Saturday, April 11, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Christa Steinby, The Roman Republican Navy: From the Sixth Century to 167 B.C. Commentationes humanarum litterarum, 123. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica, 2007. Pp. 236. ISBN 9789516533509. €22.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Christopher J. Dart, The University of Melbourne

The Roman Republican Navy is one of the few recent works to address the important issue of the early Roman navy. With the notable exception of the works of J. H. Theil (1946 and 1954), the Roman navy during the Republic has received little detailed attention from modern scholarship. This work seeks to address this lack of attention and forwards a considerable re-assessment of the extent and significance of the Republican navy prior to 167 BCE.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of existing scholarship on ancient navies before setting out a brief survey of ancient naval warfare in the Mediterranean. This chapter draws heavily upon Morrison, Coates and Rankov (2000) and principally discusses the ways in which ever larger ships were used in the eastern Mediterranean.

Chapter 2 traces the development of the Roman navy prior to the First Punic War. It is here that the author first mounts what is one of the central contentions of the work; that the Romans had significant naval interests stretching back to the sixth century BCE.

The chapter asserts that, "Roman naval history starts early. Under the kings, Rome was already involved in international affairs in the western Mediterranean" (p. 32). Yet the supporting evidence which is presented for this position is slight (pp. 32-34) and for the most part highly speculative. The potentially populous nature of Rome in the sixth century and the importance of Rome as a point for trade passing between the sea and the Italian interior are forwarded as evidence that Rome may have been engaged in similar seafaring activities to that of the cities of the Etruscan and Latin coasts.

Much of the chapter proceeds upon speculative arguments and the sequence of these arguments rest upon subsequent speculations. For instance, it is argued that the establishment of maritime colonies may have been an attempt to secure ports necessary for the operation of a Roman fleet (pp. 52-53), not for the purpose of preventing hostile landings and "passive defence," as has usually been assumed (Theil, 1954, p. 11f. and Salmon, 1970, p. 70f.). This is extended to speculation that a Roman fleet may have been active during the war with Neapolis in 326 BCE (p. 58f.). Livy does describe naval activities on the part of the Neapolitans and Tarentines (Livy, 8.22) but neither he, nor Dionysius of Halicarnassus, make any reference to a Roman fleet. Similarly sources such as Diodorus (16.82) and Strabo (5.3), who record naval activity in the fourth century which was possibly associated with the Romans, are referring to piracy.

All four treaties between Rome and Carthage prior to the First Punic War are accepted as authentic by the author and are interpreted as indicative of considerable naval involvement in the Mediterranean on the part of the Romans (p. 36f.). Under the terms of the treaties of 508 and 348 BCE, Carthaginian naval interests were protected while the Romans were guaranteed control in Latium and the right to protect their allies. This would seem to indicate clearly that the Romans only had small scale naval interests up until the mid-fourth century. Such an interpretation is commonly accepted by moderns (see: Lancell, 1995, p. 86f.; Goldsworthy, 2000, p. 69f.; and Forsythe, 2005, p. 121f. and p. 280). The third treaty in 279 BCE still shows no signs of significant Roman naval activity (Theil, 1954, p. 6 and Goldsworthy, 2000, pp. 69-70). The very existence of such treaties would seem to undermine the core argument of Chapter 2 that prior to the First Punic War the Romans already had a developed and significant naval presence. The chapter very much sets itself up against the arguments forwarded by J. H. Thiel. His work is the most substantial on the Republican navy. Thiel tended to underplay the role of the navy prior to the First Punic War. He argued that, while there is evidence of naval activity prior to the First Punic War, it cannot have been of any great importance given the near silence of surviving primary source material (1954, p. 4-5).

Chapters 3 and 4 are reprints of articles which have previously appeared in Arctos (2000) and Ancient Society (2004) respectively. Chapter 3 discusses the use of the Roman boarding bridge during the First Punic War. The principle conclusion of chapter 3 is that the boarding bridge cannot have been as instrumental an invention for Roman naval victories as Polybios asserts. Some aspects of the argument are contentious. The conclusion of chapter 3 asserts that during the First Punic War "it can be stated that the Roman navy did very well, from the first battle to the last" (p. 102). By the author's own omission, the Romans lost about 600 ships to the Carthaginians' 450 and of these 75 per cent of Roman losses came in storms (p. 103). It is then argued that these statistics "simply show that the Romans after all had more resources for building and maintaining ships" (p. 103). On the contrary, suffering a high proportion of their losses in storms would seem to indicate that while the Romans were amateurish mariners they were highly successful in naval combat. In turn, this supports Polybios' argument over that of Steinby's, that the Romans were able to apply their skills in land combat to naval engagements to give their soldiers an advantage over experienced mariners.

Chapter 4 investigates the role of the Roman and Carthaginian navies during the Second Punic War. The chapter seeks to show that the Roman and Carthaginian navies were of significance during this war. This chapter argues along far less contentious lines than chapters 2 and 3. It is a sound feature of the structure of the work in general that the material is discussed chronologically. However, the inclusion of these two previously published articles (chapters 3 and 4) mean that there is no comparable chronological assessment of the period between the First Punic War and the end of the Second Punic War.

Chapters 5 to 7 detail naval activity against Philip, Antiochus and Perseus, respectively. These chapters rightly highlight that Roman-sponsored naval actions in the eastern Mediterranean were significant to the success of military policy in the east. Even here, however, the argument often strays onto tenuous ground. Chapter 5 forwards the premise that the campaigns against Philip and Perseus "are not known for great sea battles. Therefore, the significance of navies and especially the role of the Roman navy has been underestimated" (p. 143). While the absence of source material which provides detailed discussion of naval events is not in itself evidence for the absence of activity, these chapters consistently side with the most expansive interpretation of references to Roman naval activity.

It is a deficiency of the work in general that it does not fully confront the issue of there being a number of detailed and extensive sources (Polybios, Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus amongst others) for military activity in the period under investigation. These sources are principally interested in the activities of the land army, manned by Roman citizen soldiers. The role of Latins and Italian allies in both the army and navy are consistently underplayed in the primary source material. The navy is often represented as largely providing logistical support to the land armies. Many of the arguments forwarded for why sources do not devote more attention to the navy are not particularly convincing. For instance, it is frequently observed that it is 'curious' that sources do not mention the navy. Similarly it is asserted that "if we think the Roman navy did not achieve much that would lead us to think that the Romans did not accomplish much" (p. 147).

While naval actions are discussed in detail, the relationship between the actions of the land army and those of the navy is often not investigated. The relationship between military activity on land and sea would seem to be of particular importance given the nature of the arguments being mounted. Throughout the period under discussion naval actions were carried out in direct support of land campaigns. This is explicitly stated by sources (for instance, Livy, 37.9.6) and can often be inferred. Particularly in the East, Roman naval decisions to secure ports and lines of supply were not ends in themselves but were a means to facilitating the operation of the land army while overseas. Indeed, many of the arguments presented in chapters 5 to 7 for why the navy was significant in the east conclude with such assertions.

An additional problem with the work is its marked tendency to label all naval ventures carried out under the auspices of the Roman state as 'the Roman navy'. The work does not clearly draw the distinction between the Roman navy, that is, ships built and paid for by the Roman state and predominantly crewed by Italian allies and those ships that were provided by their Italian allies and maritime colonies which were manned and funded locally (see Theil, 1954, p. 73f.). These are consistently discussed en masse as 'the Roman navy' while autonomously commanded fleets of allied states in the East are given due analysis.

Throughout the Republic a proportion of the navy was commanded and crewed by citizens. However, the majority of the navy in any given year were either Italian allies or men from maritime colonies of either citizen or Latin status with distinct requirements placed on their military service. Considerable numbers of allies (including peoples from the Italian interior such as Samnites) and POWs were used to crew the fleet (see Theil, 1954, p. 74). A clear distinction between the crews and the marines of Roman ships is also frequently absent in the work. One of the consistent arguments forwarded is that from the earliest stages of Roman history the Roman navy was an effective and significant force in its own right. Yet, large numbers of legionaries were temporarily posted to ships for naval battles. Naval battles such as Drepana (Poly. 1.49) and Ecnomus (Poly. 1.26) would seem to undermine the argument forwarded by the work that skills in landed military combat were not so significant in determining the outcome of naval engagements.

The work forwards two central arguments about our understanding of the Roman Republican navy which carry through each of the chapters. First, it is argued that Polybios was overly simplistic when he asserted that the Romans first took to the sea during the First Punic War. As has long been recognised, the treaties with Carthage, the appointment of naval duumuiri and the supposed events which led to the Pyrrhic War are clear evidence that Polybios' assertions cannot be taken at face value. Theil's substantial chapter on the topic (1954, pp. 3-59) took the more conservative position that such naval actions were of limited significance prior to the First Punic War. The present work highlights evidence of maritime activity on the part of Romans but its conclusion that a Roman navy was a significant factor in Roman history prior to the First Punic War is not convincing. The evidence for naval activity prior to the First Punic War is slim at best and is, in the end, analysed in a highly speculative manner. The work is critical of Thiel's acceptance of Polybios on the basis that he was overly dependant upon the literary source material. However, the work is also highly dependant upon literary source material.

Second, the work argues that the Roman navy was of critical importance to Roman military policy in the Republic. There is much more compelling evidence forwarded for this position. Here too, however, there is a tendency to infer a great deal from even relatively slender evidence and, as discussed above, some of the conclusions in these sections are not very convincing.

Many will probably be inclined to side with the more conservative interpretation of early Roman naval endeavours suggested by Thiel, but The Roman Republican Navy does provide an interesting counterpoint to his work. One of the principle values of this new book certainly is that it highlights the need for greater attention to be given to the Republican navy. It is unfortunate that the chapters on the First and Second Punic Wars take the form of case studies, as it breaks the otherwise sequential presentation of the material. The Roman Republican Navy: from the sixth century to 167 B.C. gives welcomed attention to the important topic of the role that Roman sea power played in Roman military success in the Mediterranean, even if there are serious methodological flaws and many of its conclusions cannot be, therefore, fully accepted.


Forsythe, G. A Critical History of Early Rome, Berkley, 2005.

Goldsworthy, A. The Punic Wars, London, 2000.

Lancell, S. Carthage: A History. trans. A. Nevil, Massachusetts, 1995.

Morrison, Coates and Rankov, The Athenian Trireme. The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship, Cambridge, 2000.

Salmon, E. T. Roman Colonization under the Republic. London, 1970.

Steinby, C. "The Roman Boarding-bridge in the First Punic War. A Study of Roman Tactics and Strategy" in Arctos, (2000), pp. 193-210.

Steinby, C. "War at Sea in the Second Punic War" in Ancient Society, (2004), pp. 77-114.

Thiel, J. H. Studies on the History of Roman Sea Power in Republican Times. Amsterdam, 1946.

Thiel, J. H. A History of Roman Sea Power before the Second Punic War. Amsterdam, 1954.

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