Roman and Gothic Atlantic fleets

Oct 2011
337
Croatia
#1
OK, Atlantic is quite different from Mediterranean, being stormy and difficult. So, what I am interested is, how did Romans adapt to Atlantic conditions once they reached Atlantic shores? And what about Gothic (Visigothic) kingdom after that? From what I have managed to find, a Roman actually commanded Visigothic fleet:
History of the Goths
The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples

However, I had found no information on organization or types of ships so far.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,295
Dispargum
#2
Details of Roman ships in the Atlantic are frustratingly scarce, as far as I know. Traditionally in naval warfare, like fights like due to the inverse relationship between fighting power and speed. You can have a small warship that is fast and maneuverable but must carry few men and weapons due to its small size, or you can have a bigger ship with lots of men and weapons, but this bigger ship will be slower, or you can have a middle-sized ship with average speed and combat power. If a big ship and a small ship were to meet, the small ship is at a disadvantage in combat power so it will use its superior speed to avoid battle. Prior to the 20th century almost every naval battle was between ships of similar size and speed.

In the 3rd-5th centuries we know that Anglo-Saxons and Franks operated fleets in the North Sea and English Channel. There's at least one reference to Saxon pirates operating in the Bay of Biscay. There are references to ships of different class sizes. Biremes and triremes are mentioned, also classis Britannica and classis Germanica which would seem to mean 'British-type ships' and 'German-type ships' but we don't really know what these last two mean. Were they big or little? Did they use sails or oars?

The Saxons and Franks used ships that were slightly less sophisticated than Viking long ships - they were small, light, carried few men and weapons, but were very fast. The rule of like fighting like suggests the Romans used ships that were very similar. Otherwise there would be few, if any, naval battles, and we know that there were some naval battles. Barbarians did sometimes capture Roman ships. Barbarians often served in the Roman Navy. It would have been possible for the barbarians to learn how to operate the big Roman ships even if the barbarians did not know how to build the biggest ships themselves. The Romans often convoyed troop transports and merchant ships between Gaul and Britain. Big triremes could deter attacks by smaller barbarian ships so bigger ships could serve a purpose even if they rarely fought any battles. Unfortunately, the sources only mention that battles were fought. They generally don't tell us what kind of ships or how many ships were involved or what tactics were used.

John Haywood's "Dark Age Naval Power" talks about Roman fleets based at Boulogne and Dover among other places.

As far as the Visigothic fleet goes, don't take Wolfram too literally. He has seriously misinterpreted the sources about that naval battle between Visigoths and Franks near the mouth of the Rhine in the 470s. The battle was actually fought between Franks and Danes in the 520s. Just as the Roman army was barbarized in the 4th and 5th century, so was the Roman fleet. Just as the barbarian kingdoms used skilled Roman administrators, so did the barbarian fleets use Roman officers. As often as not, the Visigoths were allied to Rome so Roman officers in Visigoth service were not traitors. When the Visigoths were at war with the Romans, life for these Roman officers got more complicated. Roman patriotism proved surprisingly fragile. Romans were usually only loyal so long as it was in their self interest. Once the Roman aristocracy saw which way the wind was blowing, they threw their loyalty behind the barbarians and the empire quickly collapsed. There was a Roman fleet based out of Bordeaux. When the Visigoths established the kingdom of Toulouse they also acquired Bordeaux. Just as the Romans gave the Visigoths responsibility (and the tax revenues) for the defense of Gaul, they also gave the Goths responsibility for the Bay of Biscay.
 

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,219
#3
The ancient greeks traded with those in Cornwall for tin during the bronze age. Britain was called the 'Tin Islands', the Cassiterides, by them. Later, the greek mariner, Pytheas of Massalia circumnavigated Britain in the 4th century BC. He reported that the inhabitants, in their own language, called it Pretene, hence greek Prettenic Islands and later roman Brittanic Islands.

The Mediterranean can be more challenging than the atlantic. See this paper from University College London. The ancient greeks didn't use different ships and I doubt the romans used different ships, they simply chose their time to sail.

http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1349806/7/Strauss_thesis.Redacted_vol1.pdf

However, roman imports and export routes were determined by the origin of manufacture. This paper discusses some possible routes of gaulish samianware for example. Also, see page 6 of this paper:

https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/202 Pudding Pan for web.pdf
 
Oct 2011
337
Croatia
#4
So there would have been no difference between Atlantic and Mediterranean ships in Roman navy? Why did galley survive as a warship for much longer in Mediterranean than it did in the Atlantic?
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,295
Dispargum
#5
Why did galley survive as a warship for much longer in Mediterranean than it did in the Atlantic?
Distances. Galleys only make sense if the distances they have to sail are short. Galleys have large numbers of oarsmen who have to be fed. Beyond a certain distance the galley is filled up with food and water, and there is no room for weapons, soldiers, or cargo. Even if the galley is entirely filled with food, that will only take you so far, and then you have to replenish. Theoretically, a bigger ship could hold more food and water, but a bigger ship is heavier and requires more oarsmen so there is no real gain. As ship technology improved and ships got bigger, they dropped the oarsmen and relied solely on wind propulsion. Distances in the Mediterranean remained as short as they always were so galleys remained viable. Out in the Atlantic, as Christianity spread to Scandinavia and the Baltic (nevermind around Africa or to the New World), sailing distances increased, beyond galley range.

Navies are expensive to maintain in peacetime. Galleys can't really do anything else. (They don't usually make good merchant ships.) The Romans had an adequate tax system so that they could afford a peacetime army and navy. In the post-Roman era the tax system broke down and there was a tendency toward militia-based defense - letting your soldiers and sailors do something economically productive in peacetime and only serving in the army and navy in wartime. Most Medieval navies were just merchant ships pressed into military service. The Byzantines, the Venetians, maybe a few other Mediterranean peoples were generally wealthier than the Northern Europeans and could afford to keep galleys a little longer.
 

authun

Ad Honorem
Aug 2011
5,219
#6
Navies are expensive to maintain in peacetime.
The 3rd century Menapian, Carausius, had made a name for himself supressing the bagaudae in Gaul and was then tasked with building a naval fleet to deal with frankish and saxon pirates on the gallic coast. The romans didn't have the correct ships, just river ships. He built the ships but struck a deal with the franks, split the loot and then sailed, with fleet, to Britannia and declared himself emperor. Rome didn't have any ships to go and stop him. That would take a few years.

Carausius - Wikipedia
 
Likes: Isleifson
Apr 2017
1,505
U.S.A.
#7
So there would have been no difference between Atlantic and Mediterranean ships in Roman navy? Why did galley survive as a warship for much longer in Mediterranean than it did in the Atlantic?
Galleys also aren't as seaworthy as say longships. The Mediterranean is much calmer than the north atlantic. Galleys were used up till the early 1800's mostly as coastal gunboats due to their maneuverability in coastal waters compared to sailed ships.
 
Oct 2011
337
Croatia
#8
Galleys also aren't as seaworthy as say longships. The Mediterranean is much calmer than the north atlantic. Galleys were used up till the early 1800's mostly as coastal gunboats due to their maneuverability in coastal waters compared to sailed ships.
Distances. Galleys only make sense if the distances they have to sail are short. Galleys have large numbers of oarsmen who have to be fed. Beyond a certain distance the galley is filled up with food and water, and there is no room for weapons, soldiers, or cargo. Even if the galley is entirely filled with food, that will only take you so far, and then you have to replenish. Theoretically, a bigger ship could hold more food and water, but a bigger ship is heavier and requires more oarsmen so there is no real gain. As ship technology improved and ships got bigger, they dropped the oarsmen and relied solely on wind propulsion. Distances in the Mediterranean remained as short as they always were so galleys remained viable. Out in the Atlantic, as Christianity spread to Scandinavia and the Baltic (nevermind around Africa or to the New World), sailing distances increased, beyond galley range.

Navies are expensive to maintain in peacetime. Galleys can't really do anything else. (They don't usually make good merchant ships.) The Romans had an adequate tax system so that they could afford a peacetime army and navy. In the post-Roman era the tax system broke down and there was a tendency toward militia-based defense - letting your soldiers and sailors do something economically productive in peacetime and only serving in the army and navy in wartime. Most Medieval navies were just merchant ships pressed into military service. The Byzantines, the Venetians, maybe a few other Mediterranean peoples were generally wealthier than the Northern Europeans and could afford to keep galleys a little longer.
So basically, galleys survived as primary warships up until there was need to make transoceanic voyages, and in societies rich enough to afford to maintain them.

But why did Atlantic powers abandon galley completely? I know that many countries and peoples - Irish for example - used something akin to Viking longship. Was it just the matter of longship not scaling as well upwards in size as a traditional galley? Or it was a matter of maintaining crews? Japanese used oared warships:
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/10/AntokuTennou_Engi.7&8_Dannoura_Kassen.jpg
 
Apr 2017
1,505
U.S.A.
#9
So basically, galleys survived as primary warships up until there was need to make transoceanic voyages, and in societies rich enough to afford to maintain them.

But why did Atlantic powers abandon galley completely? I know that many countries and peoples - Irish for example - used something akin to Viking longship. Was it just the matter of longship not scaling as well upwards in size as a traditional galley? Or it was a matter of maintaining crews? Japanese used oared warships:
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/10/AntokuTennou_Engi.7&8_Dannoura_Kassen.jpg
Again, galleys aren't as seaworthy as other ships. Longships were built for the rough waters of the atlantic and once the technology became known it replaced galleys in the north. In the atlantic the ships that replaced longships/knars was the Cog, which eventually led to the various ships of the age of discovery. Galleys were not scaled up to create larger vessels.
 

Haesten

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,919
#10
Details of Roman ships in the Atlantic are frustratingly scarce, as far as I know. Traditionally in naval warfare, like fights like due to the inverse relationship between fighting power and speed. You can have a small warship that is fast and maneuverable but must carry few men and weapons due to its small size, or you can have a bigger ship with lots of men and weapons, but this bigger ship will be slower, or you can have a middle-sized ship with average speed and combat power. If a big ship and a small ship were to meet, the small ship is at a disadvantage in combat power so it will use its superior speed to avoid battle. Prior to the 20th century almost every naval battle was between ships of similar size and speed.

In the 3rd-5th centuries we know that Anglo-Saxons and Franks operated fleets in the North Sea and English Channel. There's at least one reference to Saxon pirates operating in the Bay of Biscay. There are references to ships of different class sizes. Biremes and triremes are mentioned, also classis Britannica and classis Germanica which would seem to mean 'British-type ships' and 'German-type ships' but we don't really know what these last two mean. Were they big or little? Did they use sails or oars?

The Saxons and Franks used ships that were slightly less sophisticated than Viking long ships - they were small, light, carried few men and weapons, but were very fast. The rule of like fighting like suggests the Romans used ships that were very similar. Otherwise there would be few, if any, naval battles, and we know that there were some naval battles. Barbarians did sometimes capture Roman ships. Barbarians often served in the Roman Navy. It would have been possible for the barbarians to learn how to operate the big Roman ships even if the barbarians did not know how to build the biggest ships themselves. The Romans often convoyed troop transports and merchant ships between Gaul and Britain. Big triremes could deter attacks by smaller barbarian ships so bigger ships could serve a purpose even if they rarely fought any battles. Unfortunately, the sources only mention that battles were fought. They generally don't tell us what kind of ships or how many ships were involved or what tactics were used.

John Haywood's "Dark Age Naval Power" talks about Roman fleets based at Boulogne and Dover among other places.

As far as the Visigothic fleet goes, don't take Wolfram too literally. He has seriously misinterpreted the sources about that naval battle between Visigoths and Franks near the mouth of the Rhine in the 470s. The battle was actually fought between Franks and Danes in the 520s. Just as the Roman army was barbarized in the 4th and 5th century, so was the Roman fleet. Just as the barbarian kingdoms used skilled Roman administrators, so did the barbarian fleets use Roman officers. As often as not, the Visigoths were allied to Rome so Roman officers in Visigoth service were not traitors. When the Visigoths were at war with the Romans, life for these Roman officers got more complicated. Roman patriotism proved surprisingly fragile. Romans were usually only loyal so long as it was in their self interest. Once the Roman aristocracy saw which way the wind was blowing, they threw their loyalty behind the barbarians and the empire quickly collapsed. There was a Roman fleet based out of Bordeaux. When the Visigoths established the kingdom of Toulouse they also acquired Bordeaux. Just as the Romans gave the Visigoths responsibility (and the tax revenues) for the defense of Gaul, they also gave the Goths responsibility for the Bay of Biscay.
A large sailing ship is faster than a small sailing ship, distance between the bow wave and stern wave created when a displacement mono hull moves through water.
 

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