Roman Naval Warfare by Mark Cartwright 
published on 13 April 2014

Military supremacy of the seas could be a crucial factor in the success of any land campaign, and the Romans well knew that a powerful naval fleet could supply troops and equipment to where they were most needed in as short a time as possible. Naval vessels could also supply beleaguered ports under enemy attack and, in turn, blockade ports under enemy control. A powerful navy was also indispensable to deal with pirates, who wreaked havoc with commercial sea-traders and even, on occasion, blockaded ports. Naval warfare had its own unique dangers, though, with adverse weather being the biggest threat to success, which is why naval campaigns were largely limited to between April and November.

SHIPS & WEAPONS
Ancient naval vessels were made of wood, water-proofed using pitch and paint, and propelled by both sail and oars. Ships with multiple levels of rowers, such as the trireme, were fast and manoeuvrable enough to attack enemy vessels by ramming. The largest ships were the quinqueremes, with three banks of rowers, two each for the upper two oars and one rower on the lower oar (around 300 in total). Ships could also be fitted with a platform via which marines could easily board enemy vessels - a device known as the corvus (raven). Built for speed, most warships were lightweight, cramped, and without room for storage or even a large body of troops. Such logistical purposes were better achieved using troop carrier vessels and supply ships under sail.

Aside from the bronze covered battering ram below the water-line on the ship's prow, other weapons included artillery ballista which could be mounted on ships to provide lethal salvoes on enemy land positions from an unexpected and less protected flank or also against other vessels. Fire balls (pots of burning pitch) could also be launched at the enemy vessel to destroy it by fire rather than ramming. For complete article, click here.

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A harbor town, probably 1st century AD, Stabiae, frescoA harbor town, probably 1st century AD, Stabiae, fresco, 24 x 26 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Photography © Luciano Pedicini.

I am always impressed when I see this fresco on on the internet. Bustling, lively harbour with luxurious ships, locals fishing from their boats, forum, huge seaside villas, and numerous statues probably dedicated to Roman Gods and Emperors. In the foreground are two silhoueted men with fishing rods. The harbour was probably constructed using Roman Hydraulic Concrete. Stabiae was a seaside resort on the headland overlooking the Gulf of Naples a few miles southwest of Pompeii.

I photoshopped the dull, faded image to give it a more natural look with deep blue waters and lively colours so that the fresco appears as if it were painted recently. You can compare it with the original here.

On Feb. 15, 2016, Mr. Pedicini commented that I might have photoshopped the fresco too much and I agree. We do not know if the Romans possesed such deep blue colours. It appears though that original did fade due to eruption heat and the passage of time. I have to spend some time in researching other Roman frescos not from Pompeii so I can compare the colours.  


Fresco of  a seaside villa. Napoli, Museo Archeologico Nazionale A.D. 47-79.


Two frescos from ROM Pompeii Exhibit

Fresco depicting a Roman cargo ship in full sail.

This type of vessel would have likely docked in Pompeii's harbour either to pick up or unload supplies.Two galleys (Triremes) in their covered hangars (the Navalia). They are equipped with a trident and a spur (proembolon). Source is here. © The Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of Naples.


Flicker photos fom Mary Hirsh
Roman War Galleys were frequent subjects of Pompeii frescoes 1st century CE

These two ships look exactly the same except for the location. It must have been a famous, victorious trireme of its time.

Two magnificent triremes with huge battering rams.


Roman War Galley. Taken on: October 15, 2007 by Mary Harrsch

Caption:Fresco depicting a naval battle, from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1997), Campania. Roman Civilization, 1st Century. ©  Bridgeman Images.

Caption:Fresco depicting a naval battle, from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1997), Campania. Roman Civilization, 1st Century. © De Agostini Picture Library

Fourth Style wall painting with naumachia (naval battle), a detail from a panel from the portico of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, Naples National Archaeological Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato. Taken on July 4, 2014.


 Carved tablet depicting a trireme (stone), Roman, (1st century BC) / Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy / © Bridgeman Images.

Merchant sailing ship, first century AD relief, from the Pompeian tomb of Naevoleia Tyche, Roman civilisation.  

Villa  Marittimae (Landscape with Maritime Villa) Fresco Castellammare di Stabia, Varano Hill, Villa San Marco First Century A.D. Courtesy of the Superintendency of Pompei and of the Restoring Ancient Stabiae (RAS) Foundation

 The entrance of a tomb at the necropolis of Isola Sacra in the ancient Roman port of Ostia. For more info, click here and here.


Greek mythology was much fresher in the memory of Romans than ours. Here are some Pompeii frescoes with Greek ships of course.

Roger Ulrich: "Odysseus and the Sirens In this fragment of a wall painting from Pompeii (now in the British Museum) Odysseus (Ulysses) is clearly shown bound to the mast of his ship so that he can hear the bewitching song of the Sirens (one of these half-bird/half-female figures is in the upper right-hand corner. The white marks on the right side of the image represent the bones of sailors who have fallen prey to the Sirens (see the detail in this same set). A variant composition with the same theme is carved on a sarcophagus in the Museo Nazionale Romano from the late second/early third century."

The Fall of Icarus. Fresco from Pompeii (the House of the Priest Amandus, I.7.7). 40—79 A.D. Pompeii, The House of the Priest Amandus.

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