Roman Ships

Roman ships had no rudder. The rudder was a medieval invention. Before that, all the ships were steered with two oars dragging at the back of the ship—one on the starboard and the other on the port side.

Medium sized Roman merchant ship of the end of the third century AD. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

Sails were made of thick linen or animal skins sewn together. They were often tinted brown with oak-tree bark.

Blackfriars ship
This Roman ship was discovered by Peter Marsden in 1962 in the bed of the River Thames, off Blackfriars in the City of London, and excavated in 1962-1963. Read about it here.

Ships carried two wooden figures as identification and tutelage. On the prow was the insignia—a figure or symbol that represented what gave the ship its name—a swan, a lady, an eagle. And on the stern, on top of the poop deck, was the tutela, the god or talisman that protected the boat.

This is a Roman war ship–a trireme:

Model of Roman Trireme  (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license photo by Rama)

The arrival of great ships was really something to see and people in those times gathered to watch them approach. Look how Seneca describes the excitement:
“Today the ships from Alexandría suddenly came into sight. Those are the ones they usually send ahead to announce the arrival of the big fleet. They call them navae tabellariae, herald ships, and the people of Campania just love to see them. The whole population of Puteoli crowds onto the breakwater identifying the Alexandrian ships by their broad sails….”
from Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, Letter LXXVII, translated by Robin Campbell

The Comacchio wreck

Read about this here.

See also this great post on super-warships in the Hellenistic Age.

Romans were strictly landlubbers for centuries. They knew nothing about the sea. Their first five hundred years they spent fighting for their lives with their neighbors. They worked their way down the peninsula and the day finally came when they reached the Toe and realized they had beaten every last enemy. They were the kings of Italy. Cheers went up. They threw their shields into the air. They danced. But suddenly somebody called and told them all to come and look out over the sea. It was full of Carthaginian ships and those disgusting sailors were mocking the Romans and giggling themselves sick. The Carthaginians controlled the sea.
“Let them come here and laugh like that,” said one Roman soldier.
“Yeah,” said another.
“They don’t need to come here,” said a third. “They can f— us by blocking our food imports with Greece.”
“Well then we’ll just have to go out there and get the bastards,” said the first one.
“Yeah,” said the second.
“How?” asked the third. “Can you swim?”
“We’ve got ships,” said Number One.
“Yeah,” said Two.
“What you call ships are nothing but wooden boxes,”said Three, “and the Carthaginian warships don’t even bother ramming them: they just row by and let the waves sink them.”

See The Crow (Part One) and learn how the Romans went out and got the Carthaginians.


This entry was posted in 1, history, old ships, Romans, travel, war, warfare. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Roman Ships

  1. Anonymous says:

    this was cool

  2. Pingback: Schiffe der Römer | Die Goldene Landschaft

  3. Anonymous says:

    i would just want to know when they were first made

  4. Arieh Rona says:


  5. 100swallows says:

    Jonathan: Thanks. Sorry there’s so little real information there. I’ll have to get to work on this and write some more. Good luck on your project.

  6. Jonathan says:

    thanks for the information i really need it for my project that is due on monday i have to present it its very important

  7. Anonymous says:

    i am just beginning my project and it has to be handed in tomorrow and im in P4

  8. Anonymous says:

    What people use the war ships

  9. Anonymous says:


  10. that cool guy says:

    thanks allot, it has helped me so much with my project, keep posting because I need another 20 pages to it about ancient ships,

  11. Anonymous says:

    Did not help

  12. that dood who is unknown says:

    helped me with facts, THANKS! this’ll definitely go into my bibliography.

  13. salty dog says:

    Were all merchant ships of the era powered by sail or did some of them use oars for extra propulsion like the warships?

  14. Me says:

    Thanks helped me on a report for school.

  15. U.N. Known says:

    Good website but not too sure about the dialogue at the end.

  16. Anonymous says:

    great information this is the first place i have found good information for a roman project for school. this will help me out a lot.

  17. 100swallows says:

    Errol: That sounds like an exciting project. I can’t help though. Good luck.

  18. Does any one know where I can get more info, drawing, ect, on Carthaginian ships of the punic war. I would like to build a model and then, maybe a small, actual sailing half size ship.

    Contact E. L. Banta

  19. KOOL KID says:

    Thanks for the Info very good

  20. cantueso says:

    That is a great post. I would know how to make good use of it. What about lending it to me for a while? I’d also be happy with just part of it. — Why would they have tinted their sails brown?

  21. Will return to this soon…. Keep posting…..

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