Naves Longae - Warships





General Description

After the end of the civil war between Octavian (Augustus) and Antony there was not a naval power in the Mediterranean which could oppose Rome.

So the ongoing naval requirement was to :-
- transport, supply and support the Army's legions
- protect maritime trade from pirates
- maintain Imperial communications.

Large expensive fleets of battleships comprising sixes, sevens, tens and larger were no longer needed. Speed and manoeuvrability were the most important attributes naval ships needed. In addition, standardisation gave important gains in efficiency of design and construction.

Therefore the vast bulk of Roman Fleets comprised large numbers of biremes of the type known as Liburna. These were fast light ships powered by two banks of oars and adaptations of pirate ships developed by the Illyrian tribe called Liburni.

Of the larger types ships the navy generally had only one 'six', the flagship of the fleet base at Misenum. A few 'fives', several dozen 'fours' and scores of triremes which were often used with the northern provincial fleets which had to combat tribes along and outside the Empire's borders.

All these warships needed high levels of maintenance and were usually hauled out of the water in early autumn for maintenance at covered slipways located at naval bases. Ruins of known slipways showed the berths could accommodate ships with a length to width ratio of up to 12 or 14 to 1.


Specific Types

Monoreme (1)  - One bank of oars

There were two types in common use.

The first a myoparo  was a light fast vessel adapted for the navy from a type of craft used by pirates. They were smaller than biremes but larger than scaphae. Could have been used as scoutships.

The second was a scaphae, the smallest type of vessel used. basically longboats which accompanied or were towed by large warships. They could have been used as scoutships, carry personnel from ship to shore, or tow a large ship into or out of harbour.


Bireme (2) (Liburna)  - Two banks of oars

As provincial navies did not have any opposing sea power to fear, this type came to be the main warship used by provincial fleets. They varied in size and could be both decked or undecked. They were fast, light and initially used for scouting, reconnaissance and communications duty.

As used by the Classis Britannica and Classis Germanica they would have been the largest and strongest types of biremes used by the Roman Navy to cope with the seas encountered in the North Sea and English Channel. Most having decks to protect the rowers from weather or spray, plus a mainmast carrying a square sail and small foresail. They also carried a variable complement of marine trained legionaries. Had a length of about 100ft, width of 18ft an displaced 35 tons.

By the fourth century the term liburna was used to describe any large sized warship.


Trireme (3) - Three banks of oars

There were two variations of the three banks warship. One having an open deck and the other a closed deck.

The exact dimensions and detail are subject to a large degree of conjecture as they had positive buoyancy and did not sink. However ruins of ship-sheds at Zea near Athens indicated their dimensions. The general layout is shown on coins, vases, mosaics and relief sculptures.

They had about 170 oarsmen, 14 sailing crew and a small number of marines. A total complement of a little over 200. For cross channel invasion where no opposing naval units would be encountered the number of marines/legionaries could have been increased. They could have been up to 120ft long, 17ft wide, draught of 4ft, displaced 50 tons and with a deck about 9ft above the waterline.


Quadrireme (4) - Two banks of oars

With two banks of oars, about 88 oars, each oar manned by two men, gave a total 176 oarsmen plus relief's, plus a sailing crew and able to carry about 75 marines.

They were about the same dimensions as the trireme but with a lower height of deck above the waterline. It displaced about 60 tons.


Quinquereme (5) - Three banks of oars

Had three banks of oars, each oar having two oarsmen on the two upper banks and one oarsman on the lowest bank. Total oarsmen were about 300, plus sailing crew, deck height above the waterline of 10ft, displaced 90 tons and carried at least 120 troops.



This page last edited - 20 July, 2012.

Copyright Ian M King, except where otherwise indicated.