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Auxillia - Role of the Navy

Written by: Stan Kitchner

Nero’s suicide in June of AD68 heralded the so-called Year of the Four Emperors in 69. Galba was proclaimed Emperor by his troops in Spain but lasted only a few months before being deposed and murdered by the senator Otho. He in turn was recognised as the new Emperor by the people of Rome but was immediately challenged by Vitellius, supported by the legions in Germany. Civil war began with Otho being defeated and committing suicide after a mere three months’ rule. Vitellius was proclaimed Emperor but was almost immediately challenged by Vespasian whose troops in the East had declared for him. There followed a series of clashes with forces loyal to Vespasian advancing on Rome and triumphing by the turn of 69/70AD. He ascended to the purple as effectively the “last contestant standing” – and, with two adult sons, established the Flavian dynasty.

My particular interest is in establishing what role the Roman fleets played in the year of civil war. At that time the strength of the navy was between 60,000 and 70,000 men empire wide. It was split between two home Italian fleets and eight provincial fleets. It is evident that the units in Britain, Germany, the Upper Danube and Libyan Africa did not get involved at all and carried on with their normal duties. The main actions of the year involved the fleets in the north, south and east of the Mediterranean – the operational area of the two home fleets based at Ravenna and Misenum, together with the Syrian, Lower Danube, Black Sea and Alexandrian squadrons. Of these, the first fleet to be actively engaged was the Classis Misenensis.

Click on map for a larger version. The turmoil of the last year of Nero’s reign included unrest and violence in the Balkans, revolts in Gaul (by Julius Vindex), Suebia and Sarmatia, plus war with Dacia, Parthia and the Jews. This left Nero unsure of the loyalty of some troops and certainly short of adequate numbers to control the situation. So he turned to the sailors (auxiliaries) of the fleet at Misenum to form a new legion.

This would have had several repercussions. Firstly, those auxiliaries joining the legion would have instantly become Roman citizens since that status was required of legionaries. This substantial offer was made by Nero because he did not have enough resources in the treasury to bribe them. Secondly, the army generally – as the prime Roman military service - would have likely objected to the entire idea of a “naval legion”. Nero countered this objection cleverly by giving the new unit the name Adiutrix – which means “support” in Latin. Thus the circle was squared: the rest of the army knew that it was not a proper legion since it was called “the First Support Legion” (Legio I Adiutrix) but the sailors nonetheless received their citizenship and an Eagle. Notwithstanding that, it was a tribute to Roman training and discipline generally that, whatever the reasons, a large body of auxiliaries in a home-front unit could be swiftly upgraded to the status of a front-line legion. Of course, Nero’s suicide left the new citizens in something of a void, awaiting the appearance of a successor.

Galba, a rigid and conventional army commander, behaved predictably. He not only disregarded but used force against petitioning sailor/soldiers of I Adiutrix at the Milvian Bridge thereby missing an opportunity to gain valuable support. This resulted in Otho having another large and disgruntled force in addition to the Praetorians available in Rome with which to move against Galba. This was important for otherwise Otho could not have moved so swiftly or so boldly in pursuit of his objectives since he had relatively scant other support in Italy.

Otho used both of the home fleets in amphibious operations in his campaign against Vitellius. The Classis Misenensis with Praetorian cohorts aboard raided the Lombardy coast, harassing the rear of the southern Vitellian army and defeating one of its flanking columns. For its part, the Classis Ravennas carrying urban cohorts held both sides of the River Po for Otho, giving him the chance of fighting the first battle of Cremona (where he was defeated) in control of much of Italy. At Cremona, and the subsequent battle at Bedriacum, Legio I Adiutrix acquitted itself well. As an act of reconciliation between the two armies after the battles, they saluted the death of the commander of the army’s newest legion. Now fully accepted, the paradoxical result was that other sailors, as auxiliaries, were barred from joining I Adiutrix!

During the ensuing conflict between forces loyal to Vitellius and Vespasian, the loyalty of the fleets was even more crucial. It can be clearly shown that Vespasian knew and fully understood how important the fleets had been in helping him to obtain power. The co-operation between the Black Sea and Syrian fleets enabled the Vespasian forces led by Antonius Primus to move unhindered and with full logistical support into Italy and down to Rome. The fleet at Alexandria handed over control of grain supplies to Vespasian who could thus exert powerful economic and political as well as military pressure on Vitellius.

The defection from Vitellius of the Ravenna fleet (which caused a furore in his army) and its insistence on marching against him as a legio classica, taken together with the revolt of the Misenum fleet (commanded by Apollinaris) and its spontaneous march on Rome, which diverted Vitellian troops south from Rome to Terracina to deal with the problem, made it impossible for Vitellius to launch any surprise counter attacks. To make matters worse, the capture of Valens, the top Vitellian commander, by a naval squadron acting on its own initiative destroyed any chance of reinforcements coming from Spain and Germany. Finally, the ex-sailors of Legio I Adiutrix (by now in Spain) declared for Vespasian leading the way for the other legions in Spain to do the same, with Legio Secunda Augusta (Vespasian’s old command) doing the same in Britain.

Click on map for a larger version. To quote C.G. Starr: “(Vespasian) chose to stress sea power as the most significant factor in his success. In the commemorative coinage of ’71 and succeeding years, the only type which specifically refers to the civil war bears the legend Victoria Navalis – ‘ (Lady) Victory of the Fleet’. The I Adiutrix continued as part of the permanent legionary forces in Spain while the sailors of the Ravenna fleet, who forced Antonius Primus to enrol them as legionaries after the second battle of Cremona, were formally organised by order of Vespasian in March ’70 into Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis (Dutiful and Steadfast). The II Adiutrix went on to serve in Britain – at Lincoln in ’71 and at Chester in ’75.

Vespasian honoured the provincial fleets as well. The Alexandria and possibly Syria squadrons received the title Augusta for their aid and the fleet in Germany was honoured for standing firm against a revolt by the German tribes during the civil war. The two Danube fleets – in Pannonia and Moesia – were awarded the title Flavia for withstanding the Dacian revolt. Finally there was further recognition of the role of the two home fleets at Ravenna and Misenum: the prefects in command were raised from the rank or status of sexagenarius to that of ducenarius – an income of 60,000 sestertia raised to 200,000.

(The above essay is based largely on Tacitus’ “Histories” as primary source and upon C.G. Starr’s “The Roman Imperial Navy 31BC-AD324”, Barnes & Noble New York, 2nd edition 1960 – S.K.)



Intro to Cavalry

Cavalry Essay

Naval Role 1

Naval Role 2

Fleet Map