Sea Eagles of Empire: the Classis Britannica and the battles for Britain

A talk by Simon Elliott, 16th March 2019

Of the ten fleets, the British fleet ranked joint third with the German fleet. The latter simply patrolled the Rhine, whereas the British fleet was responsible for the British and continental coasts as far as the Rhine delta and also the principal British river systems. It maintained a vital role in maintaining the Channel crossing. It controlled the open ocean seaways and the coastal littoral, functioning as a military transport resource and facilitating amphibious assaults. It was used for general supply purposes and for patrolling and policing the North Sea. In addition, it performed civilian roles in administration, engineering and construction. It controlled iron production, ragstone quarrying and tile-making in the Weald which became the industrial heartland of Roman Britain. Major sites included the iron-working centre at Beauport Park near Hastings, where huge piles of slag were utilised for road-building in the 19th century and yielded tiles stamped with the name of the fleet. Kentish ragstone was transported from five quarries via the Medway and Thames to London, and the ships returned laden with imported goods from the Continent.

The Classis Britannicaor British fleet was one of ten post-Augustan regional fleets in existence by the end of the 1st century AD. The ships were originally built by order of the emperor Caligula in AD 40 for his abortive plan to invade Britain. These same ships were later successfully used by Claudius in AD 43. The first specific mention of the fleet was made by Tacitus when it was sent to quell the Batavian revolt on the Rhine on AD 69-70, a successful action that was followed by ignominy as the battle moved inland and no one was left to guard the ships – which were burnt. The rebuilt fleet comprised 900 ships and 7000 men under the command of a prefect, an officer of equestrian rank who was appointed by the emperor and who was the third most important person in the running of the Roman province of Britain.

The headquarters of the British fleet was at Boulogne, where the eastern Channel was seen as a connection rather than a barrier. Forts were established in the south-east at Dover, Lympne, Pevensey, Richborough and elsewhere on the east coast. On the west coast forts were built at Caerleon (where the Roman harbour has recently been excavated), Chester and Bowness. The fighting ships were galleys such as the Liburnian bireme which could hold a crew of 100, and monoreme cutters and skiffs. In addition transport vessels of all types were built, often in the Romano-Celtic clinker-built tradition, but also Mediterranean-type plank-built ships. A rare graffito on a discarded lead ingot found near Brancaster shows a detailed sketch of a plank-built ship which must have been drawn by someone with first-hand experience. The crews comprised legionaries and auxiliaries and naval milites. Naval personnel were paid as auxiliaries and had to serve a minimum of 28 years. They were organised in the same way as the military on land. The fleet was essentially coastal and ventured out only during the day, returning to shore at night where the crews shared camps with the regular army.

Four legions took part in the AD 43 invasion, comprising 40,000 troops who were landed on the east Kent coast in three waves by 900 ships. A battle was fought at the Medway and another at the Thames, where the fleet made a bridge of boats across the river. During subsequent campaigns, the navy played a key role on both east and west coasts by scouting and controlling supplies. After the Roman victory at Mons Graupius in highland Scotland in the early AD 80s, the fleet was commanded to circumnavigate Britain in order to lay claim to the entire island. In the 2nd century the fleet supported the army in the north and Benwell fort on Hadrian’s Wall was built by a vexillation (regiment) of sailors. Septimius Severus ordered further gruelling campaigns in northern Britain in the early 3rd century which were also supported by the fleet. The classis britannicawas last documented in AD 249 by Saturninus, its then North African commander. The main cause of its disappearance was probably the economic crisis which took place in the mid-3rd century, compounded by multiple usurpations, invasions from the north, Persians in the east, civil war and plague. It may have become too expensive to maintain – or it may have supported the wrong group. The fleet was replaced by the Saxon Shore forts but coastal peace around Britain was essentially lost. 

report by Janet Sharpe

Image: Double banked Roman galleys on Trajan’s column