What Records Do We Have of the Roman Fleet in Britain?

History Hit Podcast with Simon Elliott

3 mins

16 Oct 2018

Image: A cast of a relief on Trajan’s Column in Rome which depicts liburnian bireme galley ships from the Danube fleets during Roman Emperor Trajan’s Dacian Wars. Liburnian biremes were the main fighting platform of the Classis Britannica.

This article is an edited transcript of Roman Navy in Britain: The Classis Britannica with Simon Elliott on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 25 September 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The Classis Britannica was the Roman fleet of Britain. It was created from the 900 ships built for the Claudian invasion in the year 43 AD and staffed by about 7,000 personnel. It remained in existence until the mid-3rd century when it mysteriously disappears from the historical record.

The fleet was employed like an army service corps because it reported to the procurator in Britain rather than the governor.

The procurator was in charge of tax collection, and so the fleet was there to make the province of Britain pay into the imperial treasury.

Epigraphic evidence

There’s a strong epigraphic record of the fleet; that is, references to the fleet within writing on funerary monuments. A lot of the relevant epigraphy is in Boulogne, which is where the Classis Britannica was headquartered.

Boulogne served as the headquarters of the fleet because, not only did the fleet have responsibility for the English Channel, the Atlantic approaches, the east and west coasts of England and the Irish Sea, but it also had responsibility for the northwestern continental coast of the Roman Empire, all the way up to the Rhine.

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That reflects how the Romans viewed the English Channel and the North Sea in a different way to how we might see it today.

For them, it wasn’t the barrier that we see in recent military history; it was actually a point of connectivity, and a motorway by which Roman Britain remained a fully functioning part of the Roman Empire.

Archaeological evidence

We know where a lot of the fleet’s fortified harbours were, thanks to the archaeological record, which provides a lot of detail.

This record also includes a piece of graffiti on some waste lead from Roman Britain that depicts a Roman galley. It was clearly drawn by somebody who had actually seen a Roman galley for themselves and so, in that, we have an absolutely wonderful piece of first-hand evidence depicting a galley on a ship in the Classis Britannica.

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The Classis Britannica also ran some of the province’s metal industries. This included the iron industry in the Weald, which the fleet ran through to the middle of the 3rd century and which made a lot of the iron that the military on the province’s northern borders needed to operate.

The archaeological record provides a lot of detail for the Classis Britannica.

The fleet’s big iron working sites were monumental in scale, about factory size to us today. We know they were run by the fleet because all of the buildings have tiles stamped with the Classis Britannica insignia.

Written evidence

There is also important evidence in the written record. The first time that the naval force was mentioned was in the Flavian period, in the context of a failure in the year 69. The Classis Britannica was recorded by the source Tacitus as taking a British legion across to the Rhine to help fight Civilis and his revolting Batavians.

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This legion got to the Rhine estuary, decamped off the ship and was marched off by a rash legate senator who forgot to put any guards on the ships.

This invasion force worth of ships, which had effectively carried an entire legion, was then left in the Rhine estuary overnight, unprotected. The local Germans burnt it to a cinder.

As a result, the first reference to the Classis Britannica in the written record was made in ignominy. The fleet was rebuilt very quickly, however.

The last time the fleet was ever mentioned was in 249 in the context of the funerary stelae of Saturninus, a captain of the Classis Britannica. This captain was from North Africa, which shows how cosmopolitan the Roman Empire was.

The first reference to the Classis Britannica in the written record was made in ignominy.

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There are also records of people from Syria and Iraq up around Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, there is epigraphy along the Wall which reveals that the Classis Britannica actually built parts of the structure and also helped to maintain it.

Meanwhile, there is a reference towards the end of the Roman Empire in Britain of some Tigris boatman acting as bargemen on the Tyne. It was a cosmopolitan empire.