Ancient Warfare Vol 5 Issue 5, 2011

Theme: Securing seas and shores: Fleets of the Roman empire

Introduction: Courtney Foster, 'Introduction to the theme'. Illustrated by Jóse Antonio Germán.

Regardless of its achievements, the Roman navy will forever be eclipsed by the prominence of the Roman army. Though the legionary campaigns of Imperial Rome historically created a legacy of glorified military supremacy, the navy nevertheless played a significant part in its foundation, maintenance, and overall preservation. J.H. Rose, a contemporary historical scholar, explains the necessity of the Roman navy best in his work The Mediterranean in Ancient Times: “…in promoting the Roman civilization…the influence of Roman fleets in bringing about that miracle has been almost entirely ignored. Yet it is demonstrable that the Roman empire depended…on its fleets.”

The source: Michael J. Taylor, 'The papyrus letters of Claudius Terentianus - A voice from Egypt'. Illustrated by Andrew Brozyna.

Letters home provide a rich insight into the daily lives of soldiers and sailors. They are historically quite rare, as illiteracy and censorship generally conspired to mute the voices of men in the ranks. The dry sands of Egypt, however, have preserved a number of examples of letters written by Roman military men, and these provide invaluable portholes into their social world. One famous collection of papyrus letters, known as the Tiberianus archive, provides military historians a double benefit. It contains letters written by a young man named Claudius Terentianus, who served first in the Imperial fleet before transferring to a legion. These letters therefore provide a window into life in both the classis and legion during the high empire.

Theme: Raffaele D’Amato, 'An officer of the liburna Aurata - The tombstone of Montanus'.

One of the most intriguing stela depicting classiarii was found in 2005 in Ravenna (Italy), during the excavations of the area of Classe, the harbour of the Ravennate fleet. It is the gravestone of a young Roman officer in full military dress. In his right hand he holds what is presumably a javelin and in the left a paludamentum (cloak). The junior officer wears a muscled cuirass with pteryges on the shoulders and along the bottom of his cuirass. A gladius is also visible and caligae are shown on his feet. The incomplete inscription reports the soldier’s name as Montanus[?], which was originally linked with the name Capito, an optio serving on a liburna called Aurata (golden). The monument was commissioned by the heir of the deceased, probably one of his colleagues.

Theme: Jasper Oorthuys, 'Deciphering the structure of the fleets - Marines and Mariners'. Illustrated by Graham Sumner.

Ancient history is full of examples where we know that a reliable author wrote about a certain person, event or development, but where his testimony has not survived for whatever reason. The study of Roman naval forces has its own example in Appian’s promise, stated in his introduction to his Roman History, that he would detail the exact disposition of Rome’s armed forces in a later book. Of course, that book does not survive, so what we know about the fleets has to be pieced together from passing mentions in literary narrative, and especially inscriptions. The latter are invaluable for our understanding of the internal structure of the fleets. Actually, they’re both invaluable and frustratingly ambiguous, if we are being honest…

Theme: Mihail Zahariade, 'The Roman provincial fleets - Workhorses of the Imperial navy''.

In the fading years of the Republic after the battle of Actium, while Augustus slowly solidified his position, it had become one of his main goals to achieve a general reshuffling of the military forces throughout the empire. The rapid sequence of political and military events set new boundaries for the Roman Principate: the Atlantic Ocean, two major seas (the North and Black Seas) and three key rivers (Rhine, Danube and Euphrates) were of critical importance for the defense against powerful neighbors near and beyond the frontiers. The management of waterborne human and material resources along these natural boundaries remained an inseparable part of the military policy of the empire during the subsequent six centuries of its existence.

Theme: Paul McDonnell-Staff, 'The battle of actium, 31 BC - The winds of fate'. Illustrated by Jason Askew and Carlos Garcia

The whole story of Caesar’s death, Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra, together with the rise to power of Octavian, later Augustus the first Emperor of Rome, is surrounded by so many myths and legends – what modern commentators would call ‘spin’ – that it is hard to discern the truth. This article attempts to undo some of this ‘spin,’ in an effort to discover the likely facts about the key moment in history that led to the rise of the first Roman Emperor.

Theme: Jesse Obert, 'The personal relationship between an emperor and his navy - Classis mea, my fleet'.

The bay of Naples has been a tourist hotspot since the birth of tourism. The idyllic Italian towns and beautiful coastline attract international interest, and its ancient sites remain essential to any classical education. In 2009 I spent a week at the bay. I wandered through the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum snapping pictures and exploring every alley. As a Roman archaeologist, I was awed by the beautifully preserved frescoes and mosaics. However, by the end of the week, the archaeologist in me had all but forgotten the ancient cities once I reached the small island of Capri.


The Find: Murray Dahm, 'Head wounds, healing and helmets - Don't lose your head'.

An intriguing Scythian helmet held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, together with the skull which it was buried with and which it protected, provide remarkable insights into the archaeology of head wounds in antiquity.

Special: Allan Smith IV, 'Testing Polybius' formations - The anatomy of battle'. Illustrated by Angel Garcia Pintó and Andrew Brozyna.

It is too often forgotten to critically review every work, no matter how credible a source it is generally considered to be. Instances of insufficient critical review exist throughout scholarly history. Similarly, cases of historians relying too heavily on the interpretations and claimed evidence of other works have taken their toll too. Many authors have relied more on secondary (or tertiary) sources rather than the primary sources. As such, it is vital to reconsider every source and investigate every author (as both should be given equal scrutiny) for any deliberate error, unintended authorial bias, or simple unintentional mistake.

The Debate: Duncan B. Campbell, 'Who killed Alexander the Great? - Death in Babylon'.

Alexander the Great died unexpectedly on June 11, 323 BC, in the ancient Persian city of Babylon. The preceding eight years had seen him crush the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela, capture his capital city of Persepolis, and overrun his empire as far as the Punjab. Then, “just when he seemed to be at the peak of power and prosperity”, wrote the historian Diodorus Siculus, “fate cut short the lifetime granted to him by nature”. Ancient writers were perplexed by his mysterious death, and scholars continue to offer various explanations without reaching much agreement. So, can we ever say, for certain, who or what killed Alexander the Great?

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