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Carved on a funerary stone, this portrait was found three metres (10 feet) under water near the Classe necropolis in Ravenna, the port town where Rome's Adriatic fleet was based.
Made of marble, the one-metre-long (three foot) slab dates to the first century A.D. and bears a cavity on the top which originally contained the ashes of the portrayed military sailor.
According to the partly missing inscription, the tombstone was commissioned by a man named Cocneus for Monus Capito, an officer who served aboard the liburna "Aurata" (Golden).
An important part of the Roman fleet, the liburna was an easily manoeuvrable, light and fast galley used to fight pirates in the Adriatic Sea, a major problem for Roman merchant ships.
"Finally we know what an ancient Roman military sailor looked like. In our dig we have unearthed other tombstones, but all of them portray people dressed in civilian garb with togas," archaeologist Maria Grazia Maioli at the Emilia Romagna's Archaeological Superintendency said in a statement.
Wearing a muscle cuirass — a piece of armour for protecting the breast and back — with a leather-fringed military skirt, and caligae, sturdy thick-soled military sandals, Monus Capito was fully armed.
On the decorated belt hung a gladius, a razor-sharp short sword which was the main weapon of a Roman soldier in close combat.
The right hand held a javelin. This was a very dangerous weapon since its small point could penetrate a shield or even wound an armour-clad man.
"He also wore a long ... belt. Most probably, this was not supposed to hold a weapon, but a military decoration instead," Maioli said.
The equipment was perfectly adequate for a "classiarius," a military sailor.
Considered an inferior branch of the armed forces, the Roman navy used traditional fighting methods. Galleys hooked enemy ships so that soldiers could board and fight.
"It is clear that the artist who carved the slab wasn't very skilled. But even though this is not a great sculpture, the finding is really important. What makes it unique is the detail richness," Valentina Manzelli, archaeologist at the Ravenna Antica foundation