The Roman Imperial Navy

The Roman Imperial Navy: 31 B. C.–A. D. 324

Chester G. Starr
Volume: 26
Copyright Date: 1941
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 244
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.cttq4550
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    The Roman Imperial Navy
    Book Description:

    In this book, Chester G. Starr presents a thorough and comprehensive account of the Roman naval establishment of the Principate. Of the book's eight chapters, the first is devoted to the origins of the fleets of Augustus, the next four to a detailed study of the Italian fleets of Misenum and Ravenna, one to the provincial squadrons in the Mediterranean, another to the fleets on the northern frontier, and the last to a survey of the role of the navy in the history of the Empire to the victory of Constantine I over Licinius.

    Starr points out that there is no direct link between the imperial navy and the great fleets raised by Rome for the Punic Wars and the wars in the East before the time of Sulla; rather its antecedents are to be found in the fleets of Sulla, of Pompey, and of the various leaders in the Civil Wars, particularly, of course, that with which Octavian triumphed at Actium. It was Octavian (become Augustus), Starr emphasizes, who was the true founder of the imperial navy because of his decision to maintain a permanent naval establishment in times of peace as well as of war, because its organization with two main fleets at Misenum and Ravenna with subsidiary units elsewhere was his work, and because he laid down the general rules which governed the conditions of naval service for the future.

    Among the many contributions Starr makes to the history of the Roman navy is his convincing refutation of Mommsen's theory that the fleet belonged to the emperor, not to the state, and that under Augustus and Tiberius the sailors of the fleet were imperial slaves or freedmen. By careful use of the scarce literary and inscriptional evidence, Starr shows that from the outset the fleet was a public and not a personal institution. Having that status, it could not be and was not manned by slaves. In fact, the seamen and officers included both freemen and freedmen until as late as Domitian.

    The picture which Starr draws of the life and duties of the naval personnel is as full and realistic as the sources permit. The duties of the imperial were largely of a routine nature-suppression of piracy, convoying of troops, transportation of officials, patrol duties on the frontiers, occasionally military service on shore-yet it performed an important, if subordinate task in the preservation of the pax Romana and the maintenance of the unity of the Empire. Here, as elsewhere, Starr concludes, the Augustan organization broke down in the crisis of the third century and was not revived in the new order of Diocletian and Constantine. A prosopographia of the prefects of the several fleets, an index of inscriptions and papyri, and a general index conclude the volume.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6668-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
    Chester G. Starr Jr
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. CHAPTER I SEA POWER IN THE LATER REPUBLIC
    (pp. 1-10)

    If one were required to designate an event which marks the beginnings of the Roman imperial navy, that event would assuredly be the first Mithridatic war (88-84 B. C.). The earlier Republic had maintained large fleets in the Punic wars and in the great eastern campaigns at the beginning of the second century B.C., but between these squadrons and the makeshift fleet of Sulla in 84 B. C. there lies a gap of eighty years in Roman naval history. From the time of Sulla events led steadily toward the standing navy of the Empire. The false peace of the sea,...

  6. CHAPTER II THE ITALIAN FLEETS: THEIR PORTS
    (pp. 11-29)

    When Antony broke from Actium and fled with Cleopatra toward the southern horizon, Octavian became master of the Mediterranean. Naulochus had given him the Tyrrhenian; the rest was his after Actium. To the four hundred vessels which Octavian had brought from Italy were now added roughly three hundred of Antony’s ships, taken at Actium or during the Actian campaign.¹

    Octavian may not be expected fully to have appreciated his position, as September 2 came to its victorious and weary close. Antony and Cleopatra were yet alive, and the East was in turmoil; there was no certainty that malcontents might not...

  7. CHAPTER III THE ITALIAN FLEETS: OFFICERS OF COMMAND
    (pp. 30-50)

    Before the introduction of the magisti militum under Constantine the administrative machinery of the Roman Empire had no official even faintly resembling the modern Minister of War. The praefectus praetorio enjoyed special control over the army under certain emperors, notably in the third century,¹ but this influence was limited and ephemeral; since Augustus and his successors were acutely aware of the true justification for their power, they were their own ministers for the army and the navy. For this reason a great department a classibusat Rome has not been and hardly will be discovered. The letter home of a of...

  8. CHAPTER IV THE ITALIAN FLEETS: SHIPS AND CREWS
    (pp. 51-65)

    The squadrons of the Empire inherited and used through-out their existence a type of warship no longer found in modern fleets. This was the long, low war galley, a vessel which had one decisive advantage in the fact that its motion was based on the only certain, controllable source of power available in the ancient world.¹ When under oars the galley was independent of the winds, which blow more fitfully in the Mediterranean than in the Atlantic, and could thereby more satisfactorily fulfill its duties in communication and transport; in the battle itself, for which the warship was primarily designed,...

  9. CHAPTER V THE ITALIAN FLEETS: THE SAILORS
    (pp. 66-105)

    The statements commonly repeated about the sailors of the Roman imperial navy are few and, in the main, erroneous. Essentially they rest upon a faulty conception of the legal status of the navy and its sailors; with this, then, a consideration of the sailor’s life must begin. More particularly, one must commence with the ultimate source of the misconception, Theodor Mommsen’s Schweizer Nachstudien of 1881.¹ Under Augustus and Tiberius, Mommsen wrote, the fleet was a personal possession of the emperor, and the sailors were slaves or freedmen of the imperial familia. The trierarch called himself “slave of Caesar”; the ordinary...

  10. CHAPTER VI THE PROVINCIAL SQUADRONS OF THE MEDITERRANEAN
    (pp. 106-123)

    The fleets based on Misenum and Ravenna were by far the most important naval forces in the empire; but one must not commit the egregious error of considering these two units the only parts of the imperial naval establishment. Even in the Mediterranean the requirements of the empire demanded independent squadrons off Syria, Egypt, and Mauretania, and those waters which were far distant, as the Black Sea, the English Channel, the Rhine and Danube Rivers, were obviously beyond the sphere of the Italian fleets. Discussion of the general missions of the navy must accordingly attend on an examination of these...

  11. CHAPTER VII NAVAL POWER ON THE NORTHERN FRONTIER
    (pp. 124-166)

    For four hundred years the northern frontier of the Empire, with its garrisons and fortifications, defended the Mediterranean provinces against the dimly known tribes of the continent. Although the actual boundary was always changing, a barometer as it were of imperial strength, the essential geographical bases of the frontier remained constant: the great rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, with the two seas into which they empty as terminal marks on the northwest and southeast. These were not in every part the legal boundary, for rivers and seas may unite as well as divide their shores, but even in the...

  12. CHAPTER VIII THE NAVY AND THE EMPIRE
    (pp. 167-208)

    The foregoing description of the imperial navy demonstrates that the emperors had broken with the Republican policy of fashioning naval instruments for each separate need, and considered a permanent navy desirable. Throughout most of their existence the two Italian fleets had a very considerable strength which at one time reached fifteen thousand men, and the eight major provincial squadrons were together possibly as strong; ships and crews were scattered in every quarter of the empire where naval power could be advantageous. Yet this navy fought no serious battles for two centuries. And again, we are dealing with the Romans, so...

  13. Appendix PROSOPOGRAPHIA PRAEFECTORUM CLASSIUM
    (pp. 209-214)
  14. Index of Inscriptions and Papyri
    (pp. 215-222)
  15. General Index
    (pp. 223-228)
  16. Backmatter
    (pp. 229-230)