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

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

Simon Elliott

29 Aug 2023
Depiction of a naval battle by Michele Lucchese, after Polidoro da Caravaggio, 16th century.
Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first ever British fleet was called the Classis Britannica. It was the Roman fleet of Britain, created from the 900 ships built for the Claudian invasion in the year 43 AD and had a workforce around 7,000-strong. It was the regional fleet of the province from the mid-1st century to the mid-3rd century AD, at which point it vanishes from records.

It was one of ten similar fleets across the empire. It 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.

This article is an edited transcript of Roman Navy in Britain: The Classis Britannica with Simon Elliott.

Historian and archaeologist Simon Elliott discusses the Classis Britannica, Rome's regional fleet that patrolled the shores around Britannia.
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Epigraphic evidence of the Classis Britannica

The fleet had its origins in the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD 43 when 900 ships were constructed to carry Aulus Plautius’ huge invasion force of 40,000 legionaries and auxilia from northwestern Gaul. 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.

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.

The navy in archaeology

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.

Tristan Hughes travels to Vindolanda Roman Fort to see what discoveries have been made in 2021.
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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 about Britain’s Roman navy

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 historian Tacitus as taking a British legion across to the Rhine to help fight Civilis and his revolting Batavians.

The Rembrandt painting The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis depicts a Batavian oath to Gaius Julius Civilis.

The legionary commander, Fabius Priscus, then marched his legion against the Nervii and Tungri tribes who had proved so troublesome almost 130 years earlier to Julius Caesar during his Gallic campaigns. However, the legate appears to have left his fleet in a vulnerable situation with no guards.

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 navy in the 1st and 2nd centuries

By the mid-70s AD, the province of Britannia was effectively established along lines that remained recognisable for the rest of the Roman occupation, the northern border on the Solway Firth – Tyne line later to be fortified by Hadrian. The Classis Britannica played a major role in the ambitious attempts of the governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola to conquer Scotland.

The Classis Britannica spent much of the 2nd century AD supporting the military presence on the northern border, coming back into focus again in 196 AD when the British Governor Clodius Albinus launched an unsuccessful usurpation attempt against the Emperor Septimius Severus.

However, the fleet was back in action again by the early 3rd century AD when Severus attempted his own ‘shock and awe’ conquest of Scotland. By this time the Maeatae around the line of the now abandoned Antonine Wall, and Caledonians further north, had become so troublesome that the governor sent a desperate dispatch requesting new troops or the Emperor himself.  He got both.

Britain’s Roman navy and Septimus Severus

Severus crossed the English Channel in AD 208 with a huge Imperial entourage including with the Praetorian Guard, Imperial guard cavalry and crack units from the continental legions. This was again transported by the Classis Britannica which landed the troops in all of the ports down the east coast given the army’s size.

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.

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.

What happened to the Classis Britannica?

As detailed earlier, we know the fleet disappears from the historical record in the middle of the 3rd century AD, but the cause is a mystery.

A number of events in the 3rd century are candidates. One is the scramble for Imperial control between the Senate and the military after the assassination of Alexander Severus in AD 235, the event which initiated the ‘Crisis of the 3rd Century’.

Another was the usurping Gallic Empire founded by Postumus that lasted from AD 260 to AD 274. Finally, there is the tale of another usurper, Carausius and his North Sea Empire that lasted from AD 286 to AD 296.

Any could have presented a situation where the Classis Britannica found itself on the wrong side of usurpation, the fleet suffering dramatically as a result.

Tags: Classis Britannica Podcast Transcript

Simon Elliott