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Ancient Ships: The Ships of Antiquity

Roman Galleons

The Marsala Punic War Ship


Model Length: 24-1/2" (623mm) Scale: 1/30
provided by Hobby World of Montreal

A typical Roman war ship of the first Century B.C. this Bireme was driven by two rows of oars. Out riggers stabilized the ship and the whales protected the hull from the protruding bows of enemy ships. While fast under oar, this type of vessel capsized easily under too much sail. This ship was built with plank on bulkhead construction. 

The model is a kit that  has been recently updated. Panart's double-planked hull features laser cut wooden components. The bow and stern sections, which used to be made of plastic, are now laser cut out of wood. The oars now come pre shaped but still require assembly. The fittings are of wood and metal. Cotton sail clothe, rigging. The silk tent for dignitaries or officers and the imperial standard of Caesar are silk-screened.  Instructions included. 

The crew of a liburnia consisted of about 50-80 oar-men (remiges) and a unit of about 30-50 marines, depending on the size of the ship. Liburnias were used everywhere in the roman empire, for e xample on the Nile, Rhine and Danube rivers. Compared to the fighting value ot the earliest warships with only one row of oars-men, the liburnia was a more powerful ship especially when ramming an enemy ship. With a closed  deck it could take more marines as any other ship this size for the purpose of hand to hand combat helping insure a victory when fighting at  close quarters with a ship of the same size.

The crew of a lubrnia consisted of about 50-80 0ar-men and a unit of 30-50 marines. each varied based on the size of the ship. These ships were used extensively everywhere in the Roman empire for example on the Nile, Rhine and Danube-rivers. Compared to the fighting-value of the earlier warships with only one row of oar-men, the liburnia was a more powerful ship, especially when ramming an enemy ship. With a closed deck, it also could take more marines ("manipularii" in latin) as any other nation's ship of this size.

1st Century Roman Galleon as depicted on a Roman Coin

Prow of Ship depicted on a Roman Bronze Coin

Coin commemorating the naval victories of
Pompeius Magnus During the Mithri dates Wars

The Historic Context of this coin.

Pompeius Magnus with Julius Ceasar and Crassus

After 30 years of increasing pressure to Roman shipping and trade from the Greek Empire in the East. In 67, the tribune Roman Aulus Gabinius forced a bill through the popular assembly awarding Pompey command of the campaign against the pirates in the Eastern Mediterranean. Other commanders had been in Anatolia and the east for some time attempting both to destroy the pirates who were damaging Roman shipping and trade, and to make a dent against the ever-troublesome Hellenistic Greek king, Mithridates IV who ruled out of Pontus.

Mithridate IV had 400 ships of his own in the water and was supporting the activities of piracy against Roman shipping and trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Portrait of Mirthradates IV Front and Pegasus and
Laurel Wreath Back, tetra - drachma, minted with silver in Pontus

Portrait of Mirthradates IV Front and seated
Athena Back  drachma, minted with silver in   Pontus

See references to the Mythridatic war. "Mithridatic War"

"Mithridates & The Roman Conquests in the East, 90-61 BCE." Translated selections from Appian and Plutarch with introductory material (Paul Halsall).

Pompey received his military command in the face of entrenched political opposition. It was the sheer scale of the military forces to be allotted to Pompey which created the primary concern to the Roman Republic and for many it seemed to be a clear danger signal that Pomp e y may o btain to much power and influence in the Eastern Empire. Although it was apparent the military campaign in the east was needed to protect Rome's shipping and trading interests the assignment of so much military power into the command of one individual was not a political ly popular position.


Roman Galleons in Wall Fresco From Pompeii 70 AD

Julius Caesar was one of the Senators who supported Pompey's command from the start and was later to form strong family and political alliances with Pompey. The command to conduct the eastern campaign gave Pompey sole authority over the entire Roman naval forces available in the Mediterranean and beyond. His leadership role set him above every other military leader in the E astern    Roman Empire. In three short months (67-66 BC), Pompey's forces literally swept the Mediterranean free of the pirates.  Pompey's successes helped him become the republic's hero of the hour. 

kyrenia ship
Model of Shipping and Trading vessel of the Mediterranean 1-3 centuries BCE

Pompey returned to Rome in December 62 to celebrate his third and most magnificent Triumph during his  successful military campaign s in the Eastern Mediterranean .  He was now at his zenith, however by this time Pompey had been largely absent from Rome for over five years and a new star had arisen with the young Julius Ceasar. Pompey had been busy in Asia when a young Julius Caesar pitted his political will against that of the Consul, Cicero, and the rest of the Optimates. Pompey had been occupied while new political alliances were being formed in Rome during his absence.

After returning to Rome, Pompey dismissed his military command, disarming his political opponents of grounds for their worries that he intended to spring from his conquests into domination of Rome. Pompey was a supreme political as well a s military tactician; he simply sought new allies and pulled strings behind the political scenes to assert his political will . However his political opponents failed to affirm his magnificent victories and the conquering and settlement of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Contemporary Painting of Roman Galleon from walls of Pompeii

To view additional images of Roman Ships please visit. GALLERIA NAVALE  

Pompey found his political opponents prevented him from to delivering on the promises of the assignment of public lands to his veterans after the war. Pompey's political maneuverings suggest that, although he toed a cautious line to avoid offending the conservatives, he was increasingly frustrated by Optimate reluctance to acknowledge his solid military and political achievements. Pompey's ambition to fullfill his promises and the political frustration s brought about by the opposition of the Optimates  would force him into new and strange political alliances.


Pompey found he was unable to deliver on the promises he had made to  his veterans for the allocation of public lands. Although Pompey and Crassus distrusted each other both felt aggrieved in 61 BCE ; Crassus' tax farming clients were being rebuffed at the same time Pompey's veterans were being ignored. Caesar who was six years younger than Pompey and had just returned from service in Spain ready to seek the Consulship in 59 BC. Caesar in his ambition somehow managed to forge a political alliances with both Pompey and Crassus creating the "First Triumvirate" The Triumvirate would make Caesar Consul and he would help force through the laws accomplishing their pu r poses in the assembly. Plutarch 's histories later quotes Cato as saying that the tragedy of Pompey was not that he was Caesar's defeated enemy, but that he had been, for too long, Caesar's friend and supporter.

Image Cortesy of the MUSEO TECNICO NAVALE

Caesar's Consulate brought Pompey the lands and political settlements he had promised his veterans. Pompey was to marry Caesar's own young daughter, Julia. Pompey was madly in love with his young bride. Caesar secured a proconsular command in Gaul at the end of his Consular year, Pompey was assigned the governorship of Further Spain. Pompey remained in Rome and govenered Further Spain through exercising his command of subordinates.

Pompey remained in Rome overseeing the critical Roman grain supply, Pompey handled the transportation and trade in grain with his usual excellent efficiency but his success at political intrigue was less compelling. The Optimates had never forgiven him for abandoning Cicero when Publius Clodius forced his exile; only when Clodius began attacking Pompey was the great man persuaded to work with others towards Cicero's recall in 57. Once Cicero was back, his usual vocal magic helped soothe Pompey's previous unfavorable political position somewhat, but many still viewed him as a traitor for his alliance with Caesar. Other agitators (including Clodius) tried to persuade Pompey that Crassus was plotting to have him assassinated. Rumor (quoted by Plutarch) also suggested that the aging conqueror was losing interest in politics in favor of domestic life with his young wife. He was occupied by the details of construction of the mammoth complex later known as Pompey's Theater on the Campus Martius; not only the first permanent theater ever built in Rome, but an eye-popping complex of lavish porticoes, shops, and multi-service buildings . Within this architectural complex also happened to be the location where Caesar was to be assassinated in 44 BC. 

This text is a partial extract from the web site Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, 106-47 BC written and edited by Suzanne Cross © 2001. All Rights Reserved. The copy has been rewritten and modified to explain the historic context for the minting of the coins with the images of Roman Ships.      

  To view additional images of Roman Ships please visit.
(in Italian) -  Roman Naval Gallery:

A selection of Roman naval images (frescoes, mosaics, bas-reliefs, sculptures, coins and other findings) published on «Classica» or on the Net.



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