Development of the Ancient Roman Navy

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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. 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. 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...
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