The Classis Britannica – The Roman Navy of Britannia

The Classis Britannica refers to a provincial naval fleet that served to protect the waters around the Roman province of Britannia and the English Channel.

The Romans established 10 regional fleets for geographic regions, such as the Classis Alexandrina in Egypt, and the Classis Germanica in Germany.

There are no literary references to the Classis Britannica in contemporary accounts, although archaeologists have discovered numerous tiles at thirteen locations along the Kent and East Sussex coast of England, and at two localities in the Boulogne region of France, stamped with “CLBR”.

 

The earliest proposed Navy within Britannia could be considered the Roman invasion by Claudius in AD 43, where various vessels were used for the transportation of troops and supplies across the English Channel.

Post the invasion, the role of the navy was to provide coastal support to land forces, such as Agricola’s campaign into Caledonia (Scotland) where the Classis would have scouted the coastline and resupplied the advancing legions as they pressed further north into tribal territories, establishing forts and temporary encampments.

The navy also played a role in campaigns across Europe, supporting troop movements across the Channel and the North Sea to theatres of war along the Rhine.

Mosaic of a Roman galley, Bardo Museum, Tunisia, 2nd century AD – Public Domain

Sculptures and carvings suggest that the Classis comprised of the liburnian bireme, a small galley with oars, and possibly a rostrum for ramming enemy vessels that eventually evolved into the trireme.

 

In the final years of Roman rule in Britannia, the fleet was devoted almost entirely to protecting the Eastern and Southern coasts against Frankish pirates, and Saxon raids against coastal settlements known as the Saxonicum or Saxon Shore.

During this period, a system of forts called Saxon Shore Forts was also constructed, with the Notitia Dignitatum, a document of the late Roman Empire describing offices from the imperial court to provincial governments, that includes nine Saxon shore forts built to defend Britannia’s coast.

The forts probably served as naval bases for the Classis, with the main bases believed to be at Rutupiae (Richborough), Portus Adurni (Porchester Castle), Dubris (Dover), and Boulogne-sur-Mer on the north coast of France.

The archaeological record suggests that the Classis Britannica continued to operate until the mid-3rd century AD, but appears to vanish with no accounts documented as to whether the navy was reassigned or simply dismantled.

Header Image Credit : Public Domain

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