Rome Rules the Waves – A Naval Staff Appreciation of Ancient Rome’s Maritime Strategy, 300 BCE-500 CE, James J Bloom


Rome Rules the Waves – A Naval Staff Appreciation of Ancient Rome’s Maritime Strategy, 300 BCE-500 CE, James J Bloom

The aim of this book is to look at Roman naval history from the point of view of more modern naval strategists, in particular Mahan and Corbett (although neither of these men are exactly current thinkers, with Mahan’s key work published in 1890 and Corbett’s in 1911). 

The book does need a good edit. There are too many occasions when almost the same text is repeated within a page of two, and the book could do with some reorganisation. One example comes in the very first chapter, where a discussion of what was meant by the Greek term ‘Thalassocracy’ comes after a series of examinations of earlier naval powers to see if they had a ‘thalassocracy’ – it’s rather frustrating to keep reading that the discussion of the term will follow later, when it really needed to come first! I would also have suggested a different title, which rather implies that the work was done by the naval staff of a current navy, when this wasn’t the case. Bloom is good on his naval material, but some errors have slipped in elsewhere – at one point Hannibal’s death is placed after the Roman victory in the Third Punic War, when he actually died almost forty years earlier, in exile in the Hellenistic East, but well before the destruction of Carthage.

One big question is raised and then immediately skipped – did Rome actually have a long term maritime strategy to be examined? For me this is actually one of the most important questions that needs to be answered in a book of this type, although admittedly quite a hard one to answer with the surviving evidence. I’m not always convinced by the attempt to use modern concepts to explain Roman naval activities, although the author does show a good understanding of how the different abilities of ancient warships impacted on what was possible.

The key strength of this book is that it makes it clear just how important sea power was for Rome, playing a major part in the city’s rise to Empire and in the maintenance of the Pax Romania. At the end of the period the opposite becomes the case, and several of the most significant Roman defeats during the last century of the Western Empire were actually at sea – after the failure to stop the Vandals crossing from Spain into the key province of North Africa, the two halves of the Empire made several efforts to regain control of the area, each of which ended with a costly naval defeat – one as the fleet gathered in Spain, another on the verge of success in North Africa. The sections on the various river fleets of the Empire are also useful, reminding us that the safety of the Roman borders on the Rhine and Danube didn’t just depend on the heavy infantry of the Legions, but also on the fleets stationed on those rivers.

1 – The Origins: The Rise of Rome and Evolution of Sea-Faring; Maritime Commerce Preceding the Rise of Rome and the Question of ‘Thalassocracy’
2 – Nepture Rising: The Measured Beginnings of Roman Sea Power
3 – Roman Sea Power Triumphant: The First Punic War and the Recognition of the Meaning of Sea Power
4 – Combatting the Eastern Mediterranean pirate Threat (Illyrian Wars) and the Naval features of the Second Punic War
5 – Expanding Horizons: Consolidated Sea Control Through the Eastern Mediterranean
6 – Rome’s Further Schooling in Sea Power: The Mithridatic Wars, Fighting the Cilician Pirate Menace and the Civil War at Sea
7 – A Naval Establishment to Serve the Pax Romania: The Fleets and their Respective Theatres of Responsibility
8 – Trade and its Protection: Ports, Cargoes, Seafaring Factors and Trade Routes
9 – Testing the Waters: Naval Operations Under Augustus
10 – Pacifying the Empire’s North-Western Frontier
11 – The Imperial Fleets on the Ascendant
12 – Resisting Pressure on the Peripheries
13 – Seagoing ‘Barbarians’ at the Gates
14 – Naval Renaissance
15 – Later Fourth Century: Divided Empire, Divided Fleets
16 – Naval Operations at Ebb Tide
17 – Gotterdammerung of the ‘Roman’ Navy, Rise of the Byzantine Fleet
18 – Summing up: Mahan and Corbett’s Notional Critique of Roman Sea Power

Author: James J Bloom
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime
Year: 2019

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