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Roman Fleet Types and Patrol Areas

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The Roman Fleets

Around the time of the height of the Roman Empire, the Mediterranean became so quiet that it has been referred to as the 'Roman Boating Lake', its peace threatened by little more than the occasional danger of pirates. However, the Channel fleet, the Classis Britannica, and the Rhine, Danube and Black Sea fleets were kept in active patrol on the frontier to deal with raiders.

This Entry provides a basic profile of the scope of the Roman navy and the fleets that saw service from the fall of Carthage through to the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain. Some parts of the Empire provide considerable evidence to support analysis of the disposition of the Roman navy, while others have nothing at all. Due to the less obvious role they played in the Empire's defence records may have simply overlooked some of the fluvial fleets or included them in the garrison of the nearest fort, rather than deliberately missing them out. The fort of Arbeia - modern South Shields, on Hadrian's Wall - is an example. The garrison roster included a company of bargemen (or boatmen) from the Tigris; but the record shows nothing about the fleet or squadron of the Classis Britannica known to have been stationed in that area. The Company of Tigris bargemen were a military company so they were not civilian or merchant sailors. Doubtless some might have been overlooked as many places existed around the Empire where there may have been a fort with a base or, at the very least, an anchorage.

The navy of Rome existed to expand the Roman Empire; and, the Roman Empire itself existed because of the navy of Rome. Despite this mutual reliance, Rome never really regarded the navy as truly Roman. The Romans arose from a distinctly agricultural society, with little knowledge of the sea, and the seafaring nations were seen as mere inferior provincials.

It was because of the non-citizen, auxiliary status of the of the Greeks, Egyptians and other conquered seafaring nations that built the ships and provided the crews, that the navy was regarded as an inferior service. This attitude never changed, even though the Empire became dependent upon its many fleets. The fleets were distributed across the entire Roman world providing transport and protecting the trade routes of the Empire from seaborne raiders for over 800 years.

Despite the Roman navy's long history, its constituent fleets didn't see service outside the Mediterranean until 250 years after its founding. During the Gallic campaigns of 'Gaius Julius Caesars', the fleet saw action off the north coast of France against the Veneti. This did show a profound weakness in the navy, the tidal currents and a lack of knowledge of the coast almost leading to a disastrous conclusion. This proved a useful lesson and Caesar developed the fleet with stronger and heavier ships, with local pilots employed to improve coastal navigation.

So, when Caesar launched his expeditions to Britain and Claudius had to build a fleet to complete the invasion, the navy had ships fit for the task. Indeed, the ships proved so capable that, after the invasion, the fleet could support the army on the advance north, and also complete the first recorded circumnavigation of the British Isles.

The Fleets Roman Of The Roman Empire

The Praetorian Fleets

The Emperor exercised direct control over the Praetorian fleets, which based themselves close to the strategic centre of the Empire. The Emperor appointed the carefully selected commanders himself, often from the ranks of Imperial freedmen, in order to ensure their loyalty.

The fleets consisted of:

  • The Classis Ravenatis — Created in 28 BC, with its home port at Ravenna.

  • The Classis Misenensis — Created in 28 BC, with its home port at Portus Julius.

Both the Classis Ravenatis and Classis Misenensis were formed as home water fleets and they engaged mainly in patrol and convoy escort duties. They were available for Imperial duties and were given the title Praetorian to indicate this status. They may have been formed from the division of the Classis Africana Commodiana Herculea African fleet.

The Praetorian fleets were active in all parts of the Mediterranean. Inscriptions have been found in Syria and Piraeus, near Athens, showing the fleets were active in the area.

The Fleets In The Provinces

The African to Italy Trade Route

The Classis Africana Commodiana Herculea was created in around 40 AD. No record remains of the fleet's home port, but it was likely to have been Ostia. Referred to as the African fleet it was formed to protect the trade route from Africa to Rome's main port of Ostia. This was necessary to protect shipments of grain to Rome, which included the free wheat allotment to poorer citizens of the city.

The Channel and Britain

Created in 41 AD, the Classis Britannica anchored off Gesoriacum — modern Boulogne-sur-Mer. The fleets only purpose was to provide support for the invasion of Britain. Gesoriacum provided the port of embarkation for the invasion force. After the successful crossing of the Occeanus Britannicus, the English Channel, landings took place at Richborough, Lympne and Dover. The invasion then established a supply base at Noviomagus (modern Bosham) Sussex. The fleet supported the crossing of the Thames, and provided escort for Emperor Claudius in 46 AD when he visited Britain, transporting his Praetorian Guard and the elephants for his triumphal entry into Camulodunum - modern Colchester. The home port transferred to Rutupiae (modern Richborough) and Dubris (modern Dover) in 84 - 86 BC.

The Black Sea, the Aegean and the Coast of Thrace

The Classis Pontica1 became part of the Roman navy when Nero made Pontus a province of the Empire. Originally the Classis Pontica held responsibility for protection of the Black Sea. When Hadrian became Emperor he reorganised the fleets in the area and Classis Pontica acquired responsibility for the southern part of the Black Sea, while Classis Moesica took over the northern part and the mouth of the Danube.

Classis Syriaca or the Syrian fleet, created in 64 BC, took responsibility for the Agean and Eastern Mediterranean. Sailing out of Seleucia Pieriae in Syria, this fleet controlled parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

Classis Perinthia or the Thracian fleet, created in 46 AD, monitored the Coast of Thrace out of the port of Perinthus, with other bases situated along the Thracian coast. The fleet was first formed when Thrace became part of the Empire.

Other fleets in the area included:

  • The Classis Constantinople — presumed to have anchored at Constantinople, in Turkey. No records survive, making all details an assumption. Even how or why the records were lost in not known.

  • The Classis Carpathia — Created in 390 AD. Formed from the division of the Classis Syriaca, though little else is known. The home Port of the fleet was on the Island of Karpathos in Greece.

Northern Adriatic Sea

The Classis Venetum, created in 30 BC, sailed out of Aquileia and was formed to keep control of the northern Adriatic Sea, ensuring the important route between Dalmatia and Rome remained open.

The Western Mediterranean

The Classis Mauretaniae or African fleet, established in 170 AD, sailed from Caesarea (modern Cherchell) and was formed to keep control of the African coast at the western end of the Mediterranean.

The Alexandrian Coast

The Classis Alexandrina, known as the Alexandrian fleet, was established in 30 BC. Alexandria provided the home port for the fleet, which was formed to provide escorts for grain shipments from the Nile Delta to Rome. Detachments of the Classis Alexandrina also completed patrol duty on the navigable stretches of the Nile. Records also show the Classis nova Libyca, created around 153 BC, sailing near the Nile Delta and with a home port at Ptolemais in north Africa. The records provide little indication of the responsibilities of the fleet, which ultimately became part of the Classis Alexandrina.

The Fluvial Fleets

A fluvial or river fleet, is one equipped with ships designed for use in the shallower waters of rivers and estuaries. Another characteristic of a river craft was that it was short enough to turn in a narrow channel, or could go backwards by simply turning the rowers.

The River Rhine

The Classis Germanica, created in 12 BC, patrolled the River Rhine. The fleet anchored at Castra Vetera (near modern Briten). The town provided the main base in the region for a legionary force of over 8,000 soldiers. When a Batavian uprising destroyed the settlement in 69 AD, the fleet's base transferred to Colonia Agrippinensis2, modern Cologne. While formed as a fluvial fleet, it did include ships capable of operating on open water as the fleet also sent patrols into the North Sea. The fleet may also have had ships stationed on Lake Constance, situated between Germany, Switzerland and Austria, although records are unclear and the ships there may have been entirely independent. However, given the lake flows into the Rhine some association with the Classis Germanica seems entirely probable.

The River Rhone

The River Rhone fleet, the Classis Fluminis Rhodani - which handled duties of transport and patrol on the river - had two home ports. The first was Aries3 (modern Arelate), a major port since Phoenician times. Aries was an important settlement due to its size and status as a colony of the veterans of the VI Legion4. The city was also the site of the most southerly bridge on the River Rhone5. Massalia, modern Marseilles, a Phoenician city, provided the other home port for the fleet.

The River Danube and Black Sea

The Classis Pannonica, or Pannonian fleet - created in 30 BC - protected the Western Danube. Their home port was probably Aquincum, near modern Budapest. This was a major settlement of around 42,000 people and by around 49 AD this city had a legionary garrison of 6,000, with a supporting cavalry squadron of 500. This was also a fluvial fleet that had various bases along the western Danube. Owing to the geography of the river and the natural hazard of the Kazan Gorge, the Danube had two fleets. The Classis Pannonica patrolled west of the Kazan Gorge.

The Eastern Danube was under the protection of the Classis Moesica or Moesian fleet. Created in 20 BC, their home port was Noviodunum. The Classis Moesica was another fluvial fleet with various bases along the Danube from the east of the Kazan Gorge - also known as the Iron Gates - to the Black Sea. In addition to the security of the Danube the Classis Moesica was given the duty of patrolling the northern half of the Black Sea, including the shores of the Crimea.

The importance of the city of Noviodunum, the fleets main statio (landing place), is indicated by the fact that it achieved the status of municipium6 in 46 AD. The city garrison appears to have been between 2,000 and 3,000 marines and sailors with a vexillation (1,000 men) of the Legion XI Claudia. From 117 AD until 180 AD the Legion V Macedonica, supported by 4,000 auxiliary horse and foot, were also stationed in the province.

The River Danube

The Classis Histrica arose from the combination of the Classis Pannonica and the Classis Moesica around 390 AD. The home ports were Mursa, Florentia, Arruntum, Viminacum and Aegetae. Many smaller fleets patrolled the tributaries that fed into the Danube. The fleets tributary patrols were the Classis Arlapensis et Maginensis sailing out of Comagena and Arelape.

Additional fleets included the Classis Ratianensis (out of Dacia Ripensis), the Classis Lauriacensis (out of Lauriacum) and the Classis Stradensis et Germensis (out of Margo).

The units serving the fleet are listed as the milites liburnarii and the milites nauclarii. This list is a very vague; however, these men do appear to have been attached to the following Legions that were stationed in the area. The legions stationed in the area, and able to support the fleets, were:

  • The Legio II Herculia, the Second Legion the followers of Hercules — Formed at the order of Emperor Diocletian to garrison the province of Scythia Minor between the Black Sea and the River Danube.

  • The Legio XIV Gemina, the fourteenth Twin Legion — One of the legions that invaded Britain. They distinguished themselves by defeating Boudicca.

  • The Legio X Gemina, the tenth Twin Legion — One of the legions that took part in Caesar's expedition to Britain in 55 BC.

Other Fluvial Fleets

  • The Classis Anderetianorum, anchoring at Lutetia7 (modern Paris, a name it didn't take until 360 AD), a city with a population of around 8,000. The fleet's duties included transport and patrol on the Rivers Seine and Oise.

  • The Classis Ararica, based out of Caballodunum (modern Chalon-sur-Saône), handled the duties of transport and patrol on the River Saone.

  • The Classis Sambrica, sailing from the home port of Locus Quartensis, handled duties of transport and patrol on the River Somme.

Lake-based Fluvial Fleets

The Classis Barcariorum, with a home port at Eburodunum (modern Yverdon-les-Bains), amounted to a fleet of small ships set to patrol Lake Neuchâtel, the largest of the Swiss lakes. The Classis Comensis, based out of an unrecorded port on the shores of Lake Como, which is one of the largest of the Italian lakes, included a fleet of small ships stationed for transport and patrol duties.

1Pontus royal fleet was established in 65 AD.2From around 71 AD.3The full title was 'Colonia Iulia Paterna Arelatensium Sextanorum'.4VI Legion was a favourite of Caesar. The Legion earned the nickname of Ferrata or 'Ironclad'.5The unusual feature of which was that it was a pontoon bridge supported by boats. The city also had a canal connecting it to the Mediterranean Sea.6The second-highest rank of Roman city, only colonia had a higher status.7Often incorrectly called Parisii. The Parisii were the tribe the Romans annexed by the Romans. The name Lutetia came from the Parisii word for marsh land.

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