The Roman Navy: From Rivers to Oceans

Ahoy and welcome to Rome Across Europe!

Throughout our time here we have covered various battles and the expansion of Rome from city-state to Empire. During our travels, we have relied upon the Exercitus Romanus (Roman Army) to carry the load of Rome’s development and expansion.

Most recently we shared the prowess of Rome’s military might in The Roman Navy: Unsung Champion of the Ancient Seas. Now that we are familiar with what the Roman Navy actually was, it’s now time to explore its scale.

That is why today we are discovering the Roman Navy various Fleets and Ports of Call!

Roman bireme depicted in a relief from the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Praeneste (Palastrina), c. 120 BC (Museo Pio-Clementino in the Vatican Museums).

Upon destroying Carthage and subduing the Hellenistic kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean, Rome went on to achieve complete mastery of the inland sea, which they called Mare Nostrum (Our Sea). On “Their Sea” the Romans would set up major ports at Portus Julius (Misenum, Southern Italy), Port of Ravenna (Ravenna, Northern Italy), Alexandria (Egypt), Leptis Magna (Roman Libya), Ostia Antica and Portus (Central Italy), and the Port of Mainz (Rhine River, Germania).

The 2 major Fleets (Ostia Antica and Portus) were stationed in Italy and acted as a central naval reserve, directly available to the Emperor. In the absence of any seafaring threat, their duties mostly involved patrolling and transporting.

These duties were not simply confined to the waters around Italy, but throughout the Mediterranean. There is epigraphic evidence for the presence of sailors of the 2 Praetorian Fleets at Piraeus and Syria.

Classis Misenensis Roman Quinquereme

The larger of the 2 Fleets was the Classis Misenensis, which was established in 27 BC and based at Portus Julius. Later its name was changed to Classis Praetoria Misenesis Pia Vindex to which detachments of the fleet served at tributary bases, such as Ostia, PuteoliCentumcellae and other harbors.

The smaller of the 2 Fleets was the Classis Ravennas, which was made in 27 BC and based at Ravenna. Later its classification was changed to Classis Praetoria Ravennatis Pia Vindex.

Replica of a trireme, the main ship operated by Classis Ravennas (Mainz, Germany).

The various Provincial Fleets were smaller than the Praetorian Fleets, composed mostly of lighter vessels. Nevertheless, it was these Provincials that saw action in full campaigns or raids on the fringe of the Empire.

The Classis Pannonica, another fluvial fleet controlling the Upper Danube from Castra Regina in Raetia (modern Regensburg) to Singidunum in Moesia (modern Belgrade). Its exact date of establishment is unknown, but some trace it to Augustus’ campaigns in Pannonia circa 35 BC.

River biremes and triremes of the Classis Pannonica on the Danube.

The Fleet was certainly in existence by 45 AD, for under the Flavian Dynasty it received the cognomen Flavia. Its main base was probably Taurunum (modern Zemun) at the confluence of the river Sava with the Danube.

The Classis Alexandrina, based in Alexandria, controlled the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. Founded by Augustus around 30 BC, the Classis Alexandrina was most likely comprised of ships that fought at the Battle of Actium, and was manned mostly by Greeks of the Nile Delta.

Depiction of a typical Roman ship from the Classis Alexandrina.

Having supported Emperor Vespasian in the Civil War of AD 69, it was awarded of the cognomen Augusta. The fleet was responsible chiefly for the escort of the grain shipments to Rome (and later Constantinople), and also apparently operated the Nile river patrol.

Ship of the Classis Flavia Moesica.

The Classis Flavia Moesica was established sometime between 20 BC and 10 AD, and was based in Noviodunum. The honorific Flavia was awarded to this Fleet as it controlled the Lower Danube from the Iron Gates to the northwestern Black Sea as far as the Crimea.

The Classis Germanica was established in 12 BC by Drusus at Castra Vetera. It controlled the Rhine and was mainly a fluvial Fleet, although it also operated in the North Sea.

Replica of a ship from the Classis Germanica.

It is noteworthy that the Romans’ initial lack of experience with the tides of the ocean left Drusus’ Fleet stranded on the Zuiderzee. After around 30 AD, the Fleet moved its main base to the castrum of Alteburg, some 2.5 miles south of Colonia Agrippinensis (modern Cologne).

Later, the Classis Germanica granted the honorifics Augusta Pia Fidelis Domitiana following the suppression of the Revolt of Saturninus.

The Classis Britannica, established in 40 or 43 AD at Gesoriacum (Boulogne-sur-Mer). It participated in the Roman invasion of Britain and the subsequent campaigns in the island.

The Roman Fleet landing on the coast of Britain for the Emperor Claudius’ invasion, earning the title Classis Britannica.

The fleet was probably based at Rutupiae (Richborough) until 85 AD, when it was transferred to Dubris (Dover). Other bases were Portus Lemanis (Lympne) and Anderitum (Pevensey), while Gesoriacum on the Gallic coast likely remained active.

During the 2nd-3rd Centuries, the fleet was chiefly employed in transport of supplies and men across the English Channel. The Classis Britannica disappears (at least under that name) from the mid-3rd Century, and the sites occupied by it were soon incorporated into the Saxon Shore system.

The Classis Perinthia was established after the annexation of Thracia in 46 AD, and was based in Perinthus. Probably based on the indigenous navy, it operated in the Propontis and was united with the Classis Pontica at a later stage.

The Classis Pontica, founded in 64 AD from the Pontic royal fleet, was based in Trapezus. Although, on occasion, it was moved to Byzantium and Cyzicus.

This Fleet was used to guard the southern and eastern Black Sea, and the entrance of the Bosporus. According to the historian Josephus, in the latter half of the 1st Century, the Fleet numbered 40 warships and 3,000 men.

Ship from Vespasian’s Classis Syriaca.

The Classis Syriaca was probably established under Vespasian (69-79 AD), and based in Seleucia Pieria (hence the alternative name Classis Seleucena) in Syria. This Fleet controlled the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

The Classis Mauretanica, based at Caesarea Mauretaniae (modern Cherchell), controlled the African coasts of the western Mediterranean sea. This fleet was established on a permanent basis after the raids by the Moors in the early 170s.

The Classis Nova Libyca, first mentioned in 180 AD, was most likely based at Ptolemais on the Cyrenaica.

The Classis Africana Commodiana Herculea was established by Commodus in 186 AD after the model of the Classis Alexandrina. Its creation was to help secure the grain shipments (annona) from North Africa to Italy.

Banner of the Legio X Fretensis

In addition, there is significant archaeological evidence for naval activity by certain Legions, which in all likelihood operated their own squadrons. Legio XXII Primigenia was active on the Upper Rhine and Main Rivers, while Legio X Fretensis patrolled the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, as several Legionary Squadrons were stationed on the Danube frontier.

The best source for the structure of the late Roman military is the Notitia Dignitatum, which matches the situation of the 390s for the Eastern Empire and the 420s for the Western Empire. Notable in the Notitia is the large number of smaller squadrons that have been created, most of these fluvial and of a local operational role.

The Classis Pannonica and the Classis Moesica were broken up into several smaller squadrons. There was the Classis Histrica which had authority of the frontier commanders (duces), with bases at Mursa in Pannonia SecundaClassis Florentia in Pannonia ValeriaClassis Arruntum in Pannonia Prima; Classis Viminacium in Moesia Prima; and Classis Aegetae in Dacia Ripensis.

Two-banked lburnians of the Danube fleets during Trajan’s Dacian Wars (Trajan’s Column, Rome).

Naval units were complemented by port garrisons and Marines (Muscularii), drawn from the Exercitus Romanus. In the Danube frontier these were:

In Pannonia Prima and Noricum Ripensis, Naval Detachments (Milites Liburnarii) of Legio XIV Gemina and Legio X Gemina at Carnuntum and Arrabonae, along with Legio II Italica at Ioviacum.

In Pannonia Secunda, Legio I Flavia Augusta (at Sirmium) and Legio II Flavia are listed under their Prefects.

In Moesia Secunda, 2 units of Sailors (Milites Nauclarii) were stationed at Appiaria and Altinum.

In Scythia Minor, Marines of Legio II Herculia were at Inplateypegiis along with Sailors at Flaviana.

Roman Marine units

In the West, and in particular in Gaul, several fluvial Fleets had been established. These came under the command of the Magister Peditum of the West, and were:

The Classis Anderetianorum which was based at Parisii (Paris) and operating in the Seine and Oise Rivers.

The Classis Ararica was based at Caballodunum (Chalon-sur-Saône) and operated in the Saône River.

Classis Barcariorum was composed of small vessels docked at Eburodunum (modern Yverdon-les-Bains) at Lake Neuchâtel.

The Classis Comensis, stationed at Lake Como, truly made the lake their own.

Painting of a ship from the Classis Misenatis.

The old Praetorian Fleets, the Classis Misenatis and the Classis Ravennatis are still listed, albeit with no distinction indicating any higher importance than the other fleets. The Praetorian surname is still attested until the early 4th Century, but absent from Vegetius or the Notitia.

The Classis Fluminis Rhodani was based at Arelate and operated in the Rhône River. It was complemented with a Marine Detachment (Milites Muscularii) based at Massalia.

The Classis Sambrica was based at Locus Quartensis (unknown location) operating on the Somme River and the Channel. It came under the command of the Dux Belgica Secunda.

The Classis Venetum, based at Aquileia, operated in the northern Adriatic Sea. This Fleet may have been established to ensure communications with the Imperial Capitals in the Po Valley (Ravenna and Milan) and with Dalmatia.

It is notable that, with the exception of the Praetorian Fleets (whose retention in the list does not necessarily signify an active status), the old fleets of the Principate are missing. The Classis Britannica vanishes under that name after the mid-3rd Century, but its remnants were later incorporated in the Saxon Shore system.

Barbarians crossing of the Rhine

By the time of the Notitia Dignitatum, the Classis Germanica had ceased to exist, most probably due to the collapse of the Limes Germanicus (Germanic Frontier) after the Crossing of the Rhine by the barbarians in winter 405-406 AD. The Mauretanian and African Fleets had been disbanded or taken over by the Vandals.

As far as the East is concerned, we know that the Classis Alexandrina and the Classis Seleucena continued to operate, and that around 400 AD the Classis Carpathia was detached from the Syrian Fleet and based at the Aegean island of Karpathos. A Fleet is known to have been stationed at Constantinople itself, but no further details are known about it.

We hope you enjoyed setting sail with the various Fleets of the Roman Navy. We wish you safe passage on future journeys, and look forward to having you back again soon.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

 

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Port of Claudius, the museum of Roman merchant ships found in Fiumicino (Rome)

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