Roman Mediterranean Navy - Origins to Caesar 55BC





Early Days

In the earliest days Rome only needed a small coastal naval force.

As more peoples and cities in Italy came under her domination, treaty obligations were imposed on them to supply men on request for military service.

For coastal Greek cities this obligation was met by the supply of warships and transports. Italian coastal ports supplied ships and seamen.

When Roman coastal colonies such as Ostia or Brindisi were established, merchant ships 'flying the Roman flag' began to be engaged in long range maritime trade. As trade expanded, Rome began to interact with other maritime powers around  the Mediterranean, and treaties were established allowing the mutual use ports by merchant ships and zones of trading influence agreed. The first such treaty was with Carthage in 509BC.

The first time a real naval requirement arose was during the Carthaginian Wars beginning 264BC. The Third War against Carthage ended 146BC. By this time the importance of naval operations in transporting and supplying the Army was fully established. 

Roman skill in naval operations had been honed by operations against Philip V of Macedon, Antiochus III of Syria and final defeat of the Carthaginians. While not an established maritime power the Romans quickly picked up and improved on existing ships and seaborne warfare techniques.

These early victories were followed by continuing operations against pirates which threatened Rome's maritime trade, including it's corn supply from Egypt.

By 81BC the heavy use of Transports in supplying Roman Legions is well illustrated by the fact that in that year a fleet of about 800 transports was used to transport and supply Pompey's force of seven legions from Sicily to Africa. Most of the troop carriers and supply ships being merchant vessels under contract.  

An unusual use of Roman seamen's skill in sail handling was their use at the Coliseum in Rome to control the awnings used to shield the audience from the sun.

So, by 62BC when an inscribed tablet was set up commemorating Pompey's capture of over 600 large pirate ships, the Roman Navy had the experience to transport legions between provinces, supply them, conduct amphibious landings, blockade coastal cities, maintain and protect maritime trade.

Rome could describe the Mediterranean as 'Mare Nostrum' - Our Sea.

The efficiency and lower cost of moving bulk supplies by sea was also established as being about 2.5 to 3 times lower than land transport. So the usefulness of Maritime Transport was well established.

This was the situation when Caesar was in Gaul and Rome's influence expanded northwards from the south of Gaul.

Also, as all maritime powers in the Mediterranean had been defeated, there was little need to build and maintain fleets larger than triremes. But some were kept for prestige /flagship reasons. Therefore most warships comprised various types of ships with two or three banks of oars - biremes and triremes.

These would have been the types built by Caesar when he established the first Roman Fleet on the Atlantic coast of Gaul from the Garonne and Loire estuaries.  

These types of warships were used to defeat the Veneti tribe based around present day Brittany, plus other coastal tribes along the Channel coast.  Later when his first raid on Britain was planned, these warships were augmented by merchant ships.




This page last edited - 20 July, 2012.

Copyright Ian M King, except where otherwise indicated.