Monday, December 14, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Michael Pitassi, The Navies of Rome. Woodbridge, UK/Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 348; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9781843834090. $90.00.
Reviewed by Michael B. Charles, Southern Cross University

One might wonder why the world needs another volume on the Roman Navy. That said, the classic works on the topic tend to deal with distinct sections of Roman history. For example, Thiel deals with two important periods during the Republic,1 as does Steinby,2 while Starr deals with the Empire -- and mainly the Early Empire in any case.3 What Pitassi has set out to achieve here is a chronological history of Rome's naval activity from the very beginnings of Rome through to the end of the Western Empire, with sections here and there devoted to various technical matters. It must be pointed out that this is not a particularly academic book, and was presumably not intended by its author or publisher to be so. Despite this, the underlying scholarship is quite sound overall, though largely derived from other studies, and mainly Anglophone ones at that -- or so it seems. Whatever the case, the reader generally feels in safe hands. Ancient references are kept to a bare minimum and, when they do occur, are found in the form of endnotes, and sometimes rather inexactly too. But it would be churlish to make too much of this, because the intended reader of the text would probably find in-text references annoying.

The novice reader is ably assisted by Pitassi in many respects. The volume includes an array of appendices that cover "The Kings and Emperors of Rome", "Roman Navy Personnel", "Suggested Crew Levels by Ship Type" (a very interesting if somewhat speculative adjunct to the main text), "Glossary of Place Names" (which usefully juxtaposes the ancient names of various locales with their modern equivalents), and, what is probably most useful of all, a "Glossary of Nautical Terms". The bibliography, spanning five pages, is not particularly compendious and refers exclusively to monographs -- with not a single journal article in sight. Perhaps journal articles are a tad inaccessible to the general reader, but this omission limits the utility of the volume to even undergraduate readers interested in Roman naval history, especially since they should certainly be encouraged to look for further discussion in academic journals. The bibliography is also entirely Anglophone, which has resulted in the exclusion of some seminal works on Roman naval matters, which is something of a shame.4 The volume concludes with a reasonably useful index.

The book is well made and looks rather handsome. That said, a few infelicitous decisions were made by the publishers, and so are presumably no fault of the author. In particular, sub-headings use a very odd double-lined font that is as once slightly amateur-looking and difficult to read. The off-set boxes in pale grey, which generally deal with technical matters, equipment and naval tactics, also strike the reader as a little haphazard in their overall presentation. Would not a general overview of such technical material, or at least some of it, have added value to the reader? There is certainly a case for a separate chapter on such issues. Some of these off-set sections, of course, are worthy summaries that those new to Roman naval matters will undoubtedly find of real use and interest, such as the evolution of the trireme (pp. 13, 15, 17), naval artillery (pp. 19, 21, 23), the evolution of polyremes (pp. 27, 29, 31, 33, 35), and ship designs in the Late Empire (p. 287). But their more or less parenthetical presentation, sometimes spread over two or more pages, might induce some readers to skip over them, without giving the content due consideration. This would be unfortunate.

It is odd that a book of this nature does not include many photographs -- it is certainly very text heavy. A case could well be made for including a greater array of photographs of iconographic, numismatic and plastic representations of Roman naval vessels, if only to provide greater visual underpinnings to the text -- and to reinforce the fact that literary sources are only one piece of a much broader puzzle. What we do find is fourteen colour plates in the middle of the book ranging from ancient representations of galleys, photographs of ancient harbours, and scale reconstructions of ancient ships. The placement in the middle of text also seems a little odd. To supplement these plates are a variety of maps and diagrams scattered throughout the text. Maps of naval battles and attendant campaigns are prominent, as is to be expected, and are generally easy to decipher.

Now to the text itself. What is immediately striking is that the main text is almost entirely chronological -- a history of Rome from its legendary foundation in 753 B.C. down to the deposition of the Western child-emperor Romulus Augustulus in A.D. 476. All of this is naval themed, but not always necessarily so. What this means is that the book, aside from those off-set sections discussed above, reads as a straight historical narrative, with very little room set aside for analysis and reflection -- which is a bit of pity, since there are glimpses of interesting independent analysis scattered here and there. Rome's history is viewed, here, through a naval lens, so the reader is likely to learn as much about Rome's political history as matters pertaining to naval history. This is not necessarily a bad thing, or so it could be argued, but for those who have at least a basic grounding in Roman political history, the broader details can become a little tiring (this is also reflected in the bibliography, which includes general historical biographies and the like in addition to naval monographs). Indeed, the reader seems likely to learn as much about the Antonine Wall (p. 264), the exploits of Commodus in the arena (p. 267) and Diocletian's imperial system (p. 290) as Roman boarding tactics in the First Punic War, or riverine battles against the Germans in the early Principate. Whatever the case, the reader certainly will not get lost. Dates are clearly signposted in the margins of the text, with months included where appropriate.

It follows that the main emphasis of the volume is on Roman military campaigning, and not necessarily naval matters. But this is hardly a surprise. That the Romans themselves more or less viewed naval campaigning as part of an overall approach to war in a modern 'combined ops' way, however simplistic that might sound, rather than as a separate theatre or arena of operations becomes quickly manifest as the historical narrative is read. Accounts of battles on land blend effortlessly with descriptions of maritime activity, from the battles themselves through to securing supplies and protecting supply lines. Riverine operations also take their place, particularly in chapter 7, which deals with "the Early Empire". But, once again, there is slightly too much padding for this reader's taste around the 'meaty' and, dare it be said, more apposite aspects of naval operations.

Like most texts dealing with ancient navies, little attention is paid to vessels other than the more prestigious and presumably more interesting galleys. Transport ships were widely used by Rome to carry troops and supplies across the Mediterranean, and indeed along the various rivers that flowed through the empire, or constituted its borders.5 In view of this, they were crucial components of Roman campaigning -- if not naval warfare per se.6 Some discussion of the types of ships used for troop transport and the means by which transport serviced were procured (purely requisitioning or a blend of requisitioning and contracting?) would have been most welcome, particularly as this has not been a particularly salient topic in modern literature on the Roman military. There are glimpses here and there of transport ships in Pitassi's narrative, but there is no cohesive treatment of the issues raised above. With more emphasis (pleasingly) being placed on economic aspects of Roman military undertakings in recent years,7 this is something of an omission.

As one might expect (and it is unfortunate that I should have to say so), naval matters in the Late Empire do not come in for a particularly rigorous treatment. Some naval encounters are even left out entirely. For instance, Fravitta's destruction of a Gothic 'fleet' of transport rafts under the command of rebel Gainas is not mentioned,8 even though this has important implications for our understanding of Roman fleets in the Late Empire, as has been pointed out elsewhere.9 In particular, the degree to which Rome (and Constantinople) maintained standing fleets, or constructed galleys on an as-needed basis is a matter of some controversy and could well have been touched on at this point.

A couple of matters of particular interest to this reviewer follow. Despite those who would contend that the Vandals of the fifth-century A.D. had no galleys in their possession,10 Pitassi is clearly amenable to the contrary view (which I have strongly supported elsewhere).11 For example, during the destruction of Basiliscus' invasion fleet in A.D. 467, the Roman transports were "attacked with fire-ships and rams" (p. 311), the latter assertion is presumably based on Procopius' testimony at Bell. Vand. 3.6.17-21, where the wind favoured the Vandals' destructive gambit. Yet I am not entirely sure on what basis Pitassi calculates that the fleet of the Vandals under their crafty ruler Gaiseric was "up to 120 warships" (p. 311). That said, it is hardly an unbelievable figure. If there is indeed such a locus, this is news to me, and I would dearly like to know where I can find it (no reference is provided).

Pitassi also makes some thought-provoking points about ship production in the ancient world. Ancient galleys were clearly able to be built quite quickly, and in appreciable numbers. P.'s proposition is also demonstrated, for example, by loci in Caesar's works, though it is important to add that, if the vessels were not constructed from seasoned timber, they were likely to be slow in the water.12 Where Pitassi makes a potentially valid point is that there was likely to have been a large amount of prefabrication and standardized ship-building, as he explains on p. 53. Hence the components of the galley, which could be made some distance from the assembly point, were assembled close to where the vessel would be launched -- much like the just-in-time (JIT) approach favoured by modern automotive manufacturers. Such an approach would have also allowed tributary towns and cities to concentrate on what they could produce best. By extension, this process led to fleets composed of very similar if not identical galleys rather than a hodge-podge of vessels with varying seaworthiness and performance. This reasoning seems to be derived from Livy (28.45.13-21) (only "Livy, Book XXVIII" is unhelpfully referred to in the notes), where various allies are requested by Scipio Africanus in 205 B.C. to provide equipment for his forthcoming invasion of Africa. The Tarquinii do promise linen for sails, and Perusia, Clusium and Rusellae fir for ship-building, but it is the notice that the Volaterrae are to provide, as it states in the Loeb translation, "the interior fittings of ships" (interamenta navium) that comes closest to corroborating Pitassi's thesis. But is this pushing the evidence too far?

A bit of nit-picking on orthography is required. It is odd that Gn. Pompeius Magnus is called "Pompeius" rather than the more usual "Pompey" (e.g., p. 165), and that M. Antonius is referred to as "Antonius" rather than "Antony" (e.g., 191). This almost seems hyper-correct for a book designed to cater to the needs and interests of a more general readership. Other names, however, are not Latinized, such as those of Diocletian and Maximian (e.g., p. 285). Calling the Rhine "Rhenus" (e.g., p. 246), Danube "Danubius" (e.g., p. 273 -- why not "Ister" too?) and Thames "Tamesis" (p. 289) also seems a little over the top and excessively learned, particularly when other rivers are given their modern names, though "Rhine" is indeed found on p. 247 -- which might cause readers unfamiliar with Latin to think that the Rhine and Rhenus are different watercourses! One also questions the necessity of "Euxine" (e.g., p. 271). What is wrong with "Black Sea"? In short, some greater consistency in proper names might well be warranted. Finally, "AD 1785" and "AD 1824" on p. 51 is also a little odd.

It is to be expected that book of such breadth would contain an error or two. Most notable is the description of Claudian, the late Latin poet and writer of rather nauseating panegyrics, as a "historian" (p. 304). While not exactly an error, Pitassi translates naves actuariae as "supply ships" (p. 221) when dealing with riverine campaigning, although supply ships are generally understood to be merchant-type vessels (i.e., those propelled exclusively by sail) elsewhere in the book, and not galleys. Again, it is important to keep the audience in mind. The statement on p. 308 that an edict of AD 419 "sentenced to death some Romans who had been showing the Vandals how to build ships" is also worthy of remark. I am presuming that this refers to Cod. Theod. 9.40.24, of 24 September 419, which proscribes "ships" naves being sold to barbarians, but not specifically to Vandals.13

Overall, there is not much here for the Roman military specialist. The volume reads well, so much is clear, but it is rather descriptive in tone. But if you want to read a comprehensive Roman history, from the beginning of the Republic through to the Late Empire, with a naval flavour, this book might indeed have some appeal. The book also steers clear of academic controversy -- which is at once a strength and a weakness of the volume. Perhaps Pitassi adheres a little too rigidly to what is found in the sources. This is obviously preferable to a wild perversion of the ancient texts on which the narrative is based, as one sometimes finds in books of this nature, but one still wishes that there was more evidence of the generally sound scholarship that underpins the book.


1.   J. H. Thiel, Studies on the History of Roman Sea-Power in Republican Times (Amsterdam, 1946); id., A History of Roman Sea-Power before the Second Punic War (Amsterdam, 1954).
2.   C. Steinby, The Roman Republican Navy: From the Sixth Century 167 B.C., Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum, (Helsinki, 2007).
3.   C. G. Starr, The Roman Imperial Navy 31 B.C.-A.D. 324 (Westport, CT, 1975).
4.   One should ideally have referred to C. Courtois, "Les politiques navales de l'empire romain", RH 186 (1939), 225-259; D. Kienast, Untersuchungen zu den Kriegsflotten der römischen Kaiserzeit (Bonn, 1966); H. D. L. Viereck, Die römische Flotte. Classis romana (Herford, 1975); M. Reddé, Mare Nostrum: les infrastructures, le dispositif et l'histoire de la marine militaire sous l'empire romain (Rome, 1986); A. Guillerm, La marine de guerre antique (Paris, 1993). Other odd ommisions, in English, include F. M. Hocker, "Late Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic Galleys and Fleets", in R. Gardiner (ed.), The Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels since Pre Classical Times (London, 1995), 86-100; W. W. Tarn, Hellenistic Military and Naval Developments (Cambridge, 1930).
5.   M. B. Charles, "Transporting the Troops in Late Antiquity: Naves onerariae, Claudian and the Gildonic War", CJ 100 (2005), 275-299; Id., "Caesar and Maritime Troop Transport in the Civil War (49-44 BC)", in C. Deroux (ed.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History XV (Brussels), forthcoming.
6.   For an instance of transports being used in a set-piece naval battle (during the Second Punic War), see Livy 30.10.4-20.
7.   See J. Remesal Rodríguez, La annona militaris y la exportación de aceite bético a Germania (Madrid, 1986); G. Alföldy, B. Dobson and W. Eck (eds.), Kaiser, Heer und Gesellschaft in der römischen Kaiserzeit: Gedenkschrift für Eric Birley (Stuttgart, 2000); P. Erdkamp, "The Corn Supply of the Roman Armies during the Third and Second Centuries B.C.", Historia 44 (1995), 168-191; Id. (ed.), The Roman Army and the Economy (Amsterdam, 2002); J. P. Roth, The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264 B.C.-A.D. 235) (Leiden, 1999).
8.   On this, see Philostorg. H.E. 11.8, Soz. H.E. 8.4.19-21, Socrat. H.E. 6.6.32-34 and Zos. 5.21.2-4, with Chron. Pasch. 400-401 and Jord. Rom. 320.
9.   See especially F. Paschoud (ed. and tr.), Zosime. Histoire nouvelle, vol. 3.1 (Paris, 1986), 162-165, with Kienast, Untersuchungen, 156-157, and n. 94. Cf. C. Courtois, "Politiques navales", p. 236, and n. 2.
10.   See C. Courtois, Les Vandales et l'Afrique (Aalen, 1964), 207; Reddé, Mare Nostrum, 650.
11.   M. B. Charles, "Ramming the Enemy in Late Antiquity: Galleys in the Fifth Century A.D.", Latomus, forthcoming.
12.   See Caes. BCiv. 1.36.4-5 and BGall 5.2.2 (on building galleys swiftly), and BCiv. 1.58.3 (on the slow speed of galleys built from unseasoned timber); see also Livy, 29.1.14.
13.   On this, see J. R. MOSS, "The Effects of the Policies of Aetius on the History of Western Europe", Historia 77 (1973), 711-731, at p. 725, n. 137. Cf. Cod. Theod. 7.16.3 of AD 420, which describes "illicit goods" (merces inlicitae) being exported to unnamed barbarian nations.


  1. (1) The following book is listed in Pitassi's bibliography (page 334): "Piracy in the Ancient World" by H. A. Ormerod. According to Pitassi, this book was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1997. This is true, but it is a reprint. The original book was published in 1924! It was reprinted in 1967, in 1978, and in 1997. This is not mentioned in the bibliography.

    (2) The following book is not listed in Pitassi's bibliography: "Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World" by Philip de Souza (Cambridge University Press, hardcover 1999, paperback 2002). This book was reviewed in Bryn Mawr Classical Review more than ten years ago (2000.10.30).

    Michael B. Charles does not mention Philip de Souza's book in his review. There is no reference to the review of this book published back in the year 2000.

    Torben Retboll

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Regarding illustrations:

    There are XIV plates with color pictures placed in the middle of the book, between page 196 and page 197. Plate I is a stone block (a statue base) with a Latin inscription (10 lines - upper register) and a Greek inscription (4 lines - lower register).

    In the caption, Pitassi provides the following translation of the Latin text:

    "To the great God, and to make good, Valerius Valens, most perfect gentleman, Praefect of the Misenum Fleet, Erected in his lifetime, cordially fulfilled his vow."

    This translation is partially right and partially wrong. Here is the Latin text:

    01 DEO
    02 MAGNO
    03 ET FATO
    04 BONO
    05 VALerius VALENS
    06 Vir Perfectissimus PRAEFEC-
    08 MISENsis Piae Vindicis

    Regarding the letters P and V in line 8: Pitassi seems to read them as POSUIT VIVUS, but this does not work. Regarding GORDIANAE in line 9: Pitassi translates this word as "cordially," but this does not work, either. This word is a reference to Gordian III, emperor 238-244. The letters P and V stand for PIA VINDEX (faithful avenger), an honor title. Here is a better translatation:

    "To the Great God and to the Good Fate. Valerius Valens, a man of the highest rank, commander of the fleet at Misenum (with the honor name) Pia Vindex Gordiana, fulfilled his vow."

    Pitassi does not give the official reference to this inscription, which is CIL 10-03336. It is included in EDCS, Epigraphik Datenbank Clauss-Slaby: ID number 15400765. I wish to thank Manfred Clauss for helping me understand this inscription.

    The picture of the statue base is taken by Pitassi himself. It seems he is a good photographer, but not so good when it comes to translating a Latin text.

    Incidentally, Valerius Valens is not mentioned in the main text. Emperor Gordian III is mentioned once, on page 275, but not in connection with Misenum. In other words: there is no connection between this illustration and the main text. The photo of the statue base merely serves as a decoration.

    Torben Retboll