Roman Britain and the Roman Navy by David J.P. Mason

Book Review by Pertinax

This is a work that addresses a neglected niche in the consideration of the Roman Navies role in the invasion and military campaigns and policing in and around Britain. There are several very basic truths that must be borne in mind when analyzing the use of historical seaborne forces, firstly the fact that the archaeological record tends to be scarce due to 1. The ephemeral nature of wooden vessels that needed intensive maintenance work and were imbued with positive buoyancy 2. The erosion or inundation, reconstruction and masking of harbor works as ports waxed and waned and sea levels and river patterns evolved.(this is very pertinent to Britain).

The Navy itself was not so numerous as the Army and the Merchant marine was pressed to take a role in campaigns using men and equipment indistinguishable from peacetime usage. One must also remember that, particularly in Germanicus’ campaign, the Legions built and manned their own transport and support vessels. The key to Mr Mason’s work is a heavy underscoring of relentless field work, he is indeed an independent archaeological consultant.

The author covers the basic technical descriptions and modus operandii of the fleets, pointing out operational needs and disciplines that a land lubber such as myself might overlook. For example the need for boat sheds to grave slim wooden hulls and keep them sleek for proper operational speeds , meaning that if not in use warships tended to be out of the water. The various vessel configurations are detailed, those experienced mariners on site will probably not be furnished with new facts or opinions but the detailing- such as the Venetii use of skins and iron chains instead of cloth and rope are very telling in giving colour to the operating difficulties in such tough, turbulent seas., the distinction and necessity of cataphract versus aphract unit types , the Roman tendency to down scale vessels to liburnian configuration when any seaborne aggressor was eliminated. The technical details are very useful for a rational imagining of the true daily operational grind, for example the use of ships boats to draw large vessels into harbor , the attention needed to rotate the oarsmen’s duties for optimum journey times and the rather obvious , but not so transparent to Infantry types-campaign seasons for Northern Waters (from Nov 10th to 31st March all you could hope for would be a letter by fast ship) There are plenty of clear drawings and colour illustrations to make these points unambiguous. We have an indication that Naval personnel lived in standard “playing card “ encampments and that therefore some supposed marching camps may well be “shore installations” .The attested wreck remains (usually from harbor or riverine sites ) are listed and discussed.

Rank structure and career prospects are also. Covered. The recruitment of colonial Auxilliae from the conquered seafaring peoples and allied native tribes with maritime abilities was put into almost immediate effect after the Venetii were overcome , so that it would be quite possible for a skilled Venetiian mariner from her defeated fleet to have become a Roman citizen by the turn of the First Century AD, through completion of 26 years service or by courageous or exceptionally skilful actions in service.

The destruction of the Venetii , who had superior boats and who were more knowledgeable about local conditions is a typical Roman “mindset” solution, the Roman warships were inferior in stability , height for missile delivery and maneuverability. The Venetii relied on sail above oar, the Romans relied upon- oars (and a little sail to help things along) , a long grappling/slashing hook/line to dismast the opposition and unbeatable marine assault troops. The Romans systematically disabled, boarded and neutralize the opposition and then as the Venetii fled to regroup took advantage of a lull in the wind to piecemeal demolish their remaining vessels. So despite having much heavier and bigger ships, better sailing skills and local knowledge - rational appraisal of how to propel a vessel and board and neutralize won the day. That victory was in fact the whole key to the later conquest-the Romans now monopolized trade routes and the levying of customs duties and tributes. The spiders web of Roman trade enmeshed the Island.

Caesars early British campaigns can here be summarized as 1. Probe in force with lessons learnt regarding actual tactical/strategic requirements particularly as to assault zone /troop drop 2. Heavy probe and major intelligence gathering, Mediterranean anchoring techniques prove unsuitable for tough climate and design of appropriate transports and fleet deployment (fire support in particular) worked out by GJ C in person. The natives were demoralized by the site of the vast fleet and its warship support, and melted into the scenery leaving the construction of beachheads and supply depots unopposed. Rome withdrew in good order, but British seas were now under total Roman control. And please note, absolutely no British seaborne interdiction whatsoever occurred at any point in this campaign. All the potential maritime threats are from Northern Gaul.

Gaius may have had some odd sea shell collecting habits , but his non-invasion was a full scale dress rehearsal for the Claudian assault by the then Classis Germania , the “dry” run benefiting commanders and logistic supply units greatly. The Claudian assault was essentially a three pronged battle group assault (from one initial beachhead) on the southern coast of Britain the future Emperor Vespasian commanding the II Augusta Legion with the toughest job, reduction of the SW..It now transpires that the most recent attested archaeological record shows us that the LEG XX kept close to the shore for logistical and interdiction backup from the Classis .along the whole length of its campaign trail to subjugate this area.

The Classis Britannia (CSBR) first appears by name in 70 AD, and Vespasian was able to demonstrate the fitness and suitability of his new regime to Rome by the fortunate rebellion (for Vespaisian) of Venuntius Agricola used the fleet to harass and interdict , firstly, because he learnt from prisoners of the terror and dismay caused by its appearance and as he had first hand experience in the death of his own mother on her estate from seaborne raiding. The CSBR stamped tiles are found from the Classsis HQ of Bolougne and thence across southern Britain, and as the invasion progressed they are found on Hadrian’s Wall along with dedication stones, the Classis being skilled in building granaries and other storage facilities given their primary logistical role in delivering grain imports to sustain combat troops.

The key factor in determining the extent of the CSBR operational radius at least until Trajanic times is the reliance on grain (and additional continental food imports) , and the calculations the author makes as regards volume of goods and handling, storage and distribution technology. The (seasonal ) ease of bulk maritime transport thence lighter transshipment followed by mule “delivery” and its massive economic advantage over any land based system is the key. I would also suggest that horses like grain, until the area was pacified and many years had passed to achieve a stable local marked structure were also a vital “heavy goods” lift. This is aside from amphibious operations capability and “prepping” a battlefield by raiding ahead of land borne forces. Now the siting of a lot of forts on navigable (by ship or lighter) rivers is clear to me, Stanwix for example -not only was the fort sited on a commanding height but it was a very short haul from a navigable waterway, the strategic context of seaborne supply dictates the basic geographical matrix of Fort construction., the presence of substantial extra mural works is supportive of this statement in relation to suspected supply ports and granary capacity (particularly Severan) is a key clue to campaign intentions. The Antonine wall is defined by its relationship to seaborne supply also.

The Severan campaigns in Scotland are covered and it is notable that the Classis was at this time a combined command made up of vessels also from the fleets of Moesia and Germania , giving it a massive transport capability. After AD 215 the Classis has to develop a counter pirate/terrorist patrol capability in addition to its supply and strategic roles, now that conquest was no longer an aim.This change has a physical reflection in the re-orientation of CSBR forts away from the original Dover HQ to the new pivot at Brancaster ie: facing the North Sea.

Then of course we come to Carausius and his apparent foreknowledge of raiding, though given his Menapian origins it might have been native skill , he did of course try tor ecreate the Imperium Galliarum .There are interesting notes on the Saxon Shore Forts, as to nature and usage.

I enjoyed this book enormously hence my rather enthusiastically lengthy review, its not a particularly large volume (196) pages but there is a great deal to absorb , most importantly it places a reworked perspective on the strategic positioning of military installations in relation to the CSBR supply and assault capabilities.

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