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Development of the Ancient Roman Navy

Categories: DevelopmentNavy

Naval warfare was considered a second thought to most ancient Romans. It never carried the same prestige as that of a legionary. Before the First Punic War the Roman navy consisted mainly of allied ships and a few Roman ships that had crews that were very inexperienced. When entering the First Punic War they realized they needed to develop a navy to match the superior Carthaginian fleet. The fleet that the Romans had before the war would never withstand any naval battles.

In building their navy, the Romans were able to utilize their resources, their allies’ resources, as well as some ingenuity to help overcome their naval weaknesses and defeat the Carthaginians in the First Punic War. The Romans lost many fleets and sailors throughout the course of the war but their persistence and determination ultimately helped them prevail. In the beginning, Rome founded colonies to provide coastal defence as opposed a naval force to police the shores of the surrounding territories.

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They used the warships and crews from naval allies, freedmen, and marines from lowest class eligible for military service.

Romans dominated the sea by gaining possession of the land. Given the limited range of ships, this was an effective strategy. Ships were only constructed as a last solution to a military problem. As soon as a victory was achieved, the ships were left to wither and the naval needs were met by relying on allies. It was Rome’s success on land that made such indifference about naval battles.

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However, if there was ever a need for naval battle, their small navy could never withstand such a task. There was very minimal naval conflict between Rome and its enemies leading up to the First Punic War.

Once the Punic War began they knew the only shot they had to defeat Carthage was to create a navy that would rival that of the mighty Carthaginians. In order to rival Carthage’s navy, they would need a design for their ships, a way to build them and people to man them. The ships were built based on a sunken Carthaginian quinquereme off the west coast of Sicily. The Roman’s then set out to build one hundred quinqueremes and thirty smaller ships such as triremes (Sage 285). Quinqueremes were the heaviest ship of the time.

They had three banks of oars and 180 oars. There were two people on the upper oar and one on the lower oar. The trireme had 170 oars, there were three banks of oars and there was one rower per oar (Mitchell). They were able to gather the necessary resources from Rome and get the ships built or borrow from naval allies. The crews were assembled from naval allies, freedmen and marines from the lowest class eligible for military service. The navy was never held in the same esteem as legionaries so they never got the same quality of recruits.

This ability to utilize their resources was key in helping in creating the future of the Roman navy. The Roman’s lack of any skill on the sea should have cost them the naval battles of the First Punic War but that was not the case. The Romans invented a device to essentially create land battles on the sea. This device was called a corvus or the raven. Polybius’s description of the corvus and how it was used is as follows: “… a round pole stood on the prow of the ship sixteen feet high and about one foot in diameter.

It had a pulley on its top and around it was placed a boarding bridge made of crossed planks nailed together which was four feet wide and twenty four feet long. There was an oblong hole in the bridge, which was placed around the pole twelve feet from its end. There was a knee-high railing on each side of the boarding bridge and at its end was fastened an iron object shaped like a pestle pointed at one end with a ring at the other end so that the whole apparatus looked like a device for grinding grain” (Polybius) The corvus proved vital during the First Punic War, especially at the Battle of Mylae.

It would be swung around and brought down hard on an enemy ship. Then the troops would charge over the plank two by two. The first two men protected the rest by raising their shields. The men behind would place their shields over the railing and protect from the sides. The Romans captured the first thirty two ships that attacked them. The rest of the Carthaginians then approached and saw the devastation that the corvus had done. They turn to try and attack the sides or stern of the Roman ships but the corvus was able to turn and attack from different angles.

After seeing this, the Carthaginians fled in fear after what had happened and after losing fifty ships (Polybius). The Romans won a decisive victory through the use of the corvus and made their presence known on the Mediterranean. The Romans ingenuity through creating the corvus is very clear and helped through the early development of the Roman navy. Though the corvus has many positive features, some of its negative features were starting to come about as the Romans started to sail more and farther. The corvus was placed at the bow of the ship so it made the vessel unstable during rough weather.

As a result, most of the casualties of the First Punic War were at the hands of Mother Nature as opposed to the Carthaginians. This, and the Romans inexperience at sea cost them heavily as they lost 284 ships in a storm off the outer coast of Sicily. They had lost a lot of ships and only had 80 remaining at the time (Tarn 53). However, Rome’s success came from its superior manpower resources which allowed it to man new fleets despite these sever losses. To prove the Roman’s determination, they built a fleet of 200 ships. This did not go without disaster either.

Another storm cost the Roman’s 150 brand new ships in 253 BC off the Lucacnian coast and subsequently the Romans lost their only major naval defeat of the war in 249 BC when a surprise attack failed at Drepana. Thirty Roman ships were able to escape but 93were captured (Tarn 54). The Romans appeared to have given up on their naval efforts. It looked as though Carthage ruled the sea once again. No ships were being built and the Romans were sticking to the land the tactics that they knew best. However most of the Roman’s naval losses can be attributed to bad luck and inexperience on the sea.

By 242 the Carthaginian General, Hamilcar Barca, had enjoyed success in Sicily and by now the Romans felt the war had dragged on for too long. They were determined to return to the sea and finish the Carthaginians once and for all. There was one problem though. The Roman treasury was empty and they had no money to spend on building another fleet. The government then turned to the wealthy citizens of Rome and begged for money to build a new fleet. The wealthy agreed in a sign of patriotism and they went ahead and successfully financed construction on a fleet to end the war (Rickard).

This shows the Romans determination, persistence and ability to utilize the wealth of Rome. The Romans felt they didn’t need to repeat what had happened with the corvus again so they omitted it from their new ship designs. This resulted in the Roman ships being much lighter and much more manoeuvrable then the Carthaginian ships. The Romans met the Carthaginians in 241 BC where they cut them off at the Battle of the Aegates Islands. The Carthaginians ships had very inexperienced crews as they were newly enlisted men who had just signed up for this battle.

They couldn’t handle the heavy and unwieldy Carthaginian ships with their lack of skills and experience. Similar to the way the Romans were before the beginning of the First Punic War. The Carthaginians were commanded by Hanno and the Romans were commanded by Catulus. The fighting was predictably one sided as the Romans captured 70 ships and sunk 50 ships. Hanno was subsequently executed for his failure in this battle. After the Battle of the Aegates Islands, Hamilcar was allowed to negotiate terms of surrender. The terms included money to pay for the newly constructed fleet and no Punic war ships were allowed in Italian waters (Rickard).

The Romans were victorious and the Punic War came to a close. Through fierce determination to rebuild the Roman Navy in 242 BC and their ability to adapt their ships to the new circumstances led to a Roman victory and a strong development of the Roman Navy. The development and redevelopment of the Roman navy during the First Punic War shows a number of qualities that were key to Roman domination in the next centuries. Their adaptability and ability to make a strategic assessment of the Carthage navy and how to overcome it was very important in leading to a victory in the First Punic War.

Through their determination and persistence they were able to learn from their mistakes and overcome what had cost them their early losses. It was the Romans ability to utilize available resources to reconstruct their destroyed navy. They also came up with a creative solution to a problem of attacking ships to help benefit their strengths of hand to hand combat. This was a very strong development of the Roman navy and led to their stranglehold on the Mediterranean for the majority of the next centuries. In fact, during the Second Punic War, Hannibal abandoned his once powerful Carthage fleet to focus on conquering by land.

The victories in the sea bred confidence in the Roman navy. They were able to bring the battle directly to the Carthaginians and take it out of Italy. With the final destruction of Carthage and the end of the Third Punic War, Rome was the master of the Mediterranean. This as a result reduced any threat of a naval power and the navy had reached its height (Gabriel). In conclusion, the First Punic War was the spark that set off the Romans to put a lot of time, resources and manpower into developing and redeveloping their navy to become the super power that it was.

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Development of the Ancient Roman Navy. (2018, Sep 25). Retrieved from

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