earlier.
Along the northern frontiers squadrons were created to meet the needs along the coasts and rivers as the empire expanded. The conquest of Britain involved massive naval preparations. Ships were assembled at Gesoraicum (Boulogne) and this harbour remained the main base for the Classis Britannica.
The fleet naturally played a vital part in the conquest of Britain, in bringing supplies to the troops. One of the finest recorded achievements in the conquest of Britain is the circumnavigation of the Scotland under Agricola, proving that in fact Britain was an island. In AD 83 the fleet was used to soften the position in Scotland by making lightning raids up the east coast; it also discovered the Orkney islands.
In the campaign against the Germans the Rhine played a major role. Squadrons of the fleet were operating along the lower stretches of the river as early as 12 BC under Drusus the Elder, but with as yet little understanding of the tides his ships were left high and dry in the Zuyder Zee and his forces were only saved by the Frisian allies. Drusus also constructed a canal to shorten the distance from the Rhine to the North Sea. This was used by his son Germanicus in AD 15, in whose campaign the fleet was again much in evidence.
But the stormy weather of Northern Europe generally proved a lot to handle for a Roman fleet more accustomed to the calm waters of the Mediterranean. The fleets both in Germany and Britain suffered heavy losses throughout.
Although its activities could hardly be called distinguished, the fleet of the Rhine did receive the title Augusta from Vespasian an later shared with the Lower German units the title pia fidelis Domitiana, following the suppression of Antonius Saturninus.
The headquarters of the German fleet, the fleet of the Rhine, or Classis Germanica, were at today’s town of Alteburg near Cologne.. There were probably other stations lower down the river, especially near the mouth, where navigation became hazardous.
The Danube, the other great natural boarder guarding the Roman empire from the northern hordes, has a natural division into two parts at the Iron Gates in the Kazan Gorge at it was probably difficult to pass in times of low water. The river thus came to have two fleets, the Pannonian fleet, Classis Pannonica, in the west, and the Moesian fleet, Classis Moesica, to the east.
The Pannonian fleet owed its creation to the campaign of Augustus in 35 BC. The natives attempted naval warfare on the Sava river with dugout canoes but with short-lived success.
Hostile patrols and supply routes along the rivers Sava and Drava became factors in this campaign. As soon as the Danube became the frontier the fleet was moved there, although Roman patrols will have continued along the main southern tributaries of the great stream.
With Trajan’s conquest of Dacia added the need also patrol the northern tributaries- and furthermore the need to guard the coast toward the vast Black Sea, the Pontus Euxinus.
Extensively colonized by the Greeks in the eighth to sixth century BC, it did not attract any serious attention from Rome until the reign of Claudius; until then power had been invested in friendly or client kings.
Little attempt had been made to control piracy. It was the annexation of Thrace which brought part of the shoreline under direct Roman control and there appears to have been a Thracian fleet, the Classis Perinthia, which may have been of native origin.
The Armenian campaigns under Nero’s rule led to the taking over of Pontus , and the royal fleet became the Classis Pontica.
During the civil war following Nero’s death the Black Sea became a battleground. The freedman Anicetus, commander of the fleet, raised the standard of Vitellius, destroyed the Roman ships and the town of Trapezus and then turned to piracy assisted by tribes from the eastern shore who used a type of boat known as camera.
Thus, a new fleet had to be fitted out and this, with legionary support, frown Anicetus into his stronghold at the mouth of the river Khopi on the east shore from where he was alas surrendered to the Romans by the local tribesmen.
Under Hadrian the Black Sea was divided between the Classis Pontica, responsible for the southern and eastern parts of the Black SEa, the mouth of the Danube and the coastline to the north as far as the Crimea was the responsibility of the Classis Moesica
Organization of the Fleet
The commanders of the fleet were praefecti recruited from the equestrian order like those of the auxiliaries. their status in the military and civil hierarchy underwent changes in the first century AD. At first there was a tendency to use army officers, tribunes and primipilares (first centurions), but under Claudius it became linked with civil careers and some commands were given to imperial freedmen. Though this proved unsatisfactory, one need only look at the example of Anicetus to understand why.
There was a reorganization under Vespasian, who raised the status of the praefecture, and the command of the Misene Fleet became one of the most important and prestigious equestrian posts obtainable. This, together with the praefecture of Ravenna, became a purely administrative position with active service a very unlikely event. The praefectures of the provincial fleets ranked with auxiliary commands.
The lower commands present a complex system. In the first place many of these positions were Greek, owing to the origins of Roman navigation. The navarch must have been the squadron commander, the trierarch a ship captain, but just how many ships constituted a squadron is unknown, although there are indications that it might have been ten.
The basic difference between army and navy was that navy officers could never hope for promotion into another arm, until the system was changed by Antoninus Pius. The highest rank any sailor could achieve until then was to become a navarch.
Each ship had a small administrative staff under a beneficarius and the whole crew was considered a century under a centurion assisted by an optio.
Presumably the centurion was responsible for the military aspects and had under his command a small force of trained infantry who acted as a spearhead in an assault party. The rowers and the other crew members would have some arms training and would have been expected to fight when called upon. The exact relationship between centurion and trierach may have been difficult at times, but custom must have established precise spheres of authority.
The sailors themselves were normally recruited from the lower ranks of society, but were free men. However, the Romans had never readily taken to the sea and few sailors would have been from Italian origin. Most would have originated from amongst the sea-faring peoples of the eastern Mediterranean.
Service was for twenty-six years, a year longer than the auxiliaries, marking the fleet as a slightly inferior service, and citizenship was the reward for discharge. Very occasionally whole crews might for a special piece of gallantry be fortunate enough to receive immediate discharge and there are also cases where they were enrolled into the legion.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.