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Auxillia - Classis Britannica

Written by: Stan Kitchner

While hitherto little featured in the world of re-enactment and also little studied compared with the army, the Roman navy - and in particular the Classis Britannica - is now receiving the attention that is its due. A new group, with scholars and other interested parties as members, has been formed and on October 5th last the first of what is planned to be a series of annual conferences on the Roman navy was held in London. Leg II Avg member Stan Kitchener who, besides appearing at our meetings as a mensor (surveyor) is an energetic protagonist of the great importance of the navy in overall Roman military strategy, has prepared the report which follows.

On arrival I was struck with the number of attendees - around fifty, which was heartening. Dr. Andrew Russel acted as chairman of the meeting and gave the introductory talk on The Classis Britannica.

He basically re-iterated much of what Chester G. Starr wrote in his 1941 book (Roman Imperial Navy 31 BC-AD 324; Cornell University Press; 2nd edition 1960) - that the job of the navy, as an auxiliary of the army, was to make sure the army functioned to its greatest potential. Thus, it transported the army, built (advanced) supply bases, dug canals, constructed harbours, mined/quarried/manufactured building materials and kept all lines of communication and of supply open. Specifically, the Classis Britannica smelted iron from the Weald and Exmoor; quarried marble from Purbeck and stone from Kent, Yorkshire and the Netherlands; cut timber in the Weald and the Downs; mined lead in the Mendips, North Wales and Yorkshire; and manufactured clay tiles in SE England and Northern France.

Image enhancement courtesy  hjparnold/sol invictus On the right a marble relief of a Roman warship dating to the period around 30BC - possibly at the time of the Battle of Actium. The deck tower and armed marines are plainly seen. The relief was found at Praeneste (present day Palestrina) and is now in the Musei Pontificie at the Vatican.

The Classis Britannica and the Northern Battle Zone was the subject for Dr. Colin Martin, who put forward an argument for the aggressive use of the Classis Britannica by Agricola during his push towards Scotland and then the continued use of the navy to maintain and support the army's conquest of the northern territories. Dr Martin maintained that the navy constructed and defended advanced supply bases from Dundee to the Moray Firth thereby enabling the Roman army to march carrying less food and equipment and thus, with smaller baggage trains, to remain less restricted tactically. He calculated that a fleet of twenty-four liburnae (60 man patrol-craft), each carrying around five tons of cargo, could keep about 1,400 men supplied daily. The great northern supply facility of South Shields had the capacity to hold three months' supply of grain for 40,000 men and on the River Tay the navy built a supply base which acted as a camp for 3,000 men of Legio II Avgvsta. Concluding, Dr Martin suggested that no place in Scotland was more than 40 miles from the sea or a major river and that the Roman Army used this fact to require the navy to control the 'searoads' and water-ways of the north, in the same way that the Vikings did centuries later.

Gustav Milne spoke on The Classis Britannica & the Provincial Procurator's Office. The approach in this paper was not a military one but an exploration of the unique relationship between the Provincial Procurator's office and the top position in the British fleet - the naval Praefectus. He argued that, when the Romans first arrived, the province of Britannia was so backward - and thus un-productive - that serious thought had to be given to organizing the initial infrastructure of southern Britain. The army required fortified camps and inter-connecting roads, which they duly proceeded to build. The civil administration, however, needed the structures of power, government and commerce, none of which existed. The solution adopted by the Romans, Gustav Milne proposed, was to make the naval Prefect and Provincial Procurator one and the same, thus giving the Governor a coherent 'haulage and construction company', with the capability to swiftly create 'Rome' in Britain. This argument was backed up with a couple of logical points - that the navy became the State's mining corporation and that the wall of Londinium, when eventually built, contained 45,000 tons of Kentish Ragstone, all of which must have been quarried and shipped by a contractor with massive resources - and that contractor was the navy. There was no evidence at present for any small, medium or large scale native British merchant fleet and this was further evidence supporting the argument that the navy must have been the prime instrument for the initial building phase of Roman Britain - and the reason why the offices of Procurator and Prefect of the Navy were combined.

Mark Hassall's subject was Epigraphy and the Roman Navy based on his research into the grave stelae of Roman naval personnel, particularly in Britain. He had been able to establish , for example, that the Praefectus of the Classis Britannica - the Commander-in-Chief - was one of the Centenarii, that is those earning100,000 sesterces a year. He confirmed what Chester Starr had written sixty years ago - that there were 'sailing officers' and 'fighting officers' on board Roman warships. The sailing officers were the Trierarchus (ship's captain) and the Gubernator (coxswain/navigator/ helmsman). The fighting officers were the Centurio (marine commander) and his Optio. Other ship's personnel included remiges (rowers), velarii (responsible for rigging and sails), milites (marines), medici (medics) and haruspices (priests/augurs/soothsayers). Mark Hassall stated that there was still no evidence one-way or the other as to whether the milites, velarii and the remiges were interchangeable duties, but logic suggested that they were, since all nautae (sailors) were also milites (marines).

Image enhancement courtesy  hjparnold/sol invictus To the left is a Roman barge being towed by bargemen. The individual tow ropes can be distinguished as can the (walking) sticks which were used. There are references to bargemen typically chanting to keep rhythm during the laborious work. (Relief courtesy of the Musée Calvet, Avignon.)

The Classis Britannica at Port Dubris (Dover) was the subject of Brian Philp's presentation. He and his team at the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit have been excavating sites at Dover since the 1960s, and his talk took the form of a progress report and an overview of the finds. He stated that the original phase of building of a naval base (stores, barracks and fort c 117 AD) was never completed because of the speed with which the strategic situation in Britain moved. This coincided with naval action in the north of Britain but nonetheless an element of the fleet (perhaps a squadron of10 ships?) returned to Dover around130-40 AD. A garrison for 600 men was present during this time with evidence for another fort with 10 blockhouse barracks and 2 granaries being constructed. Brian Philp suggested that there were other naval bases around Britain yet to be discovered and that the total naval force in British waters totalled possibly 6,000-7,000 men, with a fleet strength of between 90-100 warships plus many transports. The navy abandoned the Dubris barracks in 208 AD, as the military requirements of Roman policy in Britain dictated that the fleet move its main bases permanently to the north.

Dr. Barbara Pferdehirt gave an account of the Classis Germanica. She outlined the fleet's sphere of activity, which included reaching the Elbe, circumnavigation of Denmark and sailing the Baltic. Dr. Pferdehirt then went on to look at the ships that achieved these feats. It appeared that considerably more evidence of the Rhine fleet has been unearthed by German archaeologists than that which is available to their British colleagues - with mass produced barges being one important subject of study. A twenty-oared light transport/patrol boat has also been reconstructed, which - although of a 3rd century AD design - clearly took its shape from typical 1st and 2nd century AD liburnae.

This was an intriguing and most interesting series of lectures with the promise of more to come and permanent electronic networking via Classis Britannica.

Image enhancement courtesy hjparnold/sol invictus


Intro to Cavalry

Cavalry Essay

Naval Role 1

Naval Role 2

Fleet Map