Michael Pitassi. Roman Warships. The Boydell Press, 2019. Paperback ISBN: 9781783274147, 228 Pages, £17.99/$24.95.
by Haggai Olshanetsky
This current book is a new paperback reprint of a book that was originally published in 2011. Even then, it was not the first book authored by Pitassi, as in 2009 his book, The Navies of Rome, had been published by the same publication house. Pitassi is also the author of Roman Navy: Ships, Men & Warfare 350BC – AD475, published by Pen & Sword in 2013. The subject of the current book is very similar to his previous works and has a lot of parallels with the other ones, including many drawings and plans of ships that were made by the author and also appear in the other titles. The current book is not entirely new, and for those who possess Pitassi’s other works, I recommend looking at the book in the store before deciding whether to buy it or not. That said, the review itself would look at the book as a standalone work, and on the quality of the research presented in it—which has many merits—and whether it is still up to date.
The book is focused on the technology and the design of the Roman warships and only mentions historical changes and events in the most succinct way possible. The content is more a reconstruction, or to put it more accurately, guesswork, on how Roman ships appeared in each period, using an understanding of shipbuilding and human physiology on one hand, and the archaeological remains on the other, such as frescos, mosaics, columns, coins, graffiti, and other artistic representations from the period that survived.
The book is split into two parts, the first titled “Interpretation,” comprising three chapters, and the second part, titled “The Ships”, containing five chapters and a Terminus of two and a half pages. The two parts of the book are straightforward and very logical in their content and order. The first chapter deals with the sources, and the second one, titled “Interpreting the sources”, explains how we handle the material, our limitations, and the author’s system of dealing with the material, which is immaculate. In the second chapter, the author starts to explain the nautical world and provides very important introductory material, especially information that deals with the main propulsion system of ancient warships, the oar systems. The third chapter that concludes the first part, and comprises more than half of it, is titled “Ship Fitting.” This chapter generally introduces the different parts, systems, and technology of ancient ships, warships in particular, with sub-chapters dealing with everything, from ships’ rams to anchors, pumps and ventilation for the rowers. To summarise, the first part of the book, and especially the third chapter, is a must for anyone interested in ancient ships, and it is possibly one of the best accessible introductions available to date.
The second part has five chapters, each of them dealing with a different period in Roman naval history, or more prosaically, the Roman ship designs of that period. Each chapter presents the materials and artistic representations that have survived from the relevant period in Roman history and tries to accordingly reconstruct a ship’s design, including plans, specifications, and models for further illustration. The limitations are clear, and the author is aware of them. He often explains that the plans and dimensions he provides are merely suggestions. From the iconography, we could learn how many levels of oars there were, if they used towers, and the general design of the bow and stern. However, the length and width of the ships, like all other dimensions, are mostly a guess. This is due to the fact that only a fraction of the ships that ever sailed were warships, and their remains are infrequently found. Even if one is found, the preservation is often poor at best. Even the crew numbers and the number of oars per ship are just an estimation. We only have a meagre number of documents listing the crew of a ship. Therefore, we know the actual crew size and composition only for very few types of ships, and only in a very specific time and place. The difference in the amount of knowledge that we have about the Roman warships from different periods is also glaring for any reader. It is not surprising that the Early Roman period is the one we know the least about. Thus, in chapter four, titled “The Earliest Types Eighth to Fourth Centuries BC”, Pitassi does not present the design of Roman warships but is instead forced to discuss and present the designs of Greek and Etruscan ships as they were the nations that bordered Rome, with the supposition that the Romans must have encountered their ships and were possibly even influenced by them.
Perhaps the most important and useful aspect of the book is the numerous illustrations, including figures of the artefacts, frescos and coins from the Roman periods that depict those ancient warships. These figures help the reader to understand the author’s deductions and discussions. Pitassi often presents his own drawings of them, highlighting the details important for the book, which is often difficult to see in normal photographs. Furthermore, each ship type from every period has its own plans (sometimes more than one, as Pitassi presents several possible designs), and a model that Pitassi built according to his suggested plans. The pictures of the models are in colour in the plate section, which adds much and helps the reader to better visualise the suggested design. Lastly, the book has a few very useful appendices that complement Pitassi’s work, and demonstrate his love for the subject. They include, among others, a glossary of Roman ship types, and another of nautical terms, and also a Gazetteer where museums that display the wrecks of Roman ships are listed, for the benefit of a reader who wants to tour them.
All in all, this book deals with a subject that has not received the attention it deserves. It offers a good introduction to ancient ships and a significant guide to Roman warships. The discussions and explanations are thorough and clear, making this book appealing and valuable for both academics and the general public who are keen on the subject.
Haggai Olshanetsky is a PhD candidate at Bar Ilan University, Israel. His doctoral thesis focuses on Jewish military service in the armies of the Hellenistic Kingdoms and the Roman Empire. From the same university, he holds two master degrees, one from the General History Department and another from the Land of Israel and Archaeology Department. He has diverse interests in Military Social and Economic history. He studies Jewish military service in antiquity and conducts research with Lev Cosijns from the University of Oxford on the social and economic change in the Eastern Mediterranean basin in the 6th-8th centuries.