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The Roman Navy: Masters of the Mediterranean

Roman ships varied in size and shape, and each one had a different purpose. For instance, the smaller boats unloaded cargo from the larger, import ships that brought the goods Rome survived on. There were the thin, but powerful warships that could ram enemies, but also be rowed up rivers for sneak attacks. There were also the large, intricately designed merchant ships that were so big, they couldn’t fit into the Roman ports. All the ships were beautiful works of art, so much so, artists are still recreating them and placing the ships and their designs in their work even to this day.

Some Roman ships even inspired ships today. The intricate designs on merchant ships can still be found on the cruise ships of today. Rome has given us inspiration for many different ideas and items that are popular today, but Roman ships have given us inspiration for both the arts and the ships that the world has today.

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The Roman navy was one of Rome’s best means of fighting. The Romans believed that in order to have an effective land crusade, superiority in the water was needed. The warships, being built for speed were lightweight and controllable, but cramped. There was no extra space, so troop and supply ships were put under the sail. The ships were made of thick cut wood planks. The warships were also waterproofed using paint and pitch (now called resin- a sticky and very flammable sap extracted from trees). The ships were propelled using both sails and oars, and although they could capsize if too much sail was used, they were very fast with multiple levels of rowers.

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With multiple levels of rowers, the Romans could attack their enemies’ ships by ramming into them. In order to ram into other ships, a bronze covered battering ram was used. They were built into the ships and placed at the prow. In the sea, the battering rams were under the waterline, therefore invisible to enemy vessels. Another weapon used onboard a Roman warship was an artillery ballista. These special catapults were deadly. The Romans threw both large rocks at other ships to sink them, and “Fire balls (pots of burning pitch)” (Cartwright, Mark). With the fire balls, the Romans were able to both sink their enemies’ ships and destroy them with fire.

The types of warships included: Triremes, Quinqueremes, and Liburnians (there are many more though). The Trireme was a ship with 3 levels of oars. It was rowed by captured slaves. The Romans had a giant fleet of these good-sized ships. The Liburna was a small ship used in raids and patrols. Depending on the size of it, it could hold 50-80 oarsmen and 30-50 marines (manipularii). It was a powerful little ship and was widely used for ramming enemy ships. Since it was small, it could travel into rivers such as the Rhine, Danube, and Nile. The Liburna ship could pretty much go everywhere which was useful when the Romans wished to claim land. With its closed deck, the Liburna was able to hold more marines than any other ship of its era. The closed deck was also useful in hand to hand combat. When close to other ships, a fitted platform called the Corvus (raven) was dropped onto another vessel. This made it easier for marines to board the enemy ships and it insured a huge victory for the Romans. The whales on the warships protected the hull from enemy ships (if they were to try to ram the Roman’s ship). The outriggers were used to stabilize the ships, making it harder for them to sink under pressure. The Quinqueremes had over 300 rowers, making them one the fastest ships of their time. While most vessels had 2 levels of rowers, Quinqueremes had 3 levels of rowers, making them the largest ship of its time. Ships made the Roman navy strong, which made it easier for the Romans to claim land and expand their territory.

There were many jobs surrounding ships in the time of the Romans. Importers brought the best olive oil from Spain and ladled it out to all their customers. Small ships would unload cargo from merchant ships. There were also many jobs on the navy’s ships which included: the prefect, the captain, the crews, and the soldiers. The prefect (praefectus) was the emperor appointed commander. They needed to be able to control a fleet of bulky and “unmanageable” vessels. They also needed to have good leadership qualities and great seafaring skills. The captain gained the title of Trierarchus and was of the Centurion rank. The crews consisted of recruits from allied states, slaves, captured prisoners from war, the poorer classes (proletarii), and they were also recruited locally. They were trained in the same ports as their ships were docked in. The soldiers (miles) on board the warships were also used in land troops that were lightly armed. They were only used in this field when necessary, which was rare. Ships provided jobs and much needed income to both the poorer classes and the richer classes.

The Roman’s ships had a variety of different designs. Mainly, the ships were made from wooden planks. The warships were thin and lightweight, making it easier for them to travel by both sea and river, while the merchant ships were big and chunky. The warships were curved at both the front and back, but the back’s curve was much more drastic than the front’s curve. There was a battering ram on the front of the ship, and in the water, it rested right below the sea’s surface, making it invisible to enemies, until it was too late. The levels of oars were on either side. Onboard there was a hole with an oar sticking straight down into the water used for steering the ship. Also onboard were towers to make it easier to shoot and kill enemies from far away. Near the back of the ship was a cabin. This cabin was generally where the captain and other important officials would sleep. The merchant ships had red oars, a colored swan statue at the front, and blue and red detailing around the sides. There were two cases of merchant ships. The first case was when the stern and bow were identical. In the second case, the bow was lower in height than the stern. At the sternpost’s end was “a swan’s head which faced towards the midships” (Boetto, Giulia). The swan’s head was “fitted with an overhanging gallery” (Boetto, Giulia). The Roman’s ships were all very intricately designed, and they all included some art. The designs of these ships are famous, and some have even inspired a few ships that exist today.

Trade was an important part in the Roman economy. The city of Rome relied almost completely on imports; therefore, importers were some of the wealthiest men in the entire empire. Some of the most important items shipped to Rome included: grain, wine, oil, iron bars, polychrome marbles, spices, silk, granite, rare animals used for circus games, a type of fish sauce called garum, blocks of iron and blocks of lead. Grain was essential to the survival of the Romans as it was the basic source of food for them. In the time of 37-68 CE, “the arrival of the grain fleet from Alexandria during the month of June was welcomed as an event of great importance” (Boetto, Giulia). This event was so important to the Romans that the merchant ships were escorted by warships. Shipping was also a big business in Ancient Rome. Trade routes relied almost completely on the ships that carried the imported goods to the place that needed them. This means that Rome completely relied on import ships to bring them the supplies that they needed. It became popular to transport items by ships and “transport by sea facilitated the movement of bulky and heavy products across long distances, without a prohibitive rise in costs” (Boetto, Giulia). There were also many advantages to shipping items instead of transporting them by sea. “Voyages by sea offered advantages with respect to land transport which was slow, uncomfortable and dangerous” (Boetto, Giulia). In order to protect ships and their crews when storms struck, insurance was offered for those ships. Giant insurance companies were formed, giving them income, while at the same time, boosting the income of the importers (and their families) that these large companies were made for. All in all, trade was a booming business, providing income to shippers and providing Rome with the supplies they needed to survive.

The Romans were very advanced in their ships, whether it be their navy or the designs of their merchant ships. They relied on importers to get them the supplies they needed, and the importers relied on ships to both get them to Rome and to carry their goods. The ships had a variety of different looks and each look served a different purpose. The jobs surrounding ships provided income to the poorer classes, while shipping provided the middle classes with lots of money, making them some of the richest people in the Roman Empire. War ships were powerful and made it easier for the Roman navy to claim land. Ships provided supplies needed to survive as well as profits. These vessels were one of the key points in why the Roman Empire was so powerful and if some of the ships weren’t designed and created like they were, humanity wouldn’t have the same ships it has today.

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The Roman Navy: Masters of the Mediterranean. (2020, Nov 17). Retrieved from

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