Ancient History & Civilisation

The Roman Navy


For a long time the Romans felt little need for a navy, since enemies in Italy could all be fought and defeated by the legions on land. In 311 BC the Republic created a board of two officials (duoviri) with responsibility for constructing and maintaining warships. Each duumvir commanded a squadron of 10 ships, which were most probably triremes, or ‘threes’ (three banks of oarsmen: see below). We hear very little about the activities of these squadrons, apart from when the Romans suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Tarantine navy in 282 BC. On the rare occasions that greater forces were required, the Republic called upon allied cities with strong maritime traditions, so that these, the naval allies (socii navales), were obliged to supply them with ships and crews rather than soldiers.

In 265 вс the Romans sent an expedition to Sicily where it swiftly came into conflict with the Carthaginians. Carthage possessed the largest and best-trained fleet in the western Mediterranean, making it difficult for the Romans to maintain and supply forces on the island. The Romans also soon realized that the enemy’s main strength and martial pride was invested in the navy, and that the defeat of this would be a far greater blow than any successes achieved on land. In 261 the Republic ordered the construction of a fleet of 100 quinqueremes, or ‘fives’, and 20 triremes. It was the beginning of a massive programme of ship construction as, through determination in spite of appalling losses to bad weather, the Romans confronted and destroyed Punic naval power.

A relief depicting a Roman warship with a line of soldiers on deck. It was common practice before a major battle to embark large numbers of troops on board each galley to strengthen its normal crew, the bulk of whom were rowers Ships were rowed by men drawn from the poorest classes of citizens or from allies Only on a handful of desperate occasions were slaves employed in this role.

A bronze ram dating to the 3rd century BC, found off the promontory of Athlit in Israel and now in the Maritime Museum in Haifa. Although from a Hellenistic warship, it is unlikely that the design of Roman rams differed in any significant way. The ram is relatively blunt, since the attacking ship did not wish it to become too firmly embedded into the hull of the target.

Battle at sea

The warships in ancient fleets were oared galleys, their narrow hulls carrying a very high number of crewmen in proportion to their size. Although some of the larger ships carried artillery, this was not of sufficient destructive force to sink or cripple an enemy ship. Instead there were two basic methods of naval combat, ramming and boarding.

Every warship was fitted with a metal ram attached to the front of its keel at or just below the waterline. This never formed an actual part of the keel since this would have transferred too much of the force onto the structure of the ramming ship. A ramming attack was best delivered against the side or stern of the target vessel, preferably at a shallow angle since otherwise there was a risk of driving the ram so deeply into the enemy’s hull that it would be impossible to extricate it. Instead the aim was to rupture the timbers of the enemy ship. Another method of using the ram was to row at speed along the side of the target vessel, shearing off its oars, but this required an exceptionally high standard of skill from the attacking crew and captain if they were not to suffer damage to their own oars.

Boarding involved coming alongside the enemy ship and firmly grappling it. Then, marines could fight their way on board and seize control. Sheer numbers, aided by skill and aggression, were the decisive factors in this type of fighting. Ramming was best practised by fast, highly manoeuvrable ships and very well trained crews. Boarding favoured larger ships carrying more men.

The corvus

In 261 вс the crews of the newly constructed Roman vessels lacked the training of their Carthaginian counterparts, making them clearly slower and far less manoeuvrable. Trusting instead to the legionaries drafted on board to serve as marines, the Romans sought a way to force the enemy to fight on their terms. The result was the raven (corvus), an innovative type of boarding bridge which was fitted to each Roman vessel. These consisted of a walkway, one end of which was hoisted to the top of a mast-like pole mounted on the deck. Beneath this raised end was an iron spike. When an enemy ship came close, or delivered a ramming attack, the corvus was dropped, the spike impaling the planks of the enemy deck. Firmly pinned and unable to escape, the enemy ship was then promptly boarded by Roman legionaries and captured. From its first appearance at the battle of Mylae in 260 вс the corvus proved spectacularly successful. Unable to find a means of dealing with this new tactic, the Carthaginian navy suffered defeat after defeat, managing to win only a single important battle in two decades of conflict. In the end the Romans abandoned the boarding bridge, and it has been plausibly conjectured that its weight made the Roman vessels unseaworthy and contributed to the appalling losses they suffered as a result of bad weather. By the time that this occurred the corvus had already served its purpose, for the Roman navy had gained valuable experience. In the final, decisive battle of the First Punic War, at the Aegates Islands in 241 BC, it was the Roman crews who displayed superior training and handled their ships far better than a weary Punic enemy.

The corvus or boarding bridge in action. Having been dropped so that the spike on its end has speared into the deck of a Carthaginian ship, the Roman soldiers flood across the bridge and take the enemy galley by boarding In spile of its greater skill at seamanship, the Carthaginian navy proved unable to devise a practical response to the corvus throughout the First Punic War.

The Battle of Ecnomus 256 вс

In 264 вс the Roman Senate despatched an army to Sicily and came into direct conflict with the powerful mercantile Empire of Carthage. During the course of this long and costly First Punic War the Romans created a navy to counter the massive Punic fleet. In 256 the rival fleets clashed off the coast of Sicily near Mount Ecnomus as the Carthaginians tried to stop a Roman fleet intent on invading Africa.

The forces

1 The Romans: 330 galleys (mostly quinqueremes or ‘fives’, but with at least two ‘sixes’ and probably a number of smaller vessels). Each quinquereme was manned by 300 crew and 120 marines, giving a grand total of some 140,000 men. In command were the consuls Lucius Manlius Vulso and Marcus Atilius Regulus.

2 The Carthaginians: c. 350 galleys (again mostly ‘fives’) carrying some 150,000 men. The fleet was controlled by Hamilcar, the senior commander of all land and sea forces in Sicily.

The fighting

The Roman fleet divided into four squadrons, the first two deployed in a wedge shape, the third behind these, towing transport ships, and the fourth (nicknamed the triarii) covering the rear. The Carthaginians formed a wide line angling forward at the point nearest the coast. Hamilcar hoped to break the Roman fleet up into small groups and allow his faster and more manoeuvrable ships to destroy them separately.

The battle opened when the consuls led the first and second Roman squadrons against the Punic line, whose ships at first backed away to draw the enemy on. By the time that the ships came into contact in this area other Carthaginian ships had surrounded the third and fourth Roman squadrons. However, in spite of the success of his plan, Hamilcar's men failed to find an answer to the corvus - the boarding bridge carried on the prow of every Roman ship. Whenever a Punic vessel attacked a Roman galley, the corvus was dropped to spear through the enemy deck and pin the two ships together. In a series of confused actions that developed it was the Romans who had the better of almost every encounter. The consuls managed to keep more control over their ships and at the critical moment led the victorious first and second squadrons back to the aid of the rest of the fleet.

A relief from Praeneste, probably dating to the late 1st century BC, depicting a Roman warship crewed by legionaries Near the prow of the ship is a fighting tower, from which men would be able to throw missiles down onto the enemy deck.


1 Roman: 24 ships sunk, but none captured.

2 Carthaginian: 94 ships lost, 30 sunk and 64 captured.


The Roman fleet had won a clear victory, but was for the moment tired and returned to Sicily. Shortly afterwards the invasion force sailed across to Africa unopposed.

(Above) A carved relief from a sarcophagus showing a heavily stylized version of a naval bailie. In many ways battles at sea were even harder for a sculptor to depict accurately than land battles.

(Above) A photograph showing the reconstructed trireme or 'three' Olympias at sea. By the time of the First Punic War such vessels had been relegated to a supporting or scouting role, and the principal warship was the larger and heavier quinquereme or 'Jive'.

Oared warships

There is still much that we do not understand about the oared warships of the Classical world. Remains of such vessels, as opposed to merchant ships, which were often primarily powered by sails, are exceptionally rare, only two examples found off the coast of Massala (ancient Lilybaeum) in Sicily being known from the entire period covered by this book. Classes of warship were named after the number in the basic team of rowers managing a set of oars on one side of the vessels. Therefore a trireme or ‘three’ had three banks of oars each rowed by a single oarsman, sitting on benches one above the other. Following the construction of a full- scale replica of a trireme and its extensive sea trials, we know more about this type of warship than any other. The reconstructed trireme proved exceptionally manoeuvrable as well as fast, capable of a speed of 8 knots in short bursts, such as would be suitable for delivering a ramming attack, or under sail.

Triremes were ramming vessels par excellence, but by the time of the Punic Wars these were too small to stand in the main line of battle and had been replaced by quinqueremes or ‘fives’. The design of these vessels is still a subject of debate, but they were clearly higher, probably a little broader and perhaps somewhat longer than triremes. The most probable distribution of the team of five rowers has them working three banks of oars, two men on each of the highest and middle bank and a single man wielding the lowest bank. Quinqueremes were less manoeuvrable than triremes, but their larger hulls were stronger and they were capable of carrying substantially larger complements of marines.

The Battle of Cannae

2 August 216 вс

Part of a century long-struggle between Rome and Carthage, the Second Punic War (218-201 вс) began when the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy. He defeated a Roman army at Trebia in 218, and in the following year ambushed and destroyed another at Lake Trasimene. In 216 the Roman Republic mustered an unprecedentedly large number of soldiers to confront the enemy at Cannae.

The forces

1 The Romans: eight legions and eight allied alae totalling 80,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry under the command of the two consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Marcus Terentius Varro.

2 The Carthaginians: 40,000 infantry - a mixture of Libyans, Spaniards and Gauls - and 10,000 Numidian, Spanish and Gallic cavalry under the command of Hannibal.

Phase one

The Romans were aware that Hannibal’s cavalrymen were significantly superior to their own horsemen in both numbers and quality. Therefore, they chose a narrow battlefield between the River Aufidius and the high ground around the abandoned town of Cannae. This was intended to protect their flanks from envelopment by the enemy cavalry. The battle was to be won by the heavy infantry in the centre, and these were massed in a very dense and deep formation, abandoning the normal flexible manipular tactics.

Hannibal hoped to turn the Romans’ own strength against them. His heavy cavalry was massed on the left, facing the Roman horse. On the right he stationed his Numidian light cavalry, with orders to keep the opposing allied horsemen occupied by skirmishing with them. The main line consisted of the Spanish and Gallic foot, with the centre advanced to draw the Roman infantry quickly into the attack. Behind each flank of this line was stationed a body of highly disciplined Libyan foot, who were equipped with captured Roman weapons.

Phase two

The fighting opened with indecisive skirmishing in front of the main lines. Then, the Punic heavy cavalry led by Hasdrubal charged and smashed through the Roman horsemen led by Paullus. In the meantime the Roman infantry had made contact with the Spanish and Gallic foot. After a struggle the Carthaginian foot in the advanced centre of the line gave way under the massive pressure. The legionaries streamed through the gap, all formation and order being lost as the troops degenerated into a huge crowd. Suddenly this mob was attacked on either flank by the Libyans, giving time for the Gauls and Spaniards to rally and rejoin the fight. The Romans were stopped in their tracks, unable to react to this new threat. Meanwhile, Hasdrubal had rallied his cavalry and moved round behind the Roman line to attack the allied horsemen in the rear, driving them from the field. He then turned his men against the rear of the Roman infantry. These were surrounded and, in a prolonged and bloody fight, massacred. The Roman army was virtually destroyed.

(Above) Hannibal crossed the Alps and invaded Italy in late 218 вс In the following year he drove south, and the Romans confronted him at Cannae in 216 вс


1 Roman: 45,500 infantry and 2,700 cavalry killed, along with the consul Aemilius Paullus, and some 18,700 captured.

2 Carthaginian: c 5,700-8,000 men killed.


Cannae was an appalling disaster for the Romans, which led to the defection to the enemy of most of their allies in southern Italy. However, Hannibal was unable to turn his tactical victory into long-term strategic success, and the Romans continued to resist, eventually winning the war.

A bust that purports to show Hannibal in later life. At Cannae the Carthaginian general was still a young man, although disease had already robbed him of the use of one eye.

HANNIBAL (c. 247-188 вс)

The eldest son of Hamilcar Barca who had fought with some success against the Romans in the First Punic War (265-241 вс), Hannibal is said to have inherited his father’s enmity towards Rome. When the Second Punic War began, Hannibal led an army from his base in Spain through Gaul and across the Alps into Italy. Once there he inflicted a series of devastating defeats on the Romans at Trebbia in 218 and Trasimene in 217 as well as Cannae in 216. These victories persuaded much of southern Italy to defect to Carthage, but in spite of this Hannibal was unable to force Rome to seek peace. For more than a decade his army remained in Italy and was never defeated in a serious action, but in 203 he was recalled to defend Carthage itself from a Roman invasion. In the following year he was beaten by Scipio Africanus at the battle of Zama and the Carthaginians were forced to make peace.

After the war, Hannibal’s skilful administration contributed much to his city’s rapid economic recovery, but eventually he was forced into exile by political rivals supported by the renewed antipathy of the Roman Senate. He became a mercenary commander at the court of the Seleucid King Antiochus III, but was given a subordinate role in the latter's unsuccessful war with Rome. Forced to flee, his steps dogged by Roman agents, one of the greatest generals of Antiquity was finally forced to take his own life.

(Above) A wall-painting from Pompeii, giving one of the best views of warships manoeuvring at sea. Rams are visible at the waterline of each vessel, and the decks are packed with shielded infantrymen.

(Above) A coin minted in 49 BC depicting a warship. The vessel is shown with sail hoisted and oars extended, but it would normally have only used a single means of propulsion at one time. During the sea trials of Olympias, the trireme proved capable of making 8 knots under sail. Similar speeds could be achieved by the rowers in short bursts, but a steady cruise of 4 knots could be maintained for long periods of time.

At the battle of Ecnomus in 256 BC, Polybius tells us that the Roman quinqueremes were crewed by 300 men, probably about 20 deck crew and the remainder rowers, and carried 120 marines.

The Greek historian also claims that the first Roman quinqueremes were copied directly from a Carthaginian warship which had run aground and been captured, the first fleet being built in just 60 days. Although sometimes in the past dismissed as unlikely, this story has recently received strong support from the discovery of the remains of two small Punic warships on the seabed off Sicily. The timbers of the better-preserved ship revealed much about its construction. Numbers, and letters from the Punic alphabet, had been marked along the keel showing where the ribs were to be placed, and other instructions marked where joints or cuts should be made. This ship was clearly the product of a highly organized system of mass production to a standard design. It was probably this technique, as much as the particular sailing qualities of the vessel, that the Romans copied.

Naval strategy

With such a large crew in proportion to its size, the oared warship had a very limited strategic range.

There was very little space for carrying provisions, especially of fresh water which would be needed in great quantities by rowers labouring in the heat of a Mediterranean summer. Neither the rowers, nor any marines carried on board, could be allowed to move around much during a voyage without seriously upsetting the ship’s trim, for the men’s weight formed a significant proportion of the ballast. For these reasons it was rare for ancient fleets to remain at sea for much more than three days. Instead they would either put into port or beach their vessels, allowing the crews to rest and provisions to be taken on board. Control of good harbours, or at the very least of the coastline, was vital if naval power was to be projected over any distance.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!