Roman Liburnian

Roman Liburnian

The early days of the Roman Empire were marked by huge naval battles.  The First Punic war saw great fleets of polyremes battling for the Mediterranean and that tradition continued as Rome grew and conquered the Mediterranean and fought civil wars right up until the battle of Actium left one man in control of the entire sea.  Thereafter, in the days of Empire, giant ships were no longer needed for dealing with pirates or policing sea lanes.  The navy of the later Roman Empire consisted principally of liburnians (also known as liburna), small light galleys which were not so swift and giant as the monstrous oared ships of the Republic.

Liburnians of the Danube fleet during Trajan's Dacian Wars (BAs Relief from Trajan's column, 118 AD)

Liburnians of the Danube fleet during Trajan’s Dacian Wars (Bas Relief from Trajan’s column, 118 AD)

Liburnians were named for, um, the Liburnians an Illyrian tribe inhabiting the Adriatic coast of Greece (what is today Croatia).  The Liburnians were pirates and sea raiders.  When the Macedonians conquered Liburnia, the military men were impressed by the lightness, maneuverability, and deadliness of the Liburnian vessels, so they made them part of the navy. Later, in the second half of the first century BC, Rome conquered the Hellenic world and took up this naval design (as well as a huge host of other Greek concepts).

Roman Liburna

Roman Liburna

The original liburnian boat had a single bench of 25 oars on each side.  The Romans refined altered this design to feature dual rows of oarsmen pulling 18 oars per side.  A liburnian was probably about 31 meters (100 ft long) and 5 meters (16 feet wide) wide with a draft of a meter (3 feet).  The Romans also added a prow for ramming other boats.

The liburnian served with distinction for centuries in the navies of the golden age empire and afterwards.  The boats were not used only for military missions but also for cargo and passenger transport. They saw use on the great rivers as well as on the sea. For many more centuries it liburnians were the backbone of the Byzantine navy as well, until the changing ideas of warfare caused the craft to evolve into the Byzantine dromons and the war galleys of the middle ages.