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roman naval design
Date: Sun, 4 Feb 1996
From: John Purtell
Subject: Roman Naval Design

I would like to ask any members on the list who may have expertise in this field if they can tell me the following or point me towards up to date bibliography on it:- 1. Overall dimensions, cargo carrying capacity, draught etc of Roman ships. 2. Details particularly of the North Sea and Danube fleets. 3. Whether there were any basic changes in naval design or size between 1st cent. AD. and beginning of the 3rd cent. AD. 4. Are there any known instances of Roman bridges allowing navigation past them, eg what happened on the Danube?

Date: Tue, 6 Feb 1996
Subject: Re: Roman Naval Design

I have a copy a book that gives some of the details you are looking for. It is _Warfleets of Antiquity_ by R.B. Nelson. All dimensions are in feet:

length hull outriggers draft capacity
Libernian (1st Cent. 120 12 15 3 -
Trireme (100 A.D.) 140 16 20 3 -
Bireme (Britain 250 A.D.) 65 10 15 3 -
Merchantman (1st Cent.) 100 25 - 10 100-150 tons
Supply Lighter (Danube) 72 20 - 7.5 50 tons

Date: Tue, 6 Feb 1996
From: Brendan McDermott
Subject: Re: Roman Naval Design

Roman merchant ships could range from quite small to the enormous. The largest were the grain ships that travelled back and forth between Rome and Egypt and did nothing but transport hundreds of tons of grain for the estimated one million strong population of Rome. A good general source for seafaring in antiquity is Lionel Casson's Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (2nd edition Princeton 1986). You can also find a more detailed survey of Roman shipbuilding technology in the dissertation of Michael Fitzgerald (Ph.D. Texas A&M 1995), who excavated a small, sunken merchant vessel in the harbor of Caesarea in Israel. The dissertation should be available on microfilm from University Microfilms International in Ann Arbor, or you may try to obtain the book directly from Texas A&M, since they will loan out their theses and dissertations (in case you're wondering, I used to work at that library). An earlier version of Fitzgerald's work can also be found in the British Archaeological Reports (BAR) series in the volume on Caesarea edited, I think, by Avner Raban. This would only cover Roman shipbuilding within the Mediterranean. When it comes to the North Sea and the Danube, however, we cannot restrict ourselves to speaking of "Roman" shipbuilding, since there may be numerous influences from the native population as well. It is also a little misleading to speak of a "fleet" since the large majority of watercraft on the rivers appear to have been smaller than the long-distance, deep sea vessels of the Mediterranean, Black Sea or the North Sea. The Romans did maintain several fleets of warships to keep the peace. I seem to recall that there were two fleets for the Mediterranean, one for each half, and a squadron for the Red Sea. There may well have been another squadron for the Black Sea. For the Danube, there are only a few bits of evidence on what the watercraft looked like, and much of that comes from Trajan's column which he constructed after his conquest of Dacia in AD 113. The depictions of tubby watercraft on the column are summarized and described in "Roman ships on the lower Danube (1st-6th centuries) types and functions," by Mihail Zahariade and Octavian Bounegru. This article is in Crossroads in Ancient Shipbuilding: Proceedings of the Sixth International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology. Edited by Christer Westerdahl (Oxbow Monograph 40, 1994) pp. 35-41. This book should still be in print. We are still at a disadvantage as to actual examples of these vessels. I have but one passing reference to a Roman ship reportedly dug out of the Danube delta at some time and now in the museum at Constantza, Romania. The ship may have been recovered some time ago, since it is said to have been conserved with paraffin, a preservation treatment used in the 20's and 30's. The vessel may have had a sail as well, since a sail pulley is said to have been recovered as well (in V. Canarache, The Archaeological Museum of Constantza, my photocopy does not seem to have either publication date or publisher, but I think it dates to the 1960's). For the North Sea, the most recent article that I have seen is Sean McGrail's "Romano-Celtic boats and ships: characteristic features." in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 24(1995): 139-145. There is another conference proceedings titled Maritime Celts, Frisians, and Saxons from 1992 or 1993, but I can't remember who the editor is. This is also from Oxbow Books, I believe. The volume including the Danube article also has several articles on the watercraft found in the Rhine. In sum, what I think you will see is that rivercraft of the Rhine, Danube and other european rivers had both Roman and native construction features. They were typically barge-like and flat-bottomed in the Rhine region, and reportedly tubby for the Danube. For getting underneath bridges, I can imagine (I have no sources to confirm this) that 1). the bridges were constructed high enough for vessels to pass underneath without trouble, 2). the bridges may have had moveable sections, I do not recall when the drawbridge came into fashion 3). the vessels themselves either had no sails or what masts they had for sails were able to be taken down to facilitate bridge passages. For small boats this probably would not have been much of a problem. There is a book entitled A History of Seafaring based on Underwater Archaeology by George Bass that devotes a chapter to small harbor and rivercraft, but it was published in 1972 and is relatively out of date for many of the finds from the Rhine region, but it may still serve as a good starting-off point.
Culled from the UMich archive of ancien-l.
Copyright © 2001 David Meadows
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