Part I


(10 posters)
texts, photographs and drawings


© 2004 - Copyright DOMENICO CARRO.
The 10 posters were made by the Fondazione marittima Ammiraglio Michelagnoli, in accordance with the CoNISMa, with the contribution of the M.I.U.R. and the support of the Rivista Marittima
Privacy Policy



According to a tradition handed down from century to century, Rome was the heir of the mythical Trojan heroes who landed on the shore of Latium. From the very beginning of its history Rome had to rely on the maritime routes which played an important role for its own maintenance. To this extent, it enjoyed a special situation which the Romans themselves considered unique: as it was situated very close to the sea and on the banks of a navigable river all the year around, the city could enjoy the profits of sea trade without laying itself yet open to the risks coming from the sea.


The maritime character of Rome grew after the second century of its history, when the Ostia settlement was established at the mouth of the Tiber. Thence the Romans could use a jointed harbour system formed by the landing place of Ostia and the fluvial harbour of Rome. The latter, called Portus Tiberinus, was placed in an old inlet of the Tiber river in front of the still existing Temple of Portunus. During the Republican period, it was continuously extended downstream and reached the area of the Emporium. Here large department stores were erected, while the nearby dump of the amphoras unloaded from ships started to grow more and more, so much that it formed the present Mount Testaccio. The smallest merchant ships could go up the Tiber to Rome, but all the other ships should unload their own goods in Ostia. The transport of those goods to Rome was ensured by ships called “codicariae”, which went to and from the maritime and the fluvial harbours.


The care of the Romans towards their own maritime requirements, which manifested themselves since the period of the Kings and at the very beginning of the Republic, brought to a steady growth of sea trade, vital to guarantee the flow of goods necessary to the city in a condition of everlasting war with surrounding peoples. The exchange of goods, which also represented a profitable source of income for the resourceful Roman ship-owners, developed in a significant way between the VI and the IV century b. C.. During this period, indeed, Rome drew up naval treaties with Carthage and Tarentum, in order to avoid reciprocal meddling in maritime affairs..


The Romans strengthened their own merchant marine and expanded their own maritime communication lines, while at the same time they also started to build some warships to protect some sea routes and the access to the harbour of Ostia. Later on they built a real navy, although of small dimension, soon afterwards having captured the ships of Antium (338 b. C ). which were guilty of acts of piracy in the area of Ostia. For the conduct of their new fleet, the Romans created the office of two “naval duumvirs”, destined to provide for all the needs of the ships and to take command of the naval groups sent on a mission to patrol the outer sea along the shores of the Italian peninsula, the Romans considered it so important the role of their navy, that they decided to print on their coins the rostral prow of one of their warship. Since then, and through whole the republican period, this rostral prow was printed on all Roman brazen current coins, thus becoming the most wide-spread ad known symbol of Roman power.




When it achieved the hegemony on whole Italian peninsula by the victory in the war against Tarentum, Rome had to face the epic challenge of Carthage, which at the time was the naval power, most skilful, trained and to be feared in all the Mediterranean sea. The Carthaginians, in particular, established themselves strongly in several towns of Sicily and also got ready to take possession of Messina, an ally of Rome. The Senate of Rome then appointed four “classici quaestores” (fleet treasurers) charged with assembling the necessary ships, even taking all those available by all Italian marines. With the big fleet so assembled, the Romans managed to landing Sicily taking their enemies by surprise, but they soon realised that they could not achieve any final success if not by removing the naval supremacy from the Carthaginians. Thence they equipped a fleet to a great extent consisting of powerful quinqueremes, very much alike the Carthaginian ones, and formed “ex novo” the pertinent crews, subjecting them to the most rigid training.
Thus the first Punic war represented the opportunity for the navy of Rome to make an amazing jump of seaworthiness. In twenty years’ space time, the naval supremacy was pursued by the Romans with great determination, at the cost of very large losses ( about 800 warships, 600 of which sunken on the occasion of sea storms), and was achieved after having plunged five naval defeats into the rival ( against only one suffered) and the loss of about 530 warships (more than 250 warships were sunken in action, and all others prized). In particular, Caius Duilius who was the first Roman to carry off a naval victory against the Carthaginians (in the sea waters near Mylae, in the year 260 b. C.), Marcus Atilius Regulus, who was the first Roman to land on African soil (in the year 256 b. C., after the big naval victory near Ecnomus), and Caius Lutatius Catulus, who attained a final victory, in virtue of a perfect training of his own crews, in the naval battle near the Aegates Islands (on March 10, 241 b. C.) distinguished themselves during this terrifying naval war.
The Romans took advantage of having become absolute masters of the sea to drive the Carthaginians not only from Sicily, but also from Sardinia and Corsica.


The first attempt of Carthage to have its revenge started twenty years later with Hannibal, who planned to attack Italy directly. Hannibal could not take the risk to confront the Roman navy, then he resigned himself to go by land around the western Mediterranean, through Spain and Gaul, and by passing the Alps with his army and his elephants rather than land in the very near Sicily. During this second Punic war the Romans carried out a very effective maritime strategy (which looked as a procrastinating tactics) aimed to contain, to oppose and finally to get rid of the frightful threat brought by the Carthaginians, even though they had to suffer a striking series of defeats on land. In particular, Hannibal was progressively and relentlessly entrapped by obstructing ingress to the sea, by cutting his maritime lines of communication, by depriving him of his logistic stores in Spain, by taking away his control of Syracuse the possibility of receiving a substantial help from the king of Macedonia. Then Scipio could land his army in Africa (in 204 b. C.) and force the enemy to agree to the new terms of surrender, including the demolition of the Punic fleet and the prohibition to rebuild it again.


The second and last attempt of revenge by the Carthaginians again happened fifty years later. Having received news about the attempt to rebuild the Punic fleet and about other breaches of the peace treaty, the Romans again landed in Africa and ordered the Carthaginians to leave their city and to move inland, at a distance not less than 15 kilometres from the sea. Following the Carthaginians non-acceptance, the Romans laid siege to the town and, after having defeated the new enemy fleet on the sea ( in the waters near Carthage, in 147 b. C.), persuaded the population to surrender. This third Punic war finally ended up, as everybody knows, with the destruction of that town.




Since the end of the first Punic war, when the Romans took upon themselves the role of a sea power of the first magnitude, Rome was naturally led to avail itself of its maritime power to strengthen its own predominant position in the western Mediterranean sea and to start on expanding its own area of influence in the eastern Mediterranean sea too. From then on a process of growing involvement of Rome ha set off in recurrent crunches which disturbed the Mediterranean area. For about two centuries, its diplomatic an military interventions were very well oriented and run by the Senate, who knew how to determine priorities to pursue in the interest of Rome with marked strategic significance and far-sightedness. In this way the Romans could successfully overcome a continuous series of wars, which, even though originated from eminently defensive grounds, led them to extend more and more the circle of their allies and the range of their own dominion, by means of the conclusive contribution of their maritime forces.
This important period of Roman history was called “transmarine” by the Romans themselves, to point out that it was just characteristic of a series of actions of strength on the sea and over-sea. Actually, this period represented the most remarkable one in the Roman expansion outside of the Italian peninsula; and such expansion was carried out, during the first two hundred years, almost solely by sea: first on the nearest islands, later in the Balkanic and Iberian peninsulas, then by going along Africa and Asia, so much that Rome achieved the control of almost all the shores of the Mediterranean sea.


Among the main characteristics of such process, there is a strong connection to maritime trade. Indeed, various extensions of the political and military area of influence of Rome have been nearly always preceded by similar extensions, in the same direction, of the maritime areas involved by initiatives of Roman ship-owners. The rulings of the Senate therefore took great care of the demand to protect the safety of maritime trade run by the Romans themselves or by other Italian marines, so much that it arrived at going to the war (as it was the case of the first Illyrian war), whereas such safety could be jeopardised.
The Romans had to face during this period in the eastern Mediterranean sea several wars which were nearly all provoked by the expansionism of a few great Hellenistic kingdoms, whose sovereigns were eager to re-establish the ephemeral empire of Alexander the Great. In particular, it was a question of two kings of Macedonia (Philip V and Perseus) and of those of Syria (Antiochus III) and of Pontus (Mithridates VI). They waged war in different times, but all of them chiefly used their fleets to invade Greece and to fight the Romans. The latter then had to face on the sea enemies equipped with very powerful navies and gifted with a long and unsurpassed experience in naval battles. However they brilliantly got to the end of those wars, by attaining the most important victories just on the sea, among those naval battles several bright victories stand out, such as those of Myonnesos (190 b. C.) and of Tenedos (72 b. C.), which were celebrated even by the Greeks, allied with the Romans.


Progression of the Roman expansion on the islands and on all the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, exclusively by sea in a period of two centuries: from the first landing in Sicily until the annexation of Cyprus. Only thereafter the Roman began to carry out some significant territorial acquisitions also by land.

1 Landing in Sicilia at the beginning of the 1st Punic War (264 b. C.)
2-3 Landing in Sardinia and Corsica (259 b. C.)
4-5 Landings a Corfù, in Epiro e nelle isole della Dalmazia (229 b. C.)
6-7 Conquest of the islands of Malta, Pantelleria and Gerba at the beginning of the 2nd Punic War (218-217 b. C.)
8-11 Conquest of eastern and southern coasts of Spain (218-206 b. C.)
12 Landing In the island of Eubea (207 a.C.)
13 Landing in Africa leaded by Scipio Africanus (204 b. C.)
14 Landing in Asia minor leaded by Scipio Asiaticus (190 b. C.)
15 Landings in Macedonia and in the island of Samotracia (169-168 b. C.)
16 Landing in Acaia leaded by Lucius Mummius Acaicus (146 b. C.)
17 Conquest of the Balearic Islands by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Balearicus (123-122 b. C.)
18 Taking possession of the Cyrenaica, or Pentapolis Libyca (86 b. C.)
19-20 Landings on the western coasts of the Black Sea, until the Danube (77-71 b. C.)
21-22 Landings on the southern coasts of the Black Sea, from Heraclea Pontica to oppidum Cerasus (72-70 b. C.)
23 Conquest of Crete Island by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus (69-67 b. C.)
24 Landing in Cilicia at the conclusion of the Piratic War (67 b. C.)
25-26 Landings on the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea (64-63 b. C.)
27 Naval blockade and subsequent control of the Bosphorus Cimmerius (64-63 b. C.)
28 Annexation of Cyprus (57 b. C.)




In ancient times piracy was an almost constant threat, even though as a rule it represented a phenomenon limited and with a local character, linked with the presence of geographical situations specially propitious to ambushes on the sea and to the hiding of piratical lairs. Nevertheless the phenomenon started to grow in an anomalous way when the pirates were financed by personages as Philip V, king of Macedon, Nabis, tyrant of Sparta, and chiefly Mithridates VI, king of Pontus. In particular with the latter piracy coming from Cilicia put on a special function against Rome and reached so abnormal dimension and virulence as to concern all the Mediterranean basin, to jeopardise even the safety of the seas and the shores of Italy and to put in very difficult circumstances Rome itself, in consequence of the shut-down of supplies by sea routes.
The Romans organised several war operations against the pirates, collecting sound but short-lived results, because of the limited resources available at that moment. Nevertheless, as soon as they could do it, they opted to go to the war on a large scale, by giving full powers to Pompey the Great and by allotting him with an exceptional combination of forces, which included 500 warships.
Pompey moved with prodigious celerity: he drew up in battle order his naval forces in the whole Mediterranean sea, so that the piratical fleets could be pursued everywhere and could no find any uncontrolled area where to take shelter. Afterwards he personally went to the waters of Cilicia, where he defeated in a naval battle the fleet formed by the surviving warships of the pirates. This way, he succeeded in ridding the whole sea of that plague in less than three months, from the beginning of spring to middle summer 67 b. C.
Pompey the Great himself even brought the war against Mithridates to an end, fully availing himself of the achieved supremacy on the sea. During the two above-mentioned war campaigns, he seized well 800 warships, of which 700 were led to harbours in Italy. Among the official grounds of his triumph, it was mentioned that he had “given back to the Roman people the dominion of the sea” (“imperium maris”).


In September of the year 57 b, C. Rome suffered a very serious famine and the Senate awarded the responsibility of provisioning wheat to the City to Pompey (food administration - “annona”), by giving him pro-consular command with absolute powers on rural production in the whole world subjected to the Romans and on the maritime navigation in all the Mediterranean sea for a period of five years. It was a question of authority so large as that Pompey himself had held ten years before for his dazzling war against the pirates.
Even during his pro-consulate at the food administration (annona) Pompey moved with great determination and energy. By availing himself of a great number of lieutenants (among whom the most distinguished place was given to Cicero), he quickly got control on every production land overseas and of the relating maritime harbours. Then he himself put to the sea, sailing towards the shores of Sardinia, of Sicily and Africa to check personally the harvesting and shipment of cereals. When the ships of the first convoy had been already loaded and were ready to sail to return to Ostia, a storm arrived unexpectedly and the ships were weather-bound with the commanders. But Pompey will not stand that the sailing was delayed. He went on board the first ship and ordered to loose the moorings crying: ”It is necessary to sail! ….It is not necessary to live!” (Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse).
By means of those amazing and apparently paradoxical words, with very great effectiveness he stated the need to engage, sparing no effort, even at the cost of one’s own life, to ensure an essential sea service to the community. Indeed, the flow of maritime supplies was a requirement of vital importance for the survival of the City. Then this requirement had such a great priority as to justify even the risk to lose some ships and their relative crews.
The impetus infused by Pompey in the network of the maritime supplies to Rome did not delay in restoring the situation: after having filled the sea with ships, he filled up the Roman markets with superabundant victuals, He reached the top of his own power just at the end of his five-year pro-consulate.

MAP 2 - THE PIRATIC WAR (spring-summer 67 b. C.)

Areas of responsibility assigned from Pompey to the commanders in chief of the Roman fleets deployed in the Mediterranean Sea against the pirates.

1 Lucius Gellius Poplicola (former consul, in 72 b. C.): Tyrrhenian sea;
2 Publius Atilius: Ligurian sea and sea of Corsica;
3 Marcus Pomponius: Gallicum sea (gulf of Lion);
4 Aulus Manlius Torquatus: Balearic sea and waters off the Spanish eastern coasts;
5 Tiberius Claudius Nero: straits of Cadiz (presently “of Gibraltar”) and Alboran sea;
6 Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus (future consul, in 56 b. C.): sea of Sardinia and Libyan sea;
7 Aulus Plotius Varus: sea of Sicily;
8 Marcus Terentius Varro: Ionian sea, low Adriatic and low Aegean until Delos;
9 Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus (former consul, in 72 b. C.): Adriatic sea;
10 sons Aulus and Quintus Pompeius Bitinicus: Egyptian sea;
11 Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos (future consul, in 57 b. C.): south-eastern Aegean sea, Pamphylian sea and sea of Cyprus;
12 Lucius Lollius: northern Aegean until the Hellespontum (Dardanels);
13 Marcus Pupius Piso Frugi Calpurnianus (future consul, in 61 b. C.): Propontis (now Sea of Marmara) and the Bosphorus Strait.




During the third year of the Gallic wars, Julius Caesar should confront the most large alliance ever made up between the Gauls before the final show-down headed – four years later – by Vercingetorix. This alliance included the populations of all north-western coastal districts of Gaul, from the Rhine river to the Loire, and it was led by transalpine Venetians, resident in the southern coast of the Breton peninsula. This was the most powerful nation on the Ocean, where it controlled with its own warships every traffic, including that with the Britons.
In order to fight against those maritime populations in the treacherous site of the Oceanic coast, Caesar ordered to build a big fleet on the Loire and to train their relative crews. Then he marshalled it in front of the harbour of the Venetians, which opposed to it 220 big and strong oceanic ships, equipped by themselves and their allies, with the support of the Britons. After a whole day of naval combats (in August 56 b. C.), the Romans succeeded in boarding and seizing almost all enemy ships. This outcome led the Venetians and their allies to an immediate surrender, since they were defenceless without their ships. Thus the Ocean was set free from the control of the Gauls and, therefore, open to the Romans.
Caesar soon drew the most logic conclusions from it, by leading in the two following years (55 and 54 b. C.) the first two Roman expeditions to Britain. The first one was conducted by the same fleet which fought against the Venetians, with the addition of about a hundred cargo ships for the transport of two legions and of the horsemen. The landing was chiefly a matter to make possible a first direct contact with the island, within coastal limits. The second expedition made use of a new fleet which Julius Caesar ordered to build on purpose, with about 600 "landing-ships" wide, low and light, in order to make it possible to come near to the shore, and twenty-eight ships of big dimensions. Thus five legions and two thousand horsemen were landed in Britain, where they operated for three months in thr hinterland, as far as on the other side of the Thames.


After completing the pacification of the Gauls, all following maritime tasks of Julius Caesar were placed in the Mediterranean sea, where, because of the civil war, he almost always was short of ships or in any case exposed to a preponderant threat. In spite of the difficulties he always managed to overturn the situation with determination and boldness on the sea.
A first problem was stirred up by the hostilities of Massilia (49 b. C.). Caesar laid siege to it and ordered to build twelve warships to ensure the naval blockade of that town. The people of Massilia reacted with the proper pride of their own old maritime heritage, fighting twice against the Roman fleet on the sea. Nevertheless, in those two naval battles they lost eighteen ships (eight sunken and ten seized by the Romans), out of a total of twenty-six which they had in all succeeded to commission. Therefore the Roman naval blockade remained effective and brought about the surrender of the town.
In the following winter (January 48 b. C.), Caesar was compelled to cross the Otranto channel, even though the fleets of Pompey were in those waters to block him the way Having at his disposal about a hundred cargo ships to transport the legions and only twelve warships to escort them, Caesar managed to pass by undamaged through two enemy fleets which on the whole included hundred-twenty-eight. Warships. He completed many other winter navigations, always willing to act with customary swiftness. For instance, at the beginning of the African and the Hispanic wars he carried out the move by sea from Sicily to Africa at the end of December 47 b. C. and from Rome to Cadiz in the following December.
The most problematic war engagement, which Caesar should face, was the Alexandrian war, as was in Egypt with a very small army, pressed by the unexpected hostility of the forces of young king Ptolemy XIII. After attaining two naval victories against the Alexandrians, very skilful seamen, he endured a massive land attack and was compelled to jump into the sea and to swim underwater for a long stretch in order to save himself. Later on he succeeded in outflanking the army of the king by means of his fleet and to defeat him on the Nile. On the same river he shortly cruised with Cleopatra before leaving Egypt.




One of the most harmful filiations of the civil wars was represented by the second-born son of Pompey the Great, Sextus Pompey. He occupied Sicily the year after the death of Caesar and practised for several years piracy against Rome and the whole Italy, by making use of rebellious individuals, exiles and fugitive slaves, and by availing himself, as admirals, of personages which had been chief pirates taken prisoners by his father. The triumvirs tried to eliminate this problem in a diplomatic way and giving battle, with no success.
In the year 37 b. C., Octavian finally determined to give the greatest thrust to the war against this ruinous piracy, entrusting the command of his fleet to an exceptional man, his friend Marcus Agrippa, who soon will prove himself the greatest of all admirals at any time.
Marcus Agrippa ordered to build an impressive fleet and a new harbour to shelter it and to train the crews: the Portus Julius, formed by the lakes of Lucrinus and Avernus, was exploited to do continuous naval practices in whole following winter.
In the spring of the year 36 b. C. the plan studied by Octavian and Agrippa started to take Sicily in a vice, by assailing it from three directions: Octavian and Lepidus should land with their armies from east and south-west, while the new fleet approach from north at the command of Agrippa. The latter defeated twice the enemy fleet on the sea, the first time in the waters near Mylae, depriving the pirates of thirty ships, the second time in the waters near to Naulochus, where he achieved the final victory (on September 3rd 36 b. C.: Sextus Pompey, having lost nearly all his ships (he saved only 17 ships out of 350), escaped to Asia minor.


The last great naval threat against Rome came from the Hellenistic east which, under the Alexandrian aegis, made a last attempt to awake again the dream of its own hegemony, in the exciting memory of Alexander the Great. In the year 32 b. C. Marc Anthony, by then without any authority ( the triumvirate had expired the year before), had married Cleopatra, with whom he cohabited in Alexandria since five years, and with whom he had assembled huge land and sea forces with the contribution of all kingdoms and districts of the eastern Mediterranean sea.
In the autumn of the same year the huge eastern fleet - which included, between warships and cargoes, 200 Alexandrian ships and 800with Hellenic and Egyptian crews – weighed anchor from Piraeus and entered into the Ionian sea, towards Italy. Nevertheless through some scout ships Cleopatra and Anthony were aware of the presence of the fleet of Agrippa which patrolled south of the Otranto channel and decided to anchor the fleet in Actium, in order to winter there.
Marcus Agrippa immediately operated in the Ionian sea to block that fleet and to intercept all maritime supplies to it. After winter he defeated enemy forces, which had risked some sorties in two naval battles. Later on having been caught up by consul Octavian, he routed the whole eastern fleet which tried to run the blockade in the waters of Actium, seizing 300 polyremes and destroying the others, except the 60 ships of Cleopatra which took to flight followed by Anthony (on September 2nd of the year 31 b. C.). The two defeated lovers lost their life the year after, when Octavian entered into Alexandria and added Egypt to the provinces of the Roman people.
Since then it followed a long period of internal peace and well-being, which characterised the Empire.




Marcus Agrippa – who was friend, Admiral, son-in-law and then colleague of Augustus - also was the was the father of the navy, which was formed in order to face the Sicilian war and improved for the Actium war. Later on the navy was transformed into a permanent structure which was in service till the end of the Roman Empire.
The new Roman Imperial navy was organised according to a general design which has the clear mark of Agrippa’s naval competence. The site of Misenum was chosen as main permanent naval base, near to the Portus Julius, which had become redundant and had a better use for civil purposes. But the decision taken for the Portus Julius was conceptually repeated, by using the lake Misenum and by linking it to the sea. The harbour set was equipped with all necessary maritime works and logistic structures, including an aqueduct and colossal water tanks.


Even though Rome in the imperial period held the full sovereignty on the whole Mediterranean sea, the lack of other great maritime powers did not mean that the sea could be held safe once and for all; however a permanent naval presence was required there, visible, available and reliable, in order to prevent the revival of any threat to the regular course of the maritime activities, many of which represented a vital need for the City and for many other towns in the Empire.
Then the main role of the imperial fleets of Rome was to patrol the sea, the maritime coastal waters and the big rivers, in order to keep there the necessary conditions of safety, regarding order and freedom of navigation. The quiet industriousness of the navy was one of the pillars of the Pax Augusta.


Location of the Roman imperial fleets in their main bases (represented by a circle with a number) and in other custom bases of detached naval groups (locations represented by a square with the same number of the relevant mother fleet).


The first permanent Roman fleets were established by Augustus, in order not to scatter the effective naval instrument formed by Marcus Agrippa. The great victorious Roman fleet was kept in the seas around Italy, divided between the main naval base of Misenum (the fleet Misenensis) and that of Ravenna (the fleet Ravennas), whilst the best ships seized in Actium were sent to Forum Julius, today’s Fréjus (the fleet Forojuliensis). During his principate Augustus also established a fleet on the rivers Sava and Danube (then called the fleet of Pannonia), another on the Rhine (then called the fleet Germanica), and two fleets in Egypt: one in Alexandria (the fleet Alexandrina) and one in Arsinoe, today’s Suez, on the Red Sea (the fleet Arabica, firstly used for the expedition of Aelius Gallus and later formed again by Trajan).


The following other permanent fleets were instead established by successive Emperors: the fleet Britannica, formally established on the English channel by Claudius on the valid squad formed by Gaius Caligula; the fleet Pontica established in the Black Sea by Nero; the fleet Syriaca formed in the eastern Mediterranean sea by Vespasian; a fleet on the low part of the Danube (called the fleet Moesica) formed by Domitian. In order to complete the list of the fleets in the first period of the Empire, mention should be made of the ephemeral fleet Nova Libyca, formed in Cyrenaica probably by Commodus, and the fleet Mesopotamica, which operated on the Euphrates and the Tigris under several Emperors, from Trajan to Julian. During the last period of the Empire, nearly all those fleets broken into small groups, thus stressing the presence on the rivers to the prejudice of that on the seas.




The Romans knew how to pour all their skill of builders of structures practical and reliable in shipbuilding and maritime works, by means of applying sophisticated and innovating techniques, whether in the field of shipbuilding or in that of maritime or coastal engineering.
In this field, they, in particular, enriched the all shores of the Mediterranean sea and of the Ocean with harbour works and other maritime structures in order to increase the soundness, the effectiveness and the safety of the maritime links. Indeed, several new maritime and fluvial harbours were established, the existing harbours were strengthened and made safer than before by building huge outer break-waters set up in conformity to the canons laid down by Vitruvius in his treaty on architecture. Even now there are ample evidence of that Roman maritime policy along the shores which once belonged to the Roman Empire and which nowadays still keep many remains of harbours and lighthouses of Ancient Rome.


The Romans obviously devoted most of their resources to carrying out the mighty harbour set of the Eternal City, by building alongside the first port of Ostia the wide imperial harbour called “Portus”, or “Portus Augustus” too, the remains of which are visible and open to visitors in the neighbourhood of the international airport Leonardo da Vinci of Rome-Fiumicino.
The harbour works were completed in the period between the reign of Claudius and that of Trajan. It was the widest and most rational artificial maritime port of the classic world, with a capacity such that it became the central and preferred junction of the wide net of maritime communications in the Empire. The port was formed by a large outside basin and by a more sheltered hexagonal basin inside, both man-made basins had been dug and linked between them and with the Tiber river by a set of canals and wet docks. The harbour structures, around which the town of Portus thrived, were equipped with arcades and big goods sheds, besides inside navigation aids and moorings. Between the two heads of the outer breakwaters, a colossal statue of Neptune and an artificial island stood with a big lighthouse, which showed the seamen the entry to the centre of the world from the sea.


The Romans displayed a similar expertise in ship buildings, which gave them the dominion of the seas and the intensive use of naval transport, on sea itself and on every navigable course or stretch of water. Their shipyards produced swarms of ships, many of which very large indeed, as some “lapidariae” ship used for the transport of marble loads, or the pompous polyremes which Caligula used for pleasant navigation off the coast of Campania, or the giant ship which the same emperor ordered to build for the transport of the Vatican obelisk, and which Plinius the Elder considered "the most admirable of all ships ever seen on the seas".
A partial perception of the quality of those colossuses has been provided by the raising of the wreck of two impressive ships in the lake of Nemi in the years 1928-31 (unfortunately set afire during the second world war). Trough the inspection of those exceptional finds, there has been evidence of the admirable results achieved by the Romans in naval architecture (including the metal plating of the hulls), in mechanics ( including cog-wheels, revolving platforms, etc.), in hydraulics (pipes, valves and pumps) and in sailors equipment (blocks, dead-eyes, steering wheels and anchors).


The knowledge acquired in most recent years, through the most precise devices made it possible by the submarine archaeology, enabled to check that the stupefying technologies used for the ships of Nemi were not the exception, as the presence of many similarities even on wrecks of maritime ships of commonest dimension was spotted. Furthermore, the thick presence of wrecks in all waters bathing the Roman empire, corroborates the high soundness of the merchant marine during the imperial period, as it has been often pointed out by the ancient literary sources.
The Roman naval engineering – which formed the powerful corporation of the fabri navales – knew how to optimise then the capacity of shipyards by putting them in a position to satisfy the demands of ships in the whole empire, and more to supply products of high quality and lined up with the best canons of sailors art.




After having attained the full dominion of the Mediterranean sea and of all other waters which washed its empire, Rome - the uncontested birth place of the law of nations - decreed the freedom to use the sea by everybody provided that the rights of others were not prejudiced. That decree was founded on the persuasion that the sea was part of the “res communes omnium”, that is in the class of goods of common property by mankind.
The general principle of free use of the sea included, in addition to the freedom of exploitation of marine resources, also and overall the basic principle of freedom of navigation. This freedom was acknowledged whether on the seas, or on the rivers, natural continuation of maritime routes.


By availing themselves of their technical and organising skill, the Romans achieved an extraordinary development of maritime communication lines, ensuring all necessary links and supplies to Rome, as well as the most intensive and beneficial interchange between all shores of the Empire. It has been reckoned that the merchant fleet working during the period of the Roman Empire reached such a dimension that it stayed unsurpassed until the XIXth century, when the great shipping companies of modern age thrived.
That situation stimulated sea trade and voyages, besides extending the sea routes towards the most distant shores, in search of most profitable traffics.


Since the beginning of the Empire several naval reconnaissance of northern Oceanic waters were carried out by the Roman navy. In particular, among all scouting carried out by Roman warships off the coast of Germany, it stands out that of the fleet of Augustus which under the command of Tiberius got over Cape Skagen, northwards of Denmark, towards the Baltic sea.
The fleet of Julius Agricola went forward still more northwards. During the princedom of Domitianus, it circumnavigated the Britain, took possession of the Orkney islands and sailed still farther, arriving - it was said - as far as to sight the mysterious island of Thule (which probably was located beyond the Arctic polar Circle). A late evidence points out that the Romans established later naval connections even with that island.
However there are more certain news regarding the activities of the Roman merchant ships which carried on trade in the Frisian islands, of amber overall, and entered even into the Baltic, where they had got contacts with the populations of the eastern countries, which sold amber at a smaller price.


Off the African shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the Romans sailed leaving from the port of Tingis (Tangier). As far as there were not significant occasions of trading the Romans had a discontinuous frequentation of the Fortunatae Insulae ( the Canary islands).
On the Red Sea, the Romans had several excellent harbours, as far as that of Berenike which was the outpost more southwards of the Empire. From the very beginning of the II century the Romans brought back into use even the naval connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, through the Nile and a navigable canal (called Fossa Traiana).
The Romans kept maritime trades with the populations of the African horn, going still farther along the southern coast, about off Zanzibar.
Moreover the Romans had several evidences about the circumnavigation of Africa made between the last two centuries of the Republic and the princedom of Augustus.


The maritime trade of the Romans went forward resolutely till the Indian Ocean since the princedom of Augustus, involving first of all the southern harbours of Arabia Felix (Yemen) and several harbours of western India It certainly reached the island of Tabropane (Ceylon) during the princedom of Claudius, then going forwards on the eastern side of India up to the mouth of the Ganges river. In the period of the Flavian dynasty, every route to India was perfectly known: Pliny the old gives us the complete itinerary, together with detailed information on the best time to go and to come back, calculating the seasonal alternation of monsoons.
Beginning from the princedom of Trajan, when the Mesopotamia became a Roman province, one could go to India even through the Persian gulf, through a very short and well connected route to the Mediterranean sea from the Euphrates river (which passes by the Syrian coasts).
Meanwhile Roman naval traffics began to expand farther eastwards, towards the southern Chinese sea and the Serica (China).


“Here merchant vessels arrive carrying these many commodities from every region in every season and even at every equinox, so that the City takes on the appearance of a sort of common market for the World.
Seaborne arrivals and departures are ceaseless, to the point that the wonder is, not so much that the harbour has insufficient space for all these merchant vessels, but that the sea has enough space for them.”

Publius Aelius Aristides (II century A.D.)
[english version taken from Aelius Aristides, The Roman Oration]

MAP 5 - Planisphere with the routes followed by the Romans towards the borders of the unknown.




Among various symptoms of the constant appeal that the sea exercised on the Romans, one of those which leaps before the eyes is the Roman preference for situations which allowed to enjoy fully the contact with the sea.
That may be noticed by the spread of their maritime villas, the remains of which may still be found along all shores of Italy, with special intensity in the most beautiful sites of the littoral of Latium, of Campania and of the islands. Some charming aggregation of maritime villas already formed on the coastal stretches closest to Rome, as in the area of Alsium (on the outskirts of Ladispoli), a well renowned marine place, and in those of Laurentum (between Ostia and Tor Paterno).
But the shores of the gulf of Naples were those most appreciated because of their natural beauties. Those shores were all strewn with sumptuous maritime villas up to the coast of the Sorrentine Peninsula. The real "Riviera" at that time was made up by the most western stretch of the gulf, between Misenum and Baia.
Horace wrote that “nothing shines more than the pleasant gulf of Baia in the whole world”. On those shores highly praised as a place of delights because of the thermal baths and the dolce vita (sweet life) there lodged, the most luxurious villas fronted the sea, equipped with landing places, with wharves and other structures set in the water, besides fishponds, fishing boats and crafts for recreation.


Since the most ancient time marine salt, as a sea resource, has been exploited by the Romans. At first they obtained it from the natural salt pans of the ancient coastal lagoons near to the mouth of the Tiber river, and later on by salt-works built on purpose.
Furthermore the Romans employed the same marine water, wisely canalised in order to supply the necessary water interchange to the big basins of the coastal fishponds. Such fishponds, which enriched the best maritime villas, were built in conformity with very rigid canons (illustrated by several Latin authors) and represented the object of loving cares by the same owners. As a rule the fishponds were used to satisfy the fish demand of the same villa. Nevertheless there are a few famous examples of wide fishponds built to grow big quantity of shellfish and of delicious fishes, which were then sold getting large profits.


Marine fauna was the most familiar richness contained in the sea. The Romans were particularly competent connoisseurs, so much that Pliny the Elder remarks that the countless species living in the Ocean were even better known than the terrestrial fauna.
In Rome fish was sold nearby the old Portus Tiberinus, where there was a special market (the Forum Piscarium, quoted by Varro). The high demand made it thrive the fishing activities in all seas, with relevant economic benefits. The extraordinary increase in fishing, overall in the Tyrrhenian sea, got even to frighten that the fauna could become poor That fear even brought about the undertaking of interesting enterprises aimed to the fish culture.
Besides foodstuffs, even raw materials for luxury articles, as coral, pearls, purples and shells for cameos, were actively searched for in the sea.


The persistent passion of Romans for fish was matched by an always more demanding and refined taste. Many Latin authors, even those most renowned (beginning from the poet Quintus Ennius), took pleasure in including some short essay of gastronomy, giving great prominence to the deliciousness of fishes, of crustaceans and marine shellfishes. They likewise supplied, with regard to the marine species most welcome at table, detailed information on the seas which produced the best quality of it.
The sea was steadily present on the tables of the Romans even through the dressing that they used nearly for all dishes: the garum, considered the most precious "liquor", with a strong and salty taste, was obtained through the fermentation of a compound made with cuts carefully selected of fish, fragrant herbs and salt.
Finally the sea inspired several nautical games organised during special events and for the celebration of Neptune, with competitions similar to the regattas of boat racing and to the naumachies. The latter, with the performance of naval battles, no doubt formed the most magnificent Roman public show.

Privacy Policy