No civilization in history can claim to have had a more powerful, resilient and disciplined army than the Romans; few have had a force so pointedly fashioned as a tool of statecraft and imperial expansion. The ingeniously imitative Romans borrowed the most effective elements of Greek/Macedonian warfare, adding their own innovations and relying upon the almost superhuman endurance of the Roman foot soldier to create the greatest empire in history. The peerless Roman soldier made a navy seem superfluous and, most of all, un-Roman. Nonetheless, in typically inventive Roman fashion, and in the interest of safeguarding commerce and protecting its citizens, Rome created a navy capable of achieving those objectives and of projecting Roman imperial power with ships that enabled Rome to wage its own kind of warfare at sea.
As inheritor of the Hellenic world, the Romans benefited from both the technical and tactical experience of the Greeks, who are renowned down to the present day for having defeated a powerful Persian navy hundreds of years before Rome dominated the Mediterranean with ships constructed on the Greek trireme model. The famous Greek battles against the invading Persians at Marathon and Salamis both had land-sea components. At Marathon in 490 B.C., Athenian hoplites made a valiant stand against the Persians, who had used their massive navy to overwhelm the Greeks at Euboea and Delos, the depository of Athenian wealth. Miltiades
scored a stunning victory at Marathon, though many of the Persian survivors were able to escape on awaiting ships, which transported the remnants of the army to Phaleron.
Approximately a decade later, the Persians returned bent on revenge and determined to raze Athens to the ground. The legendary defensive stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae resulted in slaughter and Persian victory, only delaying their arrival at Athens. However, it was at sea that the Greek general Themistocles believed the Greeks had the greatest chance of inflicting defeat on the Persians. During the Peloponnesian War, Athens also used seaborne mobility to insert ground troops that won the battle of Pylos.
Ship design and development -
The most versatile and widely used ship during the Greek epoch was the trireme, a three-tiered ship that became the most important weapon in the Romans’ naval arsenal. The trireme of the Roman navy was generally 38 meters long and three meters wide, and was powered by approximately 150 oarsmen. It was piloted by a small, core group of navigators and manned by anywhere from 50-75 marines, whose job it was to board enemy ships and overcome the crews. The objective of the trireme was to ram and disable or sink the enemy ship by crushing its
hull or destroying its oars (Pitassi, 57). The trireme was an admirable balance between power on one hand and speed and maneuverability on the other. As such, the Romans used them widely throughout the Mediterranean. Always quick to maximize an effective weapon, the Romans enlarged an earlier Greek design for a quinquereme, a huge five-deck ship intended to be difficult for other ships to damage and destroy. Largest of all was the massive deceres, which was rowed by more than 500 oarsmen.
Pirates and commerce -
As Roman interests spread far and wide, sea trade and travel became indispensable. Rome may have been master on land but her interests had to be protected at sea as well. The most lethal threat to seaborne trade during the Republic was pirates, who made travel
on the Mediterranean hazardous for hundreds of years. The historian Suetonius has given us a glimpse of what was an omnipresent threat in his Lives of the Caesars. He writes that Julius Caesar himself was captured by pirates on his way from Rome to Rhodes. As their prisoner,
Caesar was held for 40 days “in a state of extreme indignation, with just one doctor and two personal attendants for company” (Suetonius, 4). Surely, if even the scion of one of the most powerful families in Rome could be taken on the high seas, something had to be done to impose Roman law and order there.
As the Republic began to spread throughout the Mediterranean world, it needed to link its cities and trading centers as well as protect the exchange of commerce. The gradual ascendance of Rome’s naval power began following the Republic’s conquest of the peoples of Italy. The ancient sea lanes of the Mediterranean were the most highly contested in the world, and Rome’s growing power was threatened by the Carthaginians, a great sea-faring civilization, as well as the pirates. Overcoming the Carthaginian threat was a matter of survival for Rome, which was pushed to the brink of defeat by the armies of Hannibal. There was much at stake in Rome and Carthage’s centuries-long struggle for dominance in the Mediterranean. The wealthy ports of the Levant and North Africa, Egypt in particular, were bound to bring the two great powers into mortal conflict.
The Punic Wars -
The Punic Wars were a death struggle between Rome and Carthage for primacy in the
Mediterranean world. Trade and economic superiority were the ostensible reasons for the two Punic Wars, which provided the impetus for the development of Roman naval power. The Romans responded to the challenge by adopting the naval prowess of the Greeks, Arabs and
Carthaginians themselves, and adding their own technological innovations in order to gain an advantage they could use to gain the upper hand in the Mediterranean. Utilizing the ancient Greek trireme design, the Romans were able to make gigantic battering rams out of their ships, fashioning pointed prows, which were an elongation of the keel, which could shatter the sides of
enemy ships. Three rows of oarsmen provided the momentum, particularly in battle, while masts could be removed as a Roman ship prepared for battle. Perhaps the most devastating invention was one that enabled Roman “marines” to overwhelm enemy sailors in hand-to-hand combat,
essentially allowing the Romans to fight the way they knew best.
The great naval struggle against Carthage, the winner of which would have control of the entire Mediterranean, forced the Romans to find a way to adapt naval warfare to their style of fighting. The great victory at Mylae, which gave Rome its first naval triumph over Carthage in 260 B.C., was attributable to Roman technological developments, one of which was the corvus, a flexible plank or platform that was used to give Roman marines rapid access to enemy vessels. The corvus, as a new feature of seaborne warfare, was unknown to the Carthaginians and was the key factor in Rome’s naval victory over the Carthaginian fleet. “The Roman ships were rowed straight for them and they met head-on. The Romans dropped their corvus, their marines
swarmed aboard the Punic ships, overwhelming the smaller contingents of Punic marines and capturing nearly all of them” (Pitassi, 59).
This was a seminal event in the development of Roman military power. Not only did it showcase what the Romans could do when it came to military engineering, at which they were unparalleled, but it also was further evidence of the superior fighting quality of the Roman
soldier. And, perhaps most important of all, it heralded the ascendance of a new maritime power. “It was a great victory and with it, the centuries-old Punic domination of the western Mediterranean was at an end. For the Romans, they had stepped into the first rank of world powers, having successfully challenged a world power in its own medium” (Pitassi, 59). This is an important point, one which illustrates what made Rome master of the world: It’s ability to conquer enemies on their own terms.
Caius Duilius -
However, engineering and technological advancement were still only part of the story. Rome required a visionary commander to overcome its greatest enemy on the waves, and Caius
Duilius, who had been elected consul during the 250s B.C. was a man of foresight. He understood that Rome would need a comprehensive military strategy to overcome the Carthaginians on both land and sea. He knew also that if Rome could nullify Carthage’s advantage at sea, it would be easier to confront them on land, where Rome would have the tactical advantage. Some gave Cornelius Scipio credit for the victory at Mylae, in all likelihood because of Duilius’ plebeian background. Posterity, however, would give Duilius his due. “Duilius’ column was erected in a prominent position in the Forum Romanum (near the Rostra).
Above all it demonstrated the popularity gained by the general through his great success at Mylae, for one may assume that his exceptional honor was granted” (Hoyos, 2011).
The Carthaginians lost 44 ships and 3,000 men at Mylae, with a further 7,000 taken
prisoner by the Romans (Levien, 137). Duilius’ victory did more than score a great strategic victory for Rome in its long struggle against Carthage. Mylae showed the Romans that their enemy could be defeated in his element. “The Romans were naturally greatly rejoiced at this
their first decisive naval victory, as it gave them great confidence in their own capabilities as seamen, whilst, at the same time, it dispirited their enemies” (Levien, 137). Duilius’ breakthrough victory led to subsequent naval victories throughout the northern Mediterranean,
and settlements along the coastlines that aided Carthage could be harassed with impunity.
More than 200 years later, the Carthaginians were a distant memory but the Republic that men like Caius Duilius had fought to preserve was in its last days. The civil wars of the 1st century B.C. saw the rise of great war lords, whose internecine political fighting sealed the
Republic’s fate. Augustus Caesar emerged the victor after defeating an alliance between Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Antony’s famous paramour, in a great naval victory at Actium. It was a mark of just how far Rome’s naval capabilities had advanced in the ensuing two centuries since Mylae that the decisive battle in the great power struggle between Pompey, Antony and Augustus took place at sea. It is also significant that Augustus apparently comprehended and embraced the importance of sea power to the continued aggrandizement of Rome’s position in the Mediterranean world and beyond.
No one had been so successful at accruing political power during the civil wars than Augustus, and none had maneuvered so adroitly to build a military advantage over his rivals. Having emerged the strongest of strong men, it was Augustus who would bridge the gap between Republic and Empire, which could not have happened without the centralization of Rome’s
armed forces under the power of the Emperors, and increasing the size of the legions. But Augustus’ vision saw farther, and he realized that more was needed in order to realize his ambitions for Rome’s new imperial outlook. “Augustus also reorganized the Roman navy and
used it effectively to rid the major rivers and the Mediterranean of pirates, who had been disrupting shipping. For the next 200 years, the navy protected the provinces and Italy from waterborne threats” (Adler and Pouwels, 127).
outlook. The protection of North Africa, and Egypt in particular, were also of concern to
Augustus. Consequently, he took steps to establish a naval presence at Alexandria, capable of enforcing Roman power in the southern Mediterranean and of protecting access to the precious Egyptian grain fields. Under Augustus, the Empire also employed river-based fleets in Germany on the Rhine, and on the Danube, which proved useful in subduing native uprisings in both western and eastern Europe.
Augustus’ reign was the high-water mark for Roman power. By the time Tiberius assumed power in 14 A.D., the Mediterranean had been completely pacified. The phrase
“Roman lake” has often been used to describe the situation and is a virtual synonym for the Pax Romana, the period in which Rome stood unchallenged and by whose power much of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa had been forced into the Empire. It is important to remember
that Rome was never truly in a state of “peace,” at least not in the sense that modern, post-Cold War civilization understands the word. The Romans were nearly always in the business of maintaining an empire, an extremely costly and logistically demanding undertaking, and which required a near-constant war footing to be maintained. It was during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, supposedly the most peaceful in the Empire’s history, that revolt flared up in Judaea. Not long after, the Emperor Claudius launched a new war of aggression in Britain.
Peacetime and decline -
Thus, the idea of a “peacetime” navy was no more real for the Romans than was a peacetime army. For example, even after the Carthaginians’ power had been broken, and long before Augustus established permanent naval bases in Italy, Rome maintained a “peacetime” naval force in the midst of the Mediterranean, with its largest, most powerful ships resting at anchor. “For their ‘peacetime’ naval dispositions, the Romans at this time maintained an active fleet in Sicily of as many as fifty combat ships, mostly quinqueremes. Other active units of varying strengths were kept in the lower Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas but the Sicily fleet was the navy’s lynch-pin” (Pitassi, 121). The underlying idea was to be prepared to strike out in any direction in order to intervene anywhere in the Mediterranean in a timely fashion.
As the Republic disintegrated into factionalism, the fortunes of the navy suffered as well. Pitassi notes that by 100 B.C., Rome was actually an empire in all but name, which meant that
the maintenance of a prepared and strong military had become an absolute necessity. Rome struggled with how to balance the exigencies of the new “post-Carthage” reality against the actual need and expense of a full-blown navy. As a result, by 133 B.C. the fleet had been reduced to just 100 ships and a peacetime policy of requiring allies to contribute ships, men and
materiel had been established (Pitassi, 141). Not surprisingly, this proved an unreliable arrangement and would bear out the wisdom of Augustus’ system.
Among the emperors, Augustus would prove to be the exception rather than the rule. His idea of a closely coordinated military in which navy and army worked in unison, a remarkably advanced notion for its time, would rapidly fall into decay. With the passage of time, the Empire’s territorial concerns moved farther and farther away from the Roman navy’s base, its historical center of operations, the Mediterranean/Aegean/Tyrrhenian seas (Pitassi, 271). Consequently, the backbone of the navy was neglected. After Augustus, it would never truly recover. “Beset by constant warring and the vast cost of and scale of simultaneous operations on several fronts to which all available manpower and financial resources had to be directed, the grand Praetorian fleets became a luxury that could no longer be afforded” (Pitassi, 271).
Much of the navy’s decline can also be attributed to the increasing administrative and physical fragmentation to which the Empire had fallen victim in its last 300 years. As such, the wisdom and great value of Augustus’ centralized concept becomes clearer. Supporting an effective naval force requires a tremendous expenditure and constant oversight, which was impossible to maintain through the reigns of emperors such as Caligula and Nero. One of the great liabilities of empire was its utter reliance upon (and vulnerability to) the capabilities and personalities of its emperors. The same was true of the Roman navy. As clarity of policy and national vision increasingly blurred, the navy gradually descended back into its old position as military afterthought, the stepchild of the army. For a beleaguered empire threatened along thousands of miles of its border, little thought was given to the navy.
The Roman navy declined along with the Roman Empire. As it did, and as its military importance was eclipsed, it returned to its ancient purpose of protecting coastlines, a manifestation of the Empire’s retraction and of its need to look after its own survival. “In the Euxine and Mediterranean, neglect and a progressive weakening as the principal theatres of operations moved to the extremities of the Empire, meant that it was unable to face the first challenges to its supremacy in over two hundred years, from piracy and enemy incursions at sea” (Pitassi, 271). The navy’s existence as an instrument of aggression, expansion and of prosperity was long over. Now, its sole reason for existence was as little more than a seaborne domestic security force.
The story of the Roman navy is closely tied to the rise and fall of Rome itself. It was born of necessity, at a time when the Roman Republic struggled for supremacy in the Mediterranean against lethal foes who, like the Carthaginians, already had powerful navies of their own. From its origins as the protector of Roman commerce and trade, the navy was upgraded so as to allow the Republic to hold its own in the competitive Mediterranean world. As such, the Roman navy became the spearhead of expansion and acquisition, just as much, in its own way, as the great Roman legions that would expand the Empire’s boundaries to the limits of the known world. The great fleets of the western and eastern Mediterranean, of North Africa and of Europe were based on ancient Greek and Carthaginian models, powerful and maneuverable ships with uniquely Roman features. These innovations, like the corvus, advanced naval warfare and illustrated the Roman genius for adaptation and invention.
Adler, Philip J. and Pouwels, Randall L. World Civilizations: To 1700. Boston, MA: Cengage
Gabriel, Richard A. “Masters of the Mediterranean.” Military History, December 2007.
Hoyos, Dexter, ed. A Companion to the Punic Wars. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2011.
Levien, Edward. Outlines of the History of Rome, John Weale, 1855.
Pitassi, Michael. ‘The’ Navies of Rome. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2009.
Suetonius. Lives of the Caesars. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.