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The Fleets of the Roman Navy

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A Roman fleet of ships.

This Entry provides a basic insight into the scope of the Roman navy and the fleets that saw service from about 300 BC to the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain in 410 AD.

The Beginnings of the Roman Navy

It is not known when exactly the Romans started building a fleet. During the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage, in 260 BC the Carthaginians defeated a rather pathetic Roman fleet, but the Romans responded by building 100 warships in the space of two months. Some historians consider this the beginning of the Roman Navy proper. Others point out that the Romans did patrol their coast to guard against piracy, so there must have been a navy for some time before this. This Entry takes a nominal date of 300 BC as a likely point for the founding of the Roman Navy.

Evidence for the Fleets

There is a considerable amount of evidence from some parts of the Empire and almost nothing from others. Due to the less obvious role they played in the defence of the Empire, some of the fluvial (river) fleets have been overlooked and almost forgotten or may have been included in the garrison of the nearest fort but none will have been deliberately missed 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 River Tigris but there is no fleet or squadron of the Classis Britannica, the main fleet defending Britain, recorded in that area. The Company of Tigris Bargemen were a military company so they were not civilian or merchant sailors. There is little doubt that records of some units have been lost in the passage of time as there are many places around the Empire where there may have been a fort with a base, or at the very least an anchorage.

Why Rome Needed a Navy

The navy of Rome existed to expand the Empire and the Empire existed because of the navy of Rome. There is no doubt that Rome expanded because of her legions, but the prosperity and stability of Rome was dependent upon trade and trade was reliant upon the protection of the navy. Despite this mutual reliance, the navy was never regarded as truly quite Roman. This was because the Romans were a distinctly agricultural society who had little knowledge of the sea, and therefore had to rely on the people of the conquered seafaring nations to provide the navy. Owing to the social structure of the Empire, these nations were regarded as inferior provincials.

These nations consisted of Greeks and Egyptians together with other conquered seafaring nations. These subject peoples built the ships and provided the crews and were largely non-citizens. The military land-based units, or 'levies'1, were therefore only granted auxiliary status; this meant that the navy was always regarded as the inferior branch of the service. This attitude never changed, even though the Empire became increasingly dependent upon its many fleets. These fleets were distributed across the entire Roman world, providing transport and protecting the Empire's trade routes from seaborne raiders for over 800 years.

Expansion to the West

Even though there were a large number of fleets during the long history of the Roman navy, it was not until 250 years after its founding that any fleet saw much service outside the Mediterranean. During Gaius Julius Caesar's Gallic campaigns, the fleet was in action on the north coast of France against the Veneti. This did show a profound weakness in the navy: the tidal currents and lack of knowledge of the coast were almost disastrous. This proved a useful lesson and Julius Caesar developed the fleet with stronger and heaver ships, and employed local pilots to improve coastal navigation.

During the period between 44 BC and 54 AD, the Mediterranean had become so quiet that it has been referred to as the Roman Boating Lake. The only real danger left to shipping on the Mediterranean was the constant threat of pirates, which had to be dealt with to prevent raiding becoming a major problem. Meanwhile, the areas patrolled by the Rhine, Danube and Black Sea fleets were kept in action protecting the frontier from invaders as well as dealing with raiders.

The major naval activity during this period was in the English Channel, involving the fleet assembled by Julius Caesar for his expeditions to Britain, and later the Classis Britannica (Fleet of Britain) created by Emperor Claudius for his invasion of Britain.

So when Julius Caesar launched his expeditions to Britain and Claudius his invasion, they both had to build a fleet to complete the task, as the navy had no ships that were suitable for the conditions of the Channel waters. The ships that Claudius commissioned were so suitable that after the invasion, the fleet could support the army on the advance north, and also completed the first recorded circumnavigation of the British Isles.

The Praetorian Fleets

The Praetorian fleets were created to be under the direct control of the Emperor and were therefore based close to the strategic centres of the Empire. The commanders were carefully selected and directly appointed by the Emperor, often from the ranks of imperial freedmen, in order to ensure their loyalty.

The Classis Ravenatis
Created in 28 BC, their home port was Ravenna.

The Classis Misenensis
Created in 28 BC, their home port was Portus Julius.

Portus Julius was the port that served the area around Pompeii and Herculaneum2. Both the classis Ravenatis and classis Misenensis were formed as home water fleets and their duties were mainly to patrol and escort convoys. 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 these areas.

The Fleets in the Provinces

The African to Italy Trade Route

The Classis Africana Commodiana Herculea was created in around 40 AD. Their home port was not recorded 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 the shipments of grain to Rome which included the free wheat allotment to poorer citizens of Rome.

The Channel and Britain

The Classis Britannica was created in 41 AD. The home port was Gesoriacum - (modern Boulogne-sur-Mer). The only purpose of this fleet was to provide support for the invasion of Britain. Gesoriacum was the port of embarcation of the invasion force. After the successful crossing of the Oceanus Britannicus, the English Channel, landings took place at Richborough, Lympne and Dover, with the establishment of a supply base at Noviomagus (modern Bosham in Sussex). The fleet was in action supporting the crossing of the Thames, and providing an escort for Emperor Claudius in 46 AD when he visited Britain, transporting his Praetorian Guard, and elephants for his triumphal entry into Camulodunum (modern Colchester). The home port was transferred to Rutupiae (modern Richborough) and Dubris (modern Dover) in 84 - 86 AD.

The Black Sea, the Aegean and the Coast of Thrace

The Classis Pontica was established in 65 AD. It became part of the Roman navy when Pontus, the Black Sea coast of modern Turkey, was made a province of the Empire by Nero. Originally the Classis Pontica was responsible for the protection of the Black Sea. When he became Emperor, Hadrian reorganised the fleets in the area and this fleet was given the responsibility for the just southern part of the Black Sea, the northern part and the mouth of the Danube becoming the responsibility or the Classis Moesica.

The Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean was the responsibility of the Classis Syriaca or Syrian fleet - it was created in 64 BC. The home port was Seleucia Pieriae in Syria.

The coast of Thrace - north-eastern Greece and the part of Turkey that is in Europe - was controlled by the Classis Perinthia, also known as the Thracian fleet. It was created in 46 AD when Thrace became part of the Empire and had its home port at Perinthus, with other bases situated along the Thracian coast.

The other fleets in the area were the Classis Constantinople and the Classis Carpathia. The Classis Constantinople. was based in the city of the same name (modern Istanbul) but no records have survived - even the name Classis Constantinople is an assumption. The Classis Carpathia was created in 390 AD. Almost nothing is known about this fleet apart from that it was formed from the division of the Classis Syriaca. The home port of the fleet was on the island of Karpathos in Greece.

Northern Adriatic Sea

The Classis Venetum was created in 30 BC. The fleet's home port was Aquileia. It was formed to keep control of the northern Adriatic Sea, and keep open the important route between Dalmatia (modern Croatia) and Rome.

The Western Mediterranean

The Classis Mauretaniae or African fleet - created in 170 AD, the fleet's home port was Caesarea (modern Cherchell, Algeria), it was formed to keep control of the African coast at the western end of the Mediterranean.

The Alexandrian Coast

The Classis Alexandrina or Alexandrian fleet was established in 30 BC. The home port of the fleet was Alexandria in Egypt; the fleet was formed to provide escorts for the grain shipments from the Nile Delta to Rome. The Classis Alexandrina also had the duty of patrolling the Nile. Another fleet recorded near the Nile Delta was the Classis Nova Libyca, created around 153 BC. The home port of the fleet was Ptolemais in North Africa. Little is recorded and as it was based near the Nile Delta, it may have become part of the Classis Alexandrina.

The Fluvial Fleets

A fluvial or river fleet is one which is 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.

For most of the history of the Empire, the northern frontier was formed by the Rivers Rhine and Danube, so control of these rivers was very important.

The River Rhine

The River Rhine was patrolled by the Classis Germanica. Created in 12 BC, their home port was Castra Vetera (near modern Birten). The town was the main base in the region for a legionary force of over 8,000. When the settlement was destroyed during a Batavian uprising in 69 AD, the base was transferred to Colonia Agrippinensis3, modern Köln / Cologne. This was a fluvial fleet; however it did have ships capable of operating at sea as the fleet also sent patrols into the North Sea. There is evidence that there were also ships stationed on Lake Constance (situated between Germany, Switzerland and Austria). It is not clear if these ships were a squadron of the Classis Germanica, since the lake flows into the Rhine, or a separate fleet.

The River Danube and Black Sea

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

The Eastern Danube, from the Kazan Gorge to the Black Sea, was under the protection of the Classis Moesica or Moesian fleet. Created in 20 BC, their home port was Noviodunum (modern Isaccea, Romania). 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 fleet's main statio (landing place) is indicated by the fact that it achieved the status of municipium 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.

Eventually, around the year 390 AD, the two Danube fleets were combined into the Classis Histrica. The home ports were Mursa, Florentia, Arruntum, Viminacum and Aegetae. There were a number of smaller fleets patrolling the tributaries that fed into the Danube. The fleets patrolling the tributaries were:

  • The Classis Arlapensis et Maginensis, based in Comagena and Arelape.
  • The Classis Ratianensis based in Dacia Ripensis.
  • The Classis Lauriacensis, with a home port of Lauriacum.
  • The Classis Stradensis et Germensis, with a home port at Margo.

The military 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 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. This was one of the legions that invaded Britain, who also distinguished themselves by defeating Boudicca.

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

Other River-based Fleets

Other Fluvial Fleets included the Classis Anderetianorum. The fleet's home port was Lutetia (modern Paris, France)4, a city with a population of around 8,000. The fleet's duties were transport and patrol on the Rivers Seine and Oise. The Classis Ararica was stationed at Caballodunum (modern Chalon-sur-Saône); its duties included transport and patrol on the River Saone. The Classis Sambrica had responsibility for the River Somme and had its home port at Locus Quartensis.

The River Rhone fleet, the Classis Fluminis Rhodani, had two home ports. The first was Arelate5 (modern Arles), a major port since Phoenician times. Arles was an important settlement due to its size and status as a Colony of the veterans of the VI Legion6. The city was also the site of the most southerly bridge on the River Rhone7. Despite this Arles for vied for supremacy with Massalia (modern Marseilles). Both cities provided supporting bases for the river fleet the duties of which were mainly transport and patrol on the River Rhone.

Lake-Based Fluvial Fleets

The Classis Barcariorum, with a home port at Eburodunum (modern Yverdon-les-Bains), was a fleet of small ships patrolling Lake Neuchâtel, the largest of the Swiss lakes. The Classis Comensis had a home port on the shores of Lake Como. Although there are no records of this fleet, there are a series of bases on the shores of the Lake, which is one of the largest of the Italian lakes. A fleet of small ships was stationed here for transport and patrol duties.

1Originally the Roman army was based on conscription of citizens for either a campaign or a year. This was known as a levy, the word legion comes from the Latin word legre or levy. From this time the term was applied to any Roman land-based unit including marines and cavalry. A levy is also a form of taxation.2It was from this port that the rescue attempt was sent after the volcanic eruption that destroyed both Pompeii and Herculaneum.3From around 71 AD.4The inhabitants of Lutetia were the Parisii, giving it its modern name. The name Lutetia came from the Parisii word for marsh land.5The full title was 'Colonia Iulia Paterna Arelatensium Sextanorum'.6The VI Legion was a favourite of Caesar's; the Legion earned the nickname of Ferrata or 'Ironclad'.7The 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.

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