Roman Warships

The first paperback edition of Roman Warships is one of the stars of our Trade list this spring. It also makes an ideal companion to the author’s other paperback volume, The Navies of Rome, an evergreen classic now in its 4th reprint. Here Mr Pitassi explains why he chose to focus on warships in particular, and the challenges that he faced.

Having been born and brought up in Portsmouth, warships have long been a familiar sight. As a boy, along with many of my generation, I started to whittle lumps of balsa wood, adding bits of paper, pins and the like, to produce models of such ships, a pastime that has endured. I suppose that my ancestry has left me with an interest in the Roman world, reinforced by the many remains of that world existing in close proximity (including a former Roman naval base at Portchester (Portus Adurni)).

Came the day when, casting about for something different in the way of a warship to model, I thought ‘what about a Roman warship?’ Ideally, to make the model, one needs a plan, but I could find none. I had to start ferreting around among ancient writers for clues as to what such a ship might look like. The problem is of course, that they do not exactly say; if I wrote you a tale about a car journey, I would not have to define what a car is – you would know and so it was with the ancient writers, their audience knew what the ships looked like. There were clues to be gleaned, however. Much travelling across the former Roman world and the visiting of many museums yielded much in the way of statues, tombstones, altars and the like, more pieces of the puzzle. Locations of ancient happenings put things into context and even looking at extant traditional boats threw up a number of items, terms and practices still in use today.

Aerial view of Portus Adurni, more commonly known as the Portchester Castle.

Stuff accumulated as only stuff can and in addition to indulging in model building, I found that there was a story to be told, of the world’s first superpower navy, a story that, although dealt with in part and passing in many books, had not been treated in its own right or exhaustively. The result was my first book The Navies of Rome (published by Boydell in 2009) in which I set out to narrate a history of the Roman fleets from the founding of the City, to the end of the Western Empire. This, in fact, left me with a lot of unused material and an unfulfilled desire to investigate more fully, the many different warship types used by the Romans and the evolution of the ships in response to differing threats, circumstances and operating theatres.

More reading, museum visits, drawing and models followed. The biggest problem is that although many merchant shipwrecks of the time have been discovered and excavated, which have enabled the form of many merchant types to be established, with the exception of a couple of river craft and a possible candidate at Pisa, no example of a Roman warship has so far been found. The exercise became one to embody such evidence as could be gleaned, into something that resembled a warship and that looked as though it might work in real life.

All of these musings and efforts thus resulted in another book, Roman Warships (first published in hardback by Boydell in 2011). The clue is of course in the title and in the first part of the book, I have tried to indicate the sources of information, as well as some of the problems encountered in interpreting them and the parameters that I felt should apply in order to enable that information to give some idea of what a Roman warship might look like. I also analysed the evidence for various features and fittings. In the second part, I sought to put all of this into reconstructions of what I thought the various types of ship might have looked like over the course of the centuries of Roman naval operations. The views are of course purely subjective but the added dimension of producing a type in model form proved instructive and several drawings had to be altered to suit when they proved incapable of translation from two dimensions into the three of a model; above all, my abiding thought was always to produce something that looked as though it might work in reality.

While making no pretence that my interpretations are in any way definitive, I do hope that they provide reasonably realistic ideas, or at least food for thought, based on the evidence, of how Roman warships were in reality and a basis for the reader to consider and of course, above all, to find interesting.


This guest post was written by Michael Pitassi, author or The Navies of Rome, published March 2009 by Boydell Press, and Roman Warships.

Roman Warships
by Michael Pitassi
Paperback / 9781783274147 / £13.49 or $18.71
Hardback / 9781843836100 / £37.50 or $67.50

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