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Ancient Roman Navy Posted by on Oct 27, 2009 in Latin Language

The Roman Classis or navy, has been historically overshadowed by the ancient Roman army. To begin with, the ancient Romans were not a sea faring people. They were primarily land based and much of the territory acquired through war was by land. This is not to say that the Roman navy was never a significant asset to the Roman empire. The Battle of Actium in which Octavian’s fleet defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra is an example of an important naval battle in the history of ancient Roman warfare. Other than warfare, protecting trade routes from pirates was another reason why the Roman navy was important to the empire.

The ancient Roman navy composed of rowers who were freeborn but were not Roman citizens. Slaves were only used to row under emergencies. Everyone serving in the imperial fleet were referred to as milites (soldiers) regardless of whether the person was a rower or helmsman on the ship. However there were specific qualifications like the centurion who commanded the ship. The next executive officer was the optio. There were also the principales or junior officers and the immunes, who were specialists (like navigators) exempt from certain duties (like manual labor).

The first recorded use of the navy in battle was the First Punic War. Rome’s operations in Sicily required the use of ships, and for the first time the legions were not required. The emphasis of the battle of the Second Punic War was moved to the land, and the navy was abandoned. Flash forward to 43 A.D. to 85 A.D. the Roman navy was paramount in the conquest of Britain. Starting from the reign of Nero, Roman emperors would increase the size of the Roman navy. In the third centunry, piracy was virtually wiped out and the navy was reduced to minor operations.

History will always remember the Legions as Rome’s key card to power and domination, but let us not forget that it was not the Legions alone that dictated Rome’s successes.

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