At the hight of Romes power the Mediterranean became so quiet that it has been referred to as the Roman Boating Lake with only the danger of pirates to deal with. However, the channel fleet the Classis Britannica and the Rhine, Danube and Black Sea fleets were kept in active patrolling the frontier and dealing with raiders.
This entry provides a basic profile of the scope of the Roman navy and the fleets that saw service from the fall of Carthage, to the withdrawing of Roman forces from Britain. There is a considerable amount of evidence from some parts of the Empire and almost nothing from others. Due to the less obvious role they played in the defence of the Empire some of the fluvial fleets have been almost overlooked and may have been included in the garrison of the nearest fort but none will have been deliberately missed out. The fort of Arbeia modern South Shields, on Hadrian’s Wall is an example. The garrison roster included a Company of Bargemen (or boatmen) from the Tigris but there is no fleet or squadron of the Classis Britannica recorded in that area. The Company of Tigris bargemen were a military company so they were not civilian or merchant sailors. There is little doubt that some might have been overlooked as there are many places around the Empire where there may have been a fort with a base, or the very least an anchorage.
The navy of Rome existed to expand the empire and the Empire existed because of the navy of Rome. Despite this mutual reliance the navy was never regarded as truly quite Roman. This was because the Romans were a distinctly agricultural society who had little knowledge of the sea, and the seafaring nations were mere inferior provincials.
It was because of the non citizen, auxiliary status of the of the Greeks, Egyptians and other conquered seafaring nations that built the ships and provided the crews, that the navy was regarded as an inferior service. This attitude never changed even though the Empire became dependant upon its many fleets. The fleets were distributed across the entire Roman world providing transport and protecting the Empires trade routes from seaborne raiders for over 800 years.
Even though there were a large number of fleets during the long history of the Roman navy, it was 250 years since its founding before any fleet saw service outside the Mediterranean. During 'Gaius Julius Caesars’ Gallic campaigns the fleet was in action on the north coast of France against the Veneti. This did show a profound weakness in the navy, the tidal currents and lack of knowledge of the coast was almost disastrous. This proved a useful lesson and Caesar developed the fleet with stronger and heaver ships, and employed local pilots to improve coastal navigation.
This meant that when Caesar launched his Britaish expeditions and later Claudius his invasion they both had to construct a fleet to complete the task. Claudius provided the navy with ships that were suitable for the task, after the invasion the fleet was good enough to be used support the army on the advance into northern Britian. And some were used to complete the first recorded circumnavigation of the British Isles.
The Fleets Roman Of The Roman Empire
The Praetorian Fleets
The Praetorian fleets were created to be under the direct control of the Emperor and were therefore based close to the strategic centres of the Empire. The commanders were carefully selected and directly appointed by the Emperor, often from the ranks of imperial freedmen, in order to ensure their loyalty.
The Classis Ravenatis
Created in 28 BC, Their home port was Ravenna.
The Classis Misenensis
Created in 28 BC, Their home port was Portus Julius.
Both the classes Ravenatis and classes Misenensis were formed as home water fleets and their duties were mainly to patrol and escort convoys. They were available for Imperial duties and were given the title Praetorian to indicate this status. They may have been formed from the division of the Classis Africana Commodiana Herculea African fleet. The Praetorian fleets were active in all parts of the Mediterranean, inscriptions have been found in Syria and Piraeus near Athens showing the fleets were active in the areas.
The Fleets In The Provinces
The African to Italy Trade Route
The Classis Africana Commodiana Herculea was created in around 40 AD, Their home port was not recorded but it was likely to have been Ostia. Referred to as the African fleet it was formed to protect the trade route from Africa to Rome’s main port of Ostia. This was necessary to protect the shipments of grain to Rome which included the free wheat allotment to poorer citizens of Rome.
The Channel and Britain
The Classis Britannica. this fleet was created in 41 AD, the home Port was Gesoriacum - (modern Boulogne-sur-Mer). The only purpose of this fleet was to provide support for the invasion of Britain. Gesoriacum, was the port of embarkation of the invasion force. After the successful crossing of the Occeanus Britannicus, the English Channel, landings took place at Richborough, Lympne and Dover, and the establishment of a supply base at Noviomagus (modern Bosham) Sussex, The fleet was in action supporting the crossing of the Thames, and providing an escort for Emperor Claudius in 46 AD when he visited Britain, transporting his Praetorian Guard, elephants for his triumphal entry into Camulodunum, modern Colchester. The home port was transferred to Rutupiae (modern Richborough) and Dubris (modern Dover) in 84 - 86 BC.
The Black Sea The Agean and The Coast of Thrace
The Classis Pontica1 this became part of the Roman navy when Pontus was made a province of the Empire by Nero. Originally the Classis Pontica was responsible for the protection of the Black Sea. When he became Emperor, Hadrian reorganised the fleets in the area and this fleet was given the responsibility for the southern part of the Black Sea, the northern part and the mouth of the Danube became the responsibility or the Classis Moesica. The Agean and Eastern Mediterranean was the responsibility of the Classis Syriaca or Syrian fleet it was created in 64 BC. The home port was Seleucia Pieriae in Syria, this fleet controlled parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. The Coast of Thrace was controled by the Classis Perinthia this was also known as the Thracian fleet it was created in 46 AD, Their home port was Perinthus, with other bases situated along the Thracian coast. The fleet was first formed when Thrace became part of the Empire. The other fleets in the area were the Classis Constantinople The fleet was based in the city but no records have survived even the name Classis Constantinople is an assumption, even how or why the records were lost in not known. The home Port of the fleet was Constantinople in Turkey. The Classis Carpathia this fleet created in 390 AD. Almost nothing is known about this fleet apart from that it was formed from the division of the Classis Syriaca. The home Port of the fleet was on the Island of Karpathos in Greece.
Northern Adriatic Sea
The Classis Venetum it was created in 30 BC, The fleets home port was Aquileia it was formed to keep control of the northern Adriatic Sea, and keep open the important route between Dalmatia and Rome.
The Western Mediterranean
The Classis Mauretaniae or African fleet - Created in 170 AD, The fleets home port was Caesarea (modern Cherchell), it was formed to keep control of the African coast at the western end of the Mediterranean.
The Alexandrian Coast
The Classis Alexandrina known as the Alexandrian fleet was established in 30 BC. The home port of the fleet was Alexandria, fleet was formed to provide escorts for the grain shipments from Nile Delta to Rome. The Classis Alexandrina also the duty of patrolling the Nile. Another fleet recorded near the Nile delta was the Classis nova Libyca was created around 153 BC, The home Port of the fleet was Ptolemais in north Africa. Little is recorded and as based on the Nile Delta it may have become part of the Classis Alexandrina.
The Fluvial Fleets
A fluvial or river fleet, is one which is equipped with ships designed for use in the shallower waters of rivers and estuaries. Another characteristic of a river craft, was that it was short enough to turn in a narrow channel, or could go backwards by simply turning the rowers.
The River Rhine
The River Rhine was patrolled by the Classis Germanica. created in 12 BC, Their home port was Castra Vetera (near modern Briten) the town was the main base in the region for a legionary force of over 8,000. When the settlement was destroyed during a Batavian uprising in 69 AD, the base was transferred to Colonia Agrippinensis2 modern Cologne. This was a fluvial fleet, which is a fleet that was equipped with ships designed for use in the shallower waters of rivers and estuaries. It did however have ships capable of operating at sea as the fleet also sent patrols into the North Sea. Lake Constance is mentioned here as there is evidence that there were also ships stationed on Lake Constance (situated between Austria, Switzerland and Austria) weather these ships were a squadron of the Classis Germanica or a separate fleet that was stationed on the lake is unclear. It is however most probable that the ships were part of the Classis Germanica as the Lake Constance flows into the River Rhine.
The River Danube and Black Sea
The Western Danube was under the protection of the Classis Pannonica or Pannonian fleet created in 30 BC, Their home port was probably Aquincum, near modern Budapest. This was a major settlement of around 42,000 people and around 49 AD. this city had a legionary garrison of 6,000, with a supporting cavalry squadron of 500. This was also a fluvial fleet that had various bases along the western Danube. Owing to the geography of the river the Danube and the natural hazard of the Kazan Gorge, the Danube had two fleets. The Classis Pannonica to the west of the Kazan Gorge. The Eastern Danube was under the protection of the Classis Moesica or Moesian fleet - Created in 20 BC, Their home port was Noviodunum, was another fluvial fleet with various bases along the Danube from the east of the Kazan Gorge, also known as the Iron Gates, to the Black Sea. In addition to the security of the Danube the Classis Moesica was given the duty of patrolling the northern half of the Black Sea including the shores of the Crimea.
The importance of the city of Noviodunum, the fleets main statio (landing place) is indicated by the fact that it achieved the status of municipium in 46 AD. The city garrison appears to have been between 2,000 and 3,000 marines and sailors with a vexillation (1,000 men) of the Legion XI Claudia. From 117 AD until 180 AD the Legion V Macedonica supported by 4,000 auxiliary horse and foot were also stationed in the province.
The River Danube
The Classis Histrica eventually around the year 390AD, the Classis Pannonica and the Classis Moesica were combined into the Classis Histrica. The home ports were Mursa, Florentia, Arruntum, Viminacum and Aegetae. There were a number of smaller fleets patrolling the tributaries that fed into the Danube. The fleets patrolling the tributaries were the Classis Arlapensis et Maginensis the home fleets ports were at Comagena and Arelape. The Classis Ratianensis - The fleets home port was Dacia Ripensis. The Classis Lauriacensis the home port was Lauriacum. The Classis Stradensis et Germensis this fleets home port was Margo.
The units serving the fleet are listed as the milites liburnarii and the milites nauclarii. This list is a very vague, however these men do appear to have been attached to the following Legions that were stationed in the area. The legions stationed in the area and able to support the fleets were the Legio II Herculia the Second Legion the followers of Hercules - Formed at the order of Emperor Diocletian to garrison the province of Scythia Minor between the Black Sea and the River Danube. The Legio XIV Gemina the fourteenth Twin Legion, this was one of the legions that invaded Britain, who also distinguished themselves by defeating Boudicca. And the Legio X Gemina the tenth Twin Legion this was one of the legions that took part in Caesars expedition to Britain in 55 BC.
Other Fluvial Fleets included the Classis Anderetianorum the fleets home port was Lutetia3 (the modern city of Paris, took the name in 360 AD.) a city with a population of around 8,000, its duties were transport and patrol on the Rivers Seine and Oise. The Classis Ararica the fleets home port was Caballodunum (modern Chalon-sur-Saône), the fleet duties included transport and patrol on the River Saone. The Classis Sambrica – The fleets home port was Locus Quartensis, duties were patrol and transport escort on the River Somme.
The River Rhone fleet the Classis Fluminis Rhodani had two home ports. The first was Aries4 (modern Arelate), a major port since Phoenician times. Aries was an important settlement due to its size and status as a Colony of the veterans of the VI Legion5. The city was also the site of the most southerly bridge on the River Rhone6. Despite this Aries for supremacy with Massalia modern Marseilles another Phoenician city, both city’s provided supporting bases for the river fleet the duties of which were mainly transport and patrol on the River Rhone.
Lake Based Fluvial Fleets
The Classis Barcariorum with a home port at Eburodunum (modern Yverdon-les-Bains), a patrol fleet of small ships patrolling Lake Neuchâtel the largest of the Swiss lakes. The Classis Comensis had a home Port on the shores of Lake Como, it was not recorded and was a series of bases on the shores of the Lake, which is one of the largest of the Italian lakes a fleet of small ships was stationed here for transport and patrol duties.