ACTA ACCLA, March 2007
THE FIRST BRITISH NAVY
Early 3rd Century Roman Galley On a Coin of Elagabalus
Roman galley riding right over waves, with 7 rowers, mast and sail in center, pilot seated under the arch of the stern, vexillum (flag) at prow, rudder at stern, FELICITAS TEMP (Happy Times) around. Click coin for more information.
When invasion threatens, the first defense of any island has to begin in the waters beyond her shores. The English Channel acts like a moat between Britain and the rest of Europe and it is there that invaders have been stopped from the time of the Spanish Armada to the Napoleonic Wars and World War II. But it wasn’t the Channel alone that stopped these forces. British fleets also stood between them and their goals.
Yet it was a long time before Britain recognized the value of a navy or was organized enough to have one. Therefore the first British navy wasn’t British at all. It was Roman.
When Julius Caesar twice invaded Britain in the first century BCE, he had more to fear from Channel storms than from sea-born resistance. The tribesmen fought from chariots, not ships. Luckily for them, Caesar did not stick around and the island remained free for another 100 years.
It is with the invasion and conquest by the emperor Claudius in 43 CE that a permanent navy was established. This became known as the Classis Britannica which is Latin for “British Fleet”. Since Roman power was based on the continent, the main base of the fleet was across the Channel at Boulogne. Other bases were established first at Richborough, then later at Dover.
Initially, the navy transported and supplied the army of Claudius. As the conquest of Britain proceeded westward into Wales and north towards Scotland, its main role became defined for the next two centuries as logistics and support of army operations. When, for instance, archaeologists uncovered the remains of the legion camps of the emperor Septimius Severus’ campaign against the Picts [ 1 ] in the early 3rd century, they found them all located along an axis that suggests the army was largely supplied by sea.
Yet, the navy fulfilled other roles too. Exploration was one of them. In 83 CE, Agricola, Governor of Britain, sent a squadron of ships to circumnavigate the island, conclusively proving that it was not a peninsula of Europe as had previously been believed. Trips were also made to Ireland to scout out the military and trading potential of the fractious tribes there.
Physical evidence of the Classis Britannica has been discovered both in the remains of its bases and in the inscriptions on altars and tombs made by its officers. The most recent of the latter type dates to the reign of the emperor Philip I, 244-249 CE.
The 3rd century saw a diminishing of the importance of the fleet and some scholars think it was broken up into small units attached to coastal and riverine forts. These fortifications, called Saxon Shore forts, were built to repel the ocean-born raids of the Franks and the Saxons and represent a return to the old strategy of land-based defense of the island. Yet the Classis Britannica had one last hurrah left.
In 287 CE, the commander of the British Fleet was one Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius. Born to a Gaulish tribe with a sea-faring tradition, he had come to the attention of the Roman Emperor Maximianus through his bravery and skill as a pilot. Maximianus gave him command of the fleet and charged him with the mission of clearing the seas of pirates.
Bronze Antoninianus of Carausius
His radiated crowned head right, IMP C CARAVSIVS AVG / Providentia (Providence) standing left holding baton and cornucopia, PROVID AVG. C. Minted at Camulodunum (Colchester). RIC 347.
At first, Carausius seems to have pursued his duties with skill and zeal, yet ugly rumors soon began to percolate back to his imperial master. Carausius was said to have betrayed the movements of merchant ships to the Saxon pirates and to let them raid with impunity. Then, when the pirates were returning home, he would swoop down on them, seize the booty, and keep it for himself.
Orders for the arrest of Carausius and his officers were issued, but he caught wind of them before they could be carried out and took the fleet to Britain after first destroying shipping all along the coast of Gaul to prevent pursuit. Bypassing the direct route through Dover, he affected a landing on Britain’s northwest coast. Evading, or perhaps bribing, the garrisons along Hadrian's Wall, he marched on London. Quintus Bassianus, governor of Britain, hurriedly gathered together a force to meet him. When the two forces met, Carausius managed to bribe much of Bassianus’ army to stay neutral and the governor, as well as his senior staff, were slaughtered in the ensuing battle.
The victorious Carausius declared himself emperor and made London his administrative capitol. For the first time in more than 200 years, Britain was independent of the Roman Empire. Most of Britain looked to him as a deliverer and he fulfilled the role as much as possible by providing competent government and sweeping the seas of pirates from the Channel to the mouth of the Rhine. His control extended as far north as Hadrian’s Wall and he even maintained a presence in Gaul at Boulogne and other parts of the south Channel coast.
In the meantime, his usurpation had been neither forgotten nor forgiven and the Empire made preparations to strike back. Thanks to Carausius’ destruction of Channel shipping, this took awhile to accomplish and the newly built Roman fleet did not sail for Britain until April of 289 CE. Owing to poor weather and inexperienced pilots, the Roman fleet was heavily defeated and the emperor Maximianus was forced to come to terms with Carausius. The usurper was recognized as an independent imperial colleague, at least so far as Britain was concerned.
Bronze Follis, Æ 2, of Maximianus
His laureated head right, IMP MAXIMIANVS P F AVG / Genius standing left holding patera and cornucopia, GENIO POPV - LI ROMANI around. Minted at Londinium (London). RIC VI 23b. Cohen 162.
For the next four years, Carausius governed well. He repaired the fortifications of Hadrian’s Wall and seems to have reached some sort of accommodation with the barbarians who lived beyond it. It seems to have been a fairly peaceful period for Britain. But the Romans had only been biding their time and in 293 CE, they struck again.
This time, the operation was under the control of Flavius Julius Constantius, who had been appointed Caesar [ 2 ] the year before by Maximianus. Constantius began the reconquest by placing small naval units in the rivers of northern Gaul thus denying access to them by British ships. This isolated Carausius’ territories in Gaul and allowed the Romans to mop them up easily. Soon they were able to besiege Boulogne, his last major city outside of Britain itself.
Bronze Follis (Æ 2) of Constantius as Caesar
His wreathed head right, CONSTANTIVS NOB C around / Genius standing left holding cornucopia and patera, GENIO POPV - LI ROMANI around. Londinium (London) mint. RIC 22. Cohen 71.
A mole was constructed outside the mouth of the harbor, damming it up and preventing reinforcements and supplies from reaching the beleaguered garrison. With all hope of relief gone, the city was eventually forced to surrender. If they had held out just a little while longer, things might have ended differently, for the first high tide after the fall of the city burst through the dam and reopened the harbor.
The fall of Boulogne was a terrible blow to Carausius’ prestige and one he never got the chance to recover from. He was assassinated by his finance minister Allectus shortly thereafter. The treacherous Allectus then induced the soldiers and sailors of his former master into declaring him emperor through bribery.
Bronze Antoninianus of Allectus
His radiated crowned head right, IMP C ALLECTVS PF AVG around / Laetita (Joy) standing left holding holding wreath and anchor., LAETITIA AVG MSL around. Londinium (London) mint. RIC 22. Cohen 15.
Now began a race between Constantius and Allectus as both strove to build up their forces for the final confrontation. Before Constantius could invade Britain, he had to clear the Franks out of the northern parts of Gaul, which they had occupied during the turmoil as allies of Carausius. This accomplished, he again turned his eyes towards Britain.
In 296 CE, he was finally ready to act. The invasion fleet was split into two parts. One part, under Constantius’ personal command, sailed from Boulogne. The other, commanded by his lieutenant Asclepiodotus, sailed from the mouth of the River Seine. This force was the first to make landfall.
Evading the British fleet in a fog, the Romans landed probably near Dover. Asclepiodotus then burned the ships so that his soldiers would understand there was no way to go but forward. Somewhere in north Hampshire or Berkshire, his army fought the British forces and routed them. The usurper Allectus lost his life in the battle.
While all this was happening, that section of the fleet under Constantius’ personal command had been supposed to land in Kent but, because of the fog, part of it got separated and headed into the mouth of the Thames River instead, eventually landing near London. This turned out to be lucky for there they met and annihilated some of the survivors of Allectus’ army who had made their way back to London with the idea of looting the place before dispersing. This enabled Constantius to declare himself the victor and the deliverer of the city, an event he commemorated by issuing a large medallion showing him on horseback with the personification of the city kneeling before him and inscribed "Restorer of Eternal Light". Britain was once again a province of the Roman Empire and would remain one until the Legions withdrew forever in 410 CE.
As for the Classis Britannica, the first British Navy? Whatever remained of it after the defeat of Allectus, whether it retained that name or not, was integrated back into the Roman forces. When the Legions finally withdrew from British shores, they were transported by its descendants and the name vanished into history.
[ 1 ] The Picts were originally a barbarian tribe that lived in Scotland. By this time though, the name referred to all the barbarians who lived north of Hadrian’s Wall.
[ 2 ] By this time, the title Caesar referred to something like a deputy-emperor. Constantius eventually became an Augustus, or emperor, but he is best known to history as the father of Constantine the Great, the man who Christianized the Roman Empire.
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