In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek and Roman Navies

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • From Aegean Prehistory to the Persian Wars
  • The Trireme
  • Classical Greece and the Athenian Thalassocracy, 479–322 BCE
  • The Killing End: Naval Rams
  • The Hellenistic World, 338–31 BCE
  • Roman Sea Power in the Early and Middle Republic, 509–167 BCE
  • Rome vs. Carthage: The Punic Wars at Sea
  • The Imperial Roman Navy, 31 BCE–476 CE
  • Piracy and Non-state Actors

Military History Greek and Roman Navies
Michael J. Taylor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0240


The Mediterranean Sea connected the fragmented geography of its coasts and islands. The sea allowed ancient states to deploy soldiers and administrators and facilitated the shipment of critical resources, from bullion to raw materials like timber and marble to agrarian staples to luxury goods. Given the essential place of the sea in economic exchange, naval power was an essential aspect of ancient Mediterranean warfare. Already by the late fifth century BCE, the Greeks viewed naval warfare through a succession of thalassocracies (lit. “sea powers”) going back to the mythical King Minos of Crete. While many polities attempted to project power by sea, a few achieved general dominance over regional seas: Athens in the north Aegean in the fifth century BCE, the Ptolemaic empire in the south Aegean in the early third century BCE, Carthage in the western Mediterranean prior to the First Punic War (264–241 BCE). Between 264–167 BCE Rome achieved naval superiority across the Mediterranean, a stark achievement critical to the city’s explosive conquests. Given the strategic importance of the Mediterranean, it is perhaps unsurprising that the battle that unified the region under the rule of one man, the emperor Augustus, was fought at sea, off the coast of Actium in 31 BCE.

General Overviews

Understanding of ancient naval warfare must be rooted in general considerations concerning the sourcing of raw materials, the manufacture of naval stores, the construction of ships, and the storage of undeployed warships. Warships required trained sailors and rowers, and they operated across the seasonal cycles of the Mediterranean. Entries in this section relate to general considerations for naval warfare, through the centuries of political history in the ancient Mediterranean. Casson 1971 remains a key work on ancient ships, with Casson 1991 for sailors. Meijer 1986 and Starr 1989 explore the importance of naval power in Antiquity broadly. Lazenby 1987, Strauss 2007, De Souza 2007, and De Souza 2013 offer accessible chapter-length overviews of naval warfare in Antiquity. Several works relate to the general material conditions of naval warfare: Meggis 1982 for the timber trade in Antiquity; Blackman, et al. 2013 on the ship sheds that sheltered warships not on active service; Beresford 2013 debates the length of the sailing season and the ability of ancient vessels to weather rough seas. Shaw 1995 considers the human energy that powered ancient warships.

  • Beresford, James. The Ancient Sailing Season. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004241947

    Refutes the notion that the ancient Mediterranean had only a narrow six-month sailing system, especially for military expeditions, and argues that many ships were capable of risking open-sea journeys in more hazardous conditions.

  • Blackman, David, Boris Rankov, Kalliopi Baika, Henrik Gerding, and Jari Pakkanen. Shipsheds of the Ancient Mediterranean. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    Warships were stored in drydock when not in use to prevent rot and shipworm infestation.

  • Casson, Lionel. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.

    A classic work on ancient ships, warships very much included. However, Casson’s belief that a quinquereme was based around five men pulling a single oar is now widely considered incorrect, as the standard reconstruction now posits five rowers spread across each sweep of three oars.

  • Casson, Lionel. The Ancient Mariners: Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

    Broad survey of the personnel who crewed ancient vessels.

  • De Souza, Philip. “Naval Forces.” In The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare. Vol. 1, Greece, the Hellenistic World and the Rise of Rome. Edited by Philip Sabin, Hans Van Wees, and Michael Whitby, 357–367. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Chapter-length overview of how fleets were raised in Greece, Carthage, and Rome, from the construction of ships to the recruitment of crews.

  • De Souza, Philip. “War at Sea.” In The Oxford Handbook of Warfare in the Classical World. Edited by Brian Campbell and Laurence Tritle, 369–394. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Concise chapter length overview of naval warfare in the Classical world.

  • Lazenby, J. F. “Naval Warfare in the Ancient World: Myths and Realities.” International History Review 9.3 (1987): 438–455.

    DOI: 10.1080/07075332.1987.9640451

    Article length reflection on naval warfare in the ancient Mediterranean.

  • Meggis, Russell. Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

    Overview of how timber was curated, harvested, transported, and distributed to end users, including war fleets.

  • Meijer, Fik. A History of Seafaring in the Classical World. New York: St. Martin’s, 1986.

    Accessible survey of seafaring and naval power from the Bronze Age to the Late Roman Empire, with a focus on naval power.

  • Shaw, J. T. “Oar Mechanics and Oar Power in Ancient Galleys.” In The Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels since Pre-Classical Times. Edited by Robert Gardiner and J. S. Morrison, 163–171. London: Conway Maritime, 1995.

    Considers the ergonomics of how ancient warships were powered and maneuvered in combat.

  • Starr, Chester. The Influence of Sea Power on Ancient History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    Overview of sea power in ancient Mediterranean geopolitics, by one of the titanic scholars of the subfield.

  • Strauss, Barry. “Naval Battles and Sieges.” In The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare. Vol. 1, Greece, the Hellenistic World and the Rise of Rome. Edited by Philip Sabin, Hans van Wees, and Michael Whitby, 223–247. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Chapter-length survey of the general aspects of ancient naval combat, both pitched battles between warships and the use of fleets to besiege harbors and coastal cities.

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