The Roman Empire initially underestimated the usefulness of naval power and therefore did not require military ships. Their main focus was on winning land containing vital resources and labour using large armies, cavalry, and politics.
During the first Punic War, Rome began to build their first fleet of battleships. Not having any naval experience, they copied their first designs from a Carthaginian shipwreck. In 260 BC, the Romans, under the command of a Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina, won a major naval battle against the Carthaginians off the coast of Sicily.
This completely changed the way Rome would fight their wars and subsequently changed the world forever.
The Trireme was the most common naval vessel of the Roman navy. Made in their thousands over a period of years, the Trireme became the steadfast boat of nearly all invasions and naval battles in Roman history.
It had three rows of oars on each side, making approximately 170 oars in all. The two main masts carried square sails and there were two steering oars at the rear of the ship. The battering ram at the front of the ship was tipped and plated with bronze.
Average speed was 6 knots whilst 7.5 knots could be maintained for short periods of time using both sails and the oarsmen. At cruising speed, a trireme could travel between 50 - 60 miles per day. Newer boats with experienced crews were allegedly travelling up to 180 miles per day. This depended on weather conditions and the condition of the oarsmen. The cargo limit was approximately six tons.
The average crew consisted of almost 200 men, just to run a trireme. The boats had to be regularly maintained to keep them afloat or they would sink. The wood used was light wood, dependent upon the province where it was built and the local resources, and not very water resistant. Many captains simply ran their boats onto the beach to prevent them from taking in water overnight.
The whole Roman boat without crew, materials or cargo could be carried ashore by as little as 150 men. The bottom of the boat was nearly flat and only rested 1 meter below the waterline. The average length would have been approximately 37 meters with a height of 2.5 meters above the waterline.
There were two types of naval battle scenarios, ramming and boarding. Ramming consisted literally of speeding up and ramming an enemy ship in the side causing it to sink. Boarding was drawing alongside another ship and dropping gangplanks between the ships where troops would clamber over and attack the crew of the other ship.
The Romans preferred the boarding method as their fighting skills were usually more superior than that of their enemies. They would first use small catapults and Ballistas to fire flaming missiles at the targeted ship.
Archers would then unleash their metal rain. Then once closer would use many grappling hooks to draw the two ships closer. Then drop the gangplanks allowing troops to run over and join in the affray.
The oarsmen were not always galley slaves. Many were free men paid to row. Knowing that they could be killed, either in the battle or taken as slaves afterwards, they would also take up arms and fight.
Most information on Triremes have been lost to time. Speculations made by historians and archaeologists are all in good faith.
The Quadrireme was an other Spanish ship adopted by the Romans. The ship itself could carry up to 120 legionaries and their full battle equipment. These were mainly heavy 'dreadnoughts' of the sea and used for escort duty.
From the name it can easily be deduced that there were four rows of oars to help propel this monster wooden ship. Historians argue that either the oarsmen were seated five to one oar or one man per oar. There are no surviving records confirming either way.
Approximately 39 meters in length and 4 meters wide. This ship was not as fast and agile as the Trireme, but could carry more army personnel, catapults and ballistas. Used quite commonly as a flag ship during battle as its' excessive weight and girth made it more difficult to sink. This Roman battleship or warship soon became the largest ship on the sea, but its fame was short lived
These were small and light ships which were initially used by pirates. Only approximately 24 meters in length and less than 3 meters in width, these light and very agile ships were excellent for hit and run missions.
A crew of 108 rowers and thirty soldiers ensured that speed could be maintained for long distances. This enabled the ship to get away from pursuing war ships.
The size and speed of this naval vessel attracted the attention of virtually every country in the Mediterraneanand was soon adopted into every culture.
Please note that the name of this type of vessel maybe subject to verification
Bireme / Liburnia
The Bireme was the smaller version and predecessor of the Roman standard battleship the Trireme.
The Bireme had two rows of oars and required 140 oarsmen to move the ship. Used as a coastal patrol boat, the Bireme carried 40 centurions.
The flat broad bottomed boat appeared to skim over the water and as its' speed cannot be accurately calculated, it is assumed that between 7 and 9 knots were achievable.
Designed approximately 600 BC possibly by the Phoenicians and used in the Trojan wars. The Romans adopted it into their navy and re-named it the Liburnia class of ship.
Suggested sizes are from 24 - 33 meters in length by less than 4 meters in width.
The 'Corvus' was actually a boarding ramp which was positioned onto a Quinguereme or other Roman battleship. Allegedly only used by the Romans as they preferred to board enemy ships and take part in combat using the might and skills of their fully trained and equipped troops.
Saw action during the First Punic Wars against the Carthaginians ( Spanish ) but little is really known about the Corvus as it only saw a brief service. Whether the Romans simply decided it was not feasible to install such a large and cumbersome boarding joist onto a ship or not, but the Corvus ceased to be used.
The Corvus was also attached to other fighting ships during the same era. The idea of the corvis was to 'ensnare' the enemy ship with the hook like device on the end, whilst troops boarded to attack the crew over the upper ramparts.
The formidable Roman warship class of Hexareme were the dreadnoughts of the seas. One huge archer tower was at each end of this mighty sip. This allowed archers excellent views of the enemy positions and made extra for distance when firing their arrows or ballista missiles.
Primarily used as a flagship, this class of naval ship was very rare. Six rows of oars adorned each side of the 41 meter long ship powered by sails and over 300 oarsmen. Consuls and even Mark Antony used this ships. Although during the Mark Anthony era, these ships were considered to be rather small compared to the Quinqueremes.
These lumbering ships were pretty difficult to sink. Their mass mad them able to withstand many many holes in the timber made by artillery. Although ships like this with ten rows of oars and nearly 600 oarsmen were domineering the oceans, it wasn't long before faster, smaller and more maneuverable ships became more dominant.
The smaller ships carrying a limited number of legionaries and rowers, could be manufactured quicker. The smaller size made them faster and more agile than that of the larger ships. Through history, including Sir Francis Drake and the Japanese during WWII, smaller ships have been used to win battles against larger ships in fleet formation.
There have been Roman ships with eleven and twelve rows of oars, but historical documents pertaining to these ships are very non-descriptive.