Roman shipbuilding and navigation | Roman shipbuilding and navigation
Shipbuilding today is based on science and ships are built using computers and sophisticated tools. Shipbuilding in ancient Rome, however, was more of an art relying on estimation, inherited techniques and personal experience. The Romans were not traditionally sailors but mostly land-based people, who learned to build ships from the people that they conquered, namely the Greeks and the Egyptians.
There are a few surviving written documents that give descriptions and representations of ancient Roman ships, including the sails and rigging. Excavated vessels also provide some clues about ancient shipbuilding techniques. Studies of these have taught us that ancient Roman shipbuilders built the outer hull first, then proceeded with the frame and the rest of the ship. Planks used to build the outer hull were initially sewn together. Starting from the 6th century BCE, they were fixed using a method called mortise and tenon, whereby one plank locked into another without the need for stitching. Then in the first centuries of the current era, Mediterranean shipbuilders shifted to another shipbuilding method, still in use today, which consisted of building the frame first and then proceeding with the hull and the other components of the ship. This method was more systematic and dramatically shortened ship construction times. The ancient Romans built large merchant ships and warships whose size and technology were unequalled until the 16th century CE.
Warships were built to be lightweight and very speedy. They had to be able to sail near the coast which is why they had no ballast or excess load and were built with a long, narrow hull. They did not sink when damaged and often would lie crippled on the sea’s surface following naval battles. They had a bronze battering ram, which was used to pierce the timber hulls or break the oars of enemy vessels. Warships used both wind (sails) and human power (oarsmen) and were therefore very fast. Eventually, Rome’s navy became the largest and most powerful in the Mediterranean, and the Romans had control over what
they therefore called Mare Nostrum meaning ‘our sea’.