Friday, 14 September 2018

#Aye. Ken it wis like this...with Agricola's Classis Britannica

series image- Dunkeld Cathedral
#Aye. Ken it wis like this...

that not everything in the past, or even in the present, went/goes according to plan. There was a little hitch with my guest author this week being unable to post, so I'm slipping in a post of my own.

The setting is northern Britannia  A.D. 84. (that of my Celtic Fervour Series Book 4 - Agricola's Bane  - which is currently undergoing further thorough edits) and my topic is General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola's Classis Britannica. 

Was Agricola’s Roman Navy crucial to success? 
I'm often found at various events around my local area of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, giving talks and presentations and doing signing and selling events at local Craft Fairs. I'm no longer surprised that when I speak of the Ancient Roman Legions having visited the area, I'm met with blank stares and comments like " I didn't know they got up this far."

Even fewer local people have ever heard that the Roman Navy – Classis Britannica – played a significant role in the northern campaigns of General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola. 

During my discussions (which, by the way, I thoroughly enjoy), the typical mental image of the Roman invasions of Scotland is of marching legions of well-armoured Roman infantry. 

Some people can conjure up a mounted soldier, also in armour, though marginally different from the average foot soldier. 

However, it’s extremely rare for me to talk to anyone who has knowledge of the Ancient Roman fleet, and those who do tend to have images of Roman warships of the Republican era, plying the Mediterranean seas rather than the North Sea during the centuries of the Roman Empire.

model of a Roman warship navis actuaria 
Mainz Museum - Wikimedia Commons
When Gnaeus Iulius Agricola became Governor of Britannia in either A.D 77 or 78 the main function of the Classis Britannica was as a supply and transport chain. Soldiers, horses, and goods were regularly transported back and forth from ports in Eastern Britannia to ports in Western Europe – modern Spain, France and Belgium. The Classis Britannica was also plying the eastern Britannia coast since goods generally travelled much faster over water than over land.

The navis actuaria vessels were used for transport in fluvial and coastal situations and it's likely that Agricola had a good number of these at his disposal. With 30 oars, 15 to each side, they were ideal with a shallow draught and flat keel. 

The Roman Empire needed immense amounts of grain to feed the legions spread throughout the Empire and a flow of cereal crops from the fertile fields of southern Britannia played a substantial role in the huge Roman Army supply chain. Grain was also needed to feed the city of Rome since, at around 1 million inhabitants in late first century A.D, it could not support itself. Many other items were regularly ferried across from Britannia during the second half of first century A.D. – leather and slaves being prime commodities. Coming over to Britannia were supplies of wine, beans and other legumes, herbs and spices like cumin.

Model of Roman warship created for the film Ben Hur
- Wikimedia commons
Agricola seems to have been the first to make changes to the function of the Classis Britannica. When his northern campaigns began in earnest around A.D. 79/80, he definitely still needed his ships to ply the eastern coast of Britannia moving vital food and other supplies north, but he appears to have been the first commander to employ his mariners in a more active shore role. 

Cornelius Tacitus mentions in his ‘De Vita et Moribus Iulii Agericolae’ that the mariners were sent on shore to terrify the natives into compliance, in advance of the main legionary forces who were tramping northwards. From the tone of the writing, Tacitus wishes the reader to believe that the Classis Britannica were indeed successful in terrifying the natives of northern Britannia.

I have to say that if I was a local tribesperson living in a coastal hamlet of 3 or 4 roundhouses of around 50 people, young to old, I’d have been horrified to be confronted by even a small unit of armed Roman soldiers who had disgorged from a beached vessel. If more than one ship arrived simultaneously, then the threat is almost unimaginable as it’s likely that the Agricolan Classis Britannic fleet numbered many small vessels. 

Check out this site HERE for an image of a liburnian type and useful information on the Roman Navy in general.

The liburnicae (liburnians) type also seem probable in Agricola's fleet as they were fast, smallish and able to be beached easily. With two banks of oars, 25 each side, they were nifty vessels. Even if it's assumed that not every man on board was likely to have been a marine ready for combat, some remaining to guard the ship, there would still have been a sizeable complement of ready-for-action soldiers on each vessel.

Roman tombstone - Mainz 
The supporting role played by the smaller ships at Agricola’s disposal would have been considerable. As well as being thoroughly alarmed, I think coastal native resistance would have been limited. This would certainly have made it easier for the mariners of the fleet to transport the necessary grain and other food stocks to the main body of the armies who marched northwards at some miles distance from the coast, according to the evidence of the line of temporary marching camps.

Archaeological evidence in Aberdeenshire of indigenous Late Iron Age tribes (Celts) indicates there were small settlements of a few roundhouses dotted around the whole north east of Scotland. To date, there’s no archaeological evidence found across Aberdeenshire to support any larger communities – towns or cities – where the Romans could have pilfered, or ‘requisitioned’, stored stocks for Roman use. This would have meant transferring huge amounts of food to keep the soldiers even modestly fed since it’s been estimated that two sacks of grain (wheat was preferable) were needed each day to feed one century of men, at normal ration amounts.   

Therefore it seems, to me, that the support given from the fleet was considerable during the Agricolan campaign.

Should any of my readers know any more about Agricola's fleet in northern Britannia, please point me in the right direction, and if there are copyright legitimate images for using to illustrate this topic - again, please let me know. 


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