The Romans’ First Ships

Despite what Polybius may say about how this was the very first time any Romans had ever engaged in building ships (not even triremes, really?) and that quinqueremes were never seen or used along the Italian coasts, we can be assured that the Romans’ first ships date from far before this time. Perhaps not amounting to a navy, it is clear that the Romans had access to ships and there certainly must have been some capable shipwrights due to the fact that there was substantial trade abroad that the Romans engaged in. What is more likely is that Polybius refers to the Romans as “absolutely inexperienced” and that “the matter caused them much difficulty,” (1.20)1 so that his spiel on Roman ingenuity and fortitude seems even greater.

There are several examples of Romans using ships before the First Punic War. For example, the first Punic-Roman Treaty that we discussed earlier (found here) stipulates restrictions on both Roman warships near Africa as well as on merchant vessels. These provisions wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense unless the Roman Republic was capable of using ships in the water around North Africa. Livy also provides an early example of Roman naval use. While discussing some new popularly elected magistracies, he mentions “that the people should likewise elect two naval commissioners to have charge of equipping and refitting the fleet.” (Livy 9.30)2 Since the notes in the Loeb edition indicate this was around the year 311 BC, about half a century before the time period we are looking at currently, the use of ships at least in some capacity seems pretty straightforward. Lastly, the Romans had their Italian allies, particularly the cities in the south that were steeped in Greek naval tradition which could be called on and were for ships and rowers (such as with the initial crossing over to Messana).

In any case, Rome likely did not have much naval strength to speak of at this time, but Carthaginian raids on the coast and the need to meet the enemy at sea spurred on a massive building program in Rome. Polybius tells that the Senate ordered 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes to be constructed. I believe that it was some sort of mass production sort of construction effort near Rome itself at its port of Ostia, in order to organize the labor so quickly. (It may also be why these first ships themselves ended up being subpar to their Carthaginian counterparts.) In the meantime, there is a famous story about how the Romans began training to row and fight at sea.

On this occasion [the Romans’ first crossing over to Messana] the Carthaginians put to sea to attack them as they were crossing, and one of their decked ships advanced too far in its eagerness to overtake them and running aground fell into the hands of the Romans. This ship they now used as a model, and built their whole fleet on its pattern; so that it is evident that if this had not occurred they would have been entirely prevented from carrying out their design by lack of practical knowledge.  Now, however, those to whom the construction of the ships was committed were busy in getting them ready, and those who had collected the crews were teaching them to row on shore in the following fashion. Making the men sit on rowers- benches on dry land, in the same order as on the benches of the ships themselves, and stationing the fugle-man in the middle, they accustomed them to fall back all at once bringing their hands up to them, and again to come forward stretching out their hands, and to begin and finish these movements at the word of command of the fugle-man. (Polybius 1.20-21)3

Some have dismissed this story as outlandish or just plain silly. However, I see no reason as to why, if there indeed was a captured Carthaginian quinquereme, to not use the vessel in such a manner. The Romans themselves were a rather pragmatic people and I think it is entirely plausible that they believed that this would be an effective way to train for rowing on the high seas without the risk. This may be even more likely to have happened if some of the oarsmen that would be forced to serve in the fleets were indeed Roman citizens (of some class or another), as these large fleets would create an immense drain on manpower reserves that would likely have overstrained the allies alone.

We will see in our next discussion just what a quinquereme of this era was (…well as much as we actually know about them, which is surprisingly as much as we would like.)

1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
2. Livy. Translated by B. O. Foster. 1919. Print.
3. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.