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The Navies of Rome by Michael Pitassi

Book Review by Melvadius

In his introduction Pitassi notes that despite extensive literature on many aspects of Rome’s conquests and her empire the role of her seafarers and navy are usually considered only in a passing way or as a ‘comparatively trivial part of the whole’. Despite the obvious importance of her land forces over a twelve hundred year period Rome initially developed and then maintained and operated one of the largest navies the world has ever seen.

Rome is built on a peninsula which is never more than 70 miles from the sea and in her subsequent expansion water played a major factor in how her empire grew and developed. The first acquisitions of territory outside the city limits were towards the sea, while the major rivers of the Rhine, Danube and Euphrates eventually formed much of her boundaries.

This work was written as a general maritime history and brings together much of the material relating to Rome’s naval achievements. In this it succeeds very well describing major and several minor but connected events in chronological order. Additional notes providing background information relating to ships, weapons, seafaring navigation and trade are scattered throughout the book where the author has chosen as appropriate chronological points in the narrative. There are also around 40 pages containing illustrations and maps as well as sixteen plates and five appendices. The appendices include the obligatory list of kings and emperors of Rome but also two glossaries: one of place names and the other of nautical terms with the remaining appendices giving names of naval ranks and suggested crew levels.

Following the introduction, the book opens with a General Chronology which provides a handy overview of when key events occurred. The book itself is sorted into nine chapters following the chronological theme; opening with ‘Beginnings: Foundation to the First Punic War, 753 to 264BC’ and finishing with ‘Renewal and Decline, AD285 to 476’. The intervening chapters cover some of the key periods in the development and fall of the Empire including; ‘A Great Naval Power: the First Punic War, 264 to 218 BC’, ‘The Road to Civil War, 86 to 44 BC’ and ‘The Early Empire, 12BC to AD 70’. Each chapter is in turn split down into 4 to 6 sub-chapters covering major events such as ‘Cannae – The Roman Lowpoint’, ‘Caesar in Gaul’, ‘Britannia’ and ‘The Empire Divided’.

There are a number of relatively minor issues with the book, some of which may be down to layout decisions by the printers or the author; ‘shadowed script’ in the form of double lines is used on the title page as well as for subtitles which isn’t the easiest to read. Although on the surface very comprehensive, the indexing of the book does have some gaps which may make searches for specific information difficult. Examples include the technical section entitled ‘pumps and drydocks’ on page 137 only indexed under ‘pumps’ not ‘drydocks’. While the section about ‘Artillery Innovation’ on page 289 has similar indexing issues; although properly indexed under ‘Artillery’, it includes six different forms of artillery mentioned in the text. Only three of the six terms mentioned in this section were individually indexed; ballista and gastrophetes correctly for page 289 but onager incorrectly as on page 287. Manuballista, arcuballista and chieroballista although all mentioned in the text do not appear in the index.

Further issues arise from the overview nature of the book; several times mention is made to events which have not previously been mentioned such as the slave revolt led by Spartacus mentioned only as ‘still’ the main focus of Roman attention in 71BC. While there are numerous notes for each chapter some of the source information is apparently un-referenced or at best only a general reference is given which is difficult to cross-check such as:

…the earliest depiction of a two masted ship being an Etruscan tomb at Tarquinia, just north of Rome and dating from this time…
Personally, if I wanted to cite this work for academic reasons, I would have preferred more precise and verifiable sources in the form of excavation reports, a tomb reference number or simply a book reference similar to those used elsewhere. Overall the book repeatedly blurs the lines between interpretation of events by the author, interpretations by other writers and reports from original sources.

As previously noted the author has included a number of additional notes in each chapter which, although interesting in themselves, as they are positioned on the right-hand pages tend to break up the flow of the chronological narrative. They do not always ‘fit’ precisely where they are located, especially when notes are printed in blocks for each subject and some deal with events over several hundred years such as the development of shipbuilding techniques. In some instances, such as the ‘Evolution of the Trireme’ and the ‘Evolution of the Polyreme’, these additional notes are spread over multiple pages further confusing where they ‘fit’ and when it may be appropriate to break out of the chronological narrative to read them.

It was also somewhat disconcerting to find that in the third chapter entitled ‘Interbellum: The Struggle Resumed 241BC-201BC’ only four pages actually cover covering the ‘Interbellum’, or interwar period. In fact this chapter is mainly devoted to the entire course of the Second Punic War. In addition to the points listed above in most instances neither the plates nor the maps seem to have been directly referenced in the text. Several of the general maps depicting locations of battles and major cities also only appear at the end of long chapters in which these locations are mentioned.

This book will not be to everyone’s taste but even if not wholly successful it is an ambitious undertaking and overall although I found it occasionally frustrating it is also interesting in at least equal measures. It attempts and to a great extent succeeds in closing a large gap in the histories of Rome relating to the development and work of her naval power whether at sea or riverine from the early Republican period until the fall of Rome. It raises valid suggestions that much of Rome’s success as well as her problems stemmed from the extent or otherwise of her support for her navy. The linear nature of the book provides an overview format into which the author attempts to place often confusing events into context although the extended period of history covered by the book especially in the final chapter goes a long way to explaining the occasional lapses in structure and referencing noted above. The references which are there provide a very good starting point for further reading and on this basis I would recommend it for consideration by anyone wishing to look at a previously generally ignored aspect of Rome’s rise and fall from power.

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The Navies of Rome by Michael Pitassi - Related Topic: The Roman Navy


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