Ships at War

The Roman Navy started slowly but came to dominate the Mediterranean. It can be divided into three periods. The first period was before to the
Punic wars when it didn’t really exist and Romans warships only operated around the Italian coast. The second period was after the conquest of the Carthaginians and the arrival of Roman sea power. The third period comes after the defeat of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium. This defeat secured a long period of peace—at least at sea. After Emperor Augustus’s defeat of Egypt it also opened up the sea route to the Red Sea.

The first prolonged deployment of Roman warships was during the Punic wars. The Punic wars were the Empire’s campaign against the Carthaginian’s and the victories secured the empire’s control of the Mediterranean sea. It came at a heavy cost though. Over three conflicts hundred of warships were either captured or sunk and many lives lost. The first Punic War drove the Carthaginian’s out of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and marked the entrance of Rome as a huge naval power. The second Punic war was in retaliation for the campaigns by
Hannibal. The Roman Navy cut of Hannibal’s communication network across the sea and helped calm the campaign. The third Punic war was a final attempt by the Carthaginian’s to reassert authority. By the end of the third Punic war in 146 BC and the sack of Carthage, the Roman navy was the undisputed champion of the Mediterranean and it would continue to be so for hundreds of years.

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Early Roman naval battles relied heavily on ramming the opponent with a specially strengthened battering ram at the bow and a rounded stern for balance and protection. Many roman ships covered their battering rams with bronze. They would protect themselves from attack by wrapping belts of metal around the boat. Yet after a slow start the Roman naval commanders began to develop more complex tactics. They were particularly good at boarding other ships, using the corvus to board other ships quickly and ram home an advantage.

Warships were long and narrow ships throughout the period and powered by many oarsmen. This allowed them to move rapidly and change direction at short notice. It also allowed them to build up enough speed to ram the enemy ships. To make a battle ship go faster you simply added more oarsmen and this is why
Trireme and Quinqueremes developed. Many people assume that the Romans used slaves to row their ships but this was not the case. Rowing a multi-galley fighting boat was a highly skilled task that required extensive training. Moreover, slaves could not always be trusted to follow orders especially once they realized that defeat might see them set free. Instead, freedmen were used and were paid well to make sure that the Roman navy remained a professional service. As well as oarsmen the Roman warships had marines on board. These were soldiers trained to board other ships and take the fight directly to the enemy. Sometimes, large ships even had catapults installed at the stern to throw projectiles at enemy ships. While many boats were sunk a far more attractive tactic was to capture the enemy ship and sell the enemy soldiers into slavery.

For most of the Roman period the main role of the Roan navy was to patrol the sea, the coastal waters and the big rivers. The first permanent fleets were established by Augustus. Other emperors also built large fleets, notably Claudius, Caligula, Neo, Vespasian and Domitian. The last great naval war was the
Actium war in the east. Marc Anthony allied with Cleopatra had built a huge force on land and sea. Octavian used Marcus Agrippa’s prowess as a naval commander to rout the eastern fleet. The only ships to escape belonged to Cleopatra who, with Marc Anthony took flight. They would die the following year after Octavian entered Alexandra and conquered Egypt. Towards the end of the empire much of the Roman fleets split off into smaller units as the empire disbanded.