Roman Warships by Michael Pitassi

Book Review by Lindsay Powell

Many tomes have been written about Rome’s army and the battles it fought on land. The role and achievements of its navy, however, has received relatively scant attention. This is odd given the number of recorded naval engagements and the role the navy played in enforcing Roman authority by patrolling the rivers of the northern frontier and the expanse of the Mediterranean Sea.

This is not for lack of interest in ancient warships either. Several have been built over the years by different groups in Europe, including the Victoria by the University of Hamburg based on the remains of a Roman patrol boat found at Oberstimm. Even as I write, a team of enthusiasts is building a liburna at Millingen in The Netherlands which will soon patrol Rhenus flumen as its ancestors once did.

The standard reference work in English has long been Chester G. Starr’s The Roman Imperial Navy 31 BC – AD 324 published by Cornell University in 1941, the third edition of which is now happily available – though still hard to find – in a facsimile reprint care of Ares Press (Chicago, 1993). However, its focus is on the organization, command structure, ranks and deployment around the empire, and the discussion of the ships they used is cursory – just 15 pages in a work of 232. The other book dating to 1946 is J. H. Thiel’s Studies on the History of Roman Sea-Power in Republican Times (Amsterdam). An up-to-date treatment of the subject has been long overdue. In 2009, Michael Pitassi wrote The Navies of Rome (The Boydell Press, 2009) which presents a chronological history of Rome and the role her navy played in it.

Lacking has been a full study of the ships – lacking that is until now. In Roman Warships Michael Pitassi has returned with a companion volume to his first book in which he examines in detail the vessels used by the navy. The publication of this partner book should be cause for celebration.

Pitassi is described as “an independent scholar” and the book comes out of a decade of his own research. The stated goal of the book, according to the jacket, is “to chart the development and evolution of Roman warships”. He divides his subject into two parts. Part 1 provides an overview and interpretation of the evidence, which includes literature, iconography and archaeology. As Pitassi notes, the key problem is untangling the mystery of “how ancient rowing systems worked” (p. 30) which is more difficult to achieve than at first seems and is critical as it has a direct impact on the dimensioning of the ships. He devotes 29 pages to an examination of ship fittings, ranging from the ram to rudders, anchors to awnings, and hatches to pumps. The known history of each piece is described in relation to the evidence offered by the literature, iconography and archaeology.

In Part 2, Pitassi examines the forms and workings of different types of vessel during six time periods – the earliest types 8th-4th centuries BC, the ascendency of Rome’s navy 3rd-2nd centuries BC, the civil wars and imperial fleets 1st century BC-1st century AD, the height of empire 2nd-3rd centuries AD, the Late Empire 4th-5th centuries AD, and end of empire.

In each chapter Pitassi attempts to reconstruct the ships of the period using the available evidence. Sketches usefully compare details from graffiti, stele or wall paintings. The author presents his reconstructions in two forms with considerable technical skill. Side profile drawings to scale show the possible appearance of each ship, along with top views and cross sections. The drawings show the seating arrangements of oarsmen by level or reme. He also postulates overall dimensions and crew size. These ‘blueprints’ are complemented with photographs of models made by the author. This approach differentiates Pitassi’s study from others. In building the models he used human figures to scale and quickly discovered the shortcomings of the reconstruction drawings. In some instances (for example the trireme from Trajan’s Column, pages 144-148), the angles of the seating positions for the figures meant the upper rows of remes would interfere with the rows below, forcing Pitassi to revise his drawings to allow for more space. As an approach to reconstructive archaeology this is a valuable experiment. The builders of the Millingen liburna would be wise to refer to pages 138-144 of Roman Warships to double check their dimensions to avoid operational problems later.

The book draws on a wealth of source material and uses it well. Surprising, however, it is then that Pitassi does not cite the extensive NAVIS database funded by the European Commission’s Directorate General X; nor in particular, does he mention the Oberstimm ships whose remains are on display in the Museum für Antike Schiffahrt in Mainz: the challenges of rebuilding a full-scale, fully operational ship based on Oberstimm 1 – the Victoria – are documented in Projekt Römerschiff: Nachbau und Erprobung für die Ausstellung '2000 Jahre Varusschlacht' by Rudolf Aßkamp and Christoph Schäfer (Hamburg, 2008).

Notes, which at appear at the end of each chapter, are adequate rather than exhaustive. Often they are cryptic and incomplete, making them rather less helpful in directing the curious reader to a particular source, for example, even when referencing his own work as simply Pitassi, The Navies of Rome in chapter 6, notes 1 and 6, or chapter 9, note 1.

Four appendices discuss the service lives of ship types, types of Roman ships, a gazetteer of where to see remains of Roman ships and a glossary of nautical terms used in the text.

The 192-page book is a lavish production. There are 92 figures in black and white and 29 plates in full colour. The high cost of its manufacture is reflected in the price – and therein lies the biggest issue. The price is £50 in the UK and $90 in the United States, which is beyond the means of many enthusiasts. The paperback edition of The Navies of Rome has come on the market at a considerably lower price, so it is to be hoped that a paperback edition of this companion volume priced accordingly will become available soon. Otherwise this is a volume many readers will have to reserve through their public or school library, or hope to find as a used copy. The impatient reader may wish to consider David J.P. Mason’s useful Roman Britain and the Roman Navy (The History Press, 2010) but its focus is Britannia and the discussion of ships is considerably shorter.

Roman Warships fulfills its stated objective. Through drawings and models, Pitassi has convincingly captured the evolution of Roman warships and offered working solutions to the conundrum of “how ancient rowing systems worked”. The book will be a valuable addition to the bookshelves of re-enactors, model makers, war gamers, naval historians and those rebuilding ships and is highly recommended. Perhaps inspired by this book, the rivers of Europe will again carry a variety of ships in all their sleek, elegant and ancient forms.

Biography of the reviewer:
Lindsay Powell is a historian, media communications professional and writer who has a passion for the military history of the Roman Empire. A veteran of the renowned Ermine Street Guard re-enactment society, he is the author of the ground-breaking biography Eager for Glory: The Untold Story of Drusus the Elder, Conqueror of Germania, published by Pen and Sword Books (2011).. He is a regular contributor to UNRV.com and has written for Ancient Warfare and Military Heritage magazines. Born in Wales, he now lives in Austin, Texas. Visit him at www.Lindsay-Powell.com.

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