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Ancient Roman Navy

Шлаканёв В.В.

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Different ships may differ significantly in their characteristics. Some are heavy and clumsy, while others are small, fast and maneuverable. And to achieve victory in a sea battle, often the same type of ships were simply not enough. The Monera, for example, will be faster and more maneuverable than the quinquireme, but it will be much inferior in combat power, because the main ship weapon of antiquity was the ram - rostrum. Next, we will talk about different types of warships of the ancient Roman fleet.

Classification of Roman warships

Classification of ancient Roman warships. Often the name of the ship's class came from the Latin numeral, which denoted the number of rows of oars. For example, a unireme (Lat.uniremis) had one row of oars, a bireme (lat.biremis)– two, a trireme (lat.triremis) – three, a quadrireme – four rows, penters and hexers – five and six rows of oars, respectively. This is reported by the ancient Roman author Isidore (Isid., Orig., XIX, 23). However, biremes were most often called Liburns, referring to the ship's pirate past.

Light and medium ships

Uniremis (Latin: Uniremis) – a light wooden ship that had a single row of oars and did not have a deck. Sometimes its Greek name is found-Monera (Monera). Unirema was the smallest type of ship that was used for military purposes. In some exceptional cases, the Roman navy could resort to requisitioning merchant ships, where uniremes were more common. Pentekontera – a type of warship similar to unierms, but distinguished by its large size. Mention of this type of ship, along with triremes, occurs in Herodotus during the description of the battle near Salamis (Herod., VIII, 48). These ships often carried small boarding parties.

Birema, or Liburna. Birema (Latin: Biremis) – a ship that had two rows of oars (Isid., Orig., XIX, 23). According to the Greek classification – Diera. Liburna is the name of a ship that is structurally similar to a bireme. The name is derived from the Liburnian pirates, who used such ships for sea robbery, as Appian reports (App., Illyr., I, 3). Over time, the name "Liburna" passed to biremes, because these ships were very similar. There was a mast in the middle of the ship. The lack of a ram (rostra) is caused by the pirate past of the ship: pirates, unlike the military, did not sink ships, but boarded them. Therefore, they simply did not need a ram, and its presence significantly reduced the speed of the ship. The length of the liburna varied from 24 to 30 meters. The exact number of Liburna crew members is not known.

Trireme (Latin: triremis). Without exaggeration, the trireme was the most massive warship of antiquity. With its size, it had impressive combat power. The main weapon of the ship was a rostrum-ram in the bow. However, in some bas-reliefs, you can see triremes with superstructures, on which various types of throwing machines were located. In the era of the republic, ships of this class were equipped with "Crows" (Latin: corvus) – boarding ladders with beaks at the end.

The exact dimensions of the vessel are not known for certain. However, at the moment there is a popular hypothesis that the length of the ship's hull did not exceed 42 meters, and the width – 8 meters. The ship was also equipped with two masts. The central mast was vertical and located approximately in the middle. The second mast was located on the bow at an angle (in modern naval terminology, it is called the bowsprit). Under sail, the trireme could reach speeds of up to 8 knots (approximately 14.8 km / h). On oars, this speed was reduced to 5 knots (almost 10 km / h). Before the battle, the central mast was removed.

Rowers on Trajan's column, early 2nd century AD
Image of a trireme
Battle of Actium. Marble relief of Avellino. AD 14-37

Heavy ships (larger than triremes)

Difficulty exploring ships larger than a trireme. The authors of antiquity, when describing warships, often did not consider it necessary to go into details that were well known to their contemporaries. The main criterion for distinguishing ships for ancient authors was the number of rows of oars on a ship, and not the number of rowers on one oar. The classification of warships according to Isidore looks like this: "Biremes are ships that have a paired row of oars, triremes and quadriremes have three and four rows. So both penters and hexers have five and six rows" (Isid., Orig., XIX, 23). Vegetius also states that the size of ships depended on the number of rows of oars (remorum ordines) on it (Veg., VI, 37).

Related topics

History of the Republican Fleet of ancient Rome, Trireme, Dismissal from the Navy


The ram of a Roman ship raised off the coast of Sicily. A.D. 241
The ram of a Roman ship raised off the coast of Sicily. A.D. 241
Battle of Actium. Marble relief of Avellino. AD 14-37
Roman bas-relief with civilian ships. 3rd century AD
Battle of Actium. Marble relief of Avellino. AD 14-37