The military force of a country is often divided in branches such as an army, a navy, and an air force. There are many other branches out there, but the point is that I am looking for a division of military power at such a high level. Are there passages from classical(ish) Latin literature that illustrate the structures of the Roman military, especially a division to branches?

One might imagine that the Roman military had an army and a navy. How were those branches called and how were they related? Did the Romans make a clear division in a way similar to what we do today? For example, I don't know whether naval forces were always subordinate to a land unit or an independent entity. I am looking for a passage that would illustrate such structures clearly enough. I am not looking for vocabulary in isolation, but passages that show relations between them.

The answer may depend on the specific era, but any insight is welcome. If there are several, then something with a distinction as clear as possible between army and navy would be great. Perhaps there was a time when one consul had the army and the other one had the navy, making for a clear equal-level division?

I am not looking for a description of all of the Roman military, but for vocabulary (used in context) having to do with branch division.

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    llmavirta:" Latin Prose Composition" North & Hillard. Have asked a no. of Qs, accrued from studies of this work (and the "Answer Key": It's on Amazon.) Pages 254-261; "Military Vocabulary". It's not just a list of words; but, provides (brief) explanations (army/ navy) on everything from pitching a camp to fighting a naval battle. Clearly, not the comprehensive work that you desire; but, a framework of the Roman military machine.
    – tony
    Commented Jun 20, 2019 at 8:55
  • @tony Actually, I'm not looking for a comprehensive work at all. Perhaps the phrasing was a little unclear, so I added a note at the end. I am interested here in the division of a military power into branches (like army and navy) and the ways to express that in Latin. There is a whole lot of military vocabulary and I certainly don't want to try to explore all of that in a single question. I hope the focus is now clearer. If that book makes any mentions on the topic, I would be happy to hear.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jun 20, 2019 at 9:01
  • llmavirta: Maybe not quite what you are looking for. N & H is still a good book to have if only for its demanding English-to-Latin translations. Study as you may; but, do you know what it's like to face a Roman army, in the field? Have a look at "Spartacus" (Kirk Douglas): the final-battle scene! Made in 1960, long before computer-generated special-effects. People had to be used in what must have been a nightmare of filming. Spartacus's slave-army, a rag-tag band-of-brothers, occupying the high ground, facing-down fear, as the Romans deploy and advance. Excellent fare.
    – tony
    Commented Jun 21, 2019 at 10:43

1 Answer 1


That's an enormous question, which I suspect will get no proper answer. Outside of Wikipedia I've yet to come across any work thoroughly devoted to the Roman navy (in contrast so many about the army), so I can only give a rough-and-ready outline, and hope you can expand from it for yourself.

The navy first came into existence for action against Carthage in the First Punic War, which they began with a small fleet of triremes that they had to expand (according to Polybius, they built 100 quinqueremes in just sixty days, including the time to fell the timber). The fleets were commanded by consuls with varying success. Thenceforward the navy was always important, with sea battles figuring large during Rome's expansion and consolidation — think of Pompey suppressing piracy, or Marcus Agrippa, who commanded in the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium.

There were certainly properly constituted positions at the head of naval affairs, appointments 'to the fleet' or 'to the ships', praefectus (later praepositus) classis or classi, usually translated into the English word 'admiral'. Julius Caesar who, if you think about it, must have known a thing or two about the use and construction of transport ships at the very least, refers to various appointments, as do other authors. Livy refers to something like the Board of Admiralty of the Royal Navy, duumviri navales classis ornandae reficiendaeque causa, probably indicating the existence of an overall policy. Naval bases were certainly established, for example at Misenum for the home fleet and elsewhere, so there was presumably some kind of formal organisation.

What seems to be missing is any structure in the ranks of either officers or men, except for the on-board distinction between fighting men (milites nautici or classici) and the sailing crews (socii navales or nautae gubernatoresque).

I regret that this will not seem a very satisfactory answer: it may be that this is one of those areas of Roman history which has for no good reason drifted out of sight, which in itself may just reflect the perceived, relative unimportance of the navy, as opposed to the land forces. I should be fascinated to see if any other answer can provide information more solid.

  • I seem to remember reading that Romans were not "natural" sailors, and that the navy, for want of a better word, was treated as inferior to the legions. The same work (I've forgotten which) suggested that the actual seamen were probably not Roman (possibly Greek, who were skilled mariners) but officered by Romans.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 1:59
  • @TheHonRose I've also come across such broad comments, but think them no more than speculation. It just doesn't add up. Granted that the Athenians at sea were a tremendous force on various occasions, etc. it asks too much to believe that, for instance, Caesar happened to have so many Greeks hanging around with him in Gaul, on the off-chance that he might need them for the invasions of Britain; nor is there any reason to believe, say, that Agrippa was relying on them before Actium.
    – Tom Cotton
    Commented Jun 24, 2019 at 5:29

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