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Classis Ravennas and the Defense of the Roman Empire

Classis Ravennas and the Defense of the Roman Empire

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For almost 500 years, Classe was an important Roman seaport right up until the early Middle Ages. Protected by surrounding marshes, Classe was well placed for patrolling the Adriatic Sea, but the area has since filled with silt and become landlocked which has irreparably changed the shape of the coastline. 

Classe, the Ancient Port of Ravenna, and the Classis Ravennas

In the time of Ancient Rome, the Port of Ravenna was known as Classe, which comes from the Latin  classis, meaning fleet. Located to the south and east of the city of Ravenna itself, it was an extremely important commercial port for Rome, chosen for its strategic position as the base of the Roman Navy’s fleet known as the  Classis Ravennas, as well as, at times the Classis Misenensis.

The port at Ravenna had seen the construction of ships there since before the civil wars that took place throughout the Roman Empire. By 27 BC, Emperor Caesar Augustus had established a permanent port in Ravenna as a base for the fleet. Only those of the highest ranks in Roman society could be drawn from to provide the leaders required for this fleet and most would have come from the equestrian nobles. The officer chosen to be in charge was called the  praefectus classis. Many of the ships’ crew were seamen who came from the land of Egypt and along the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean. 

This new fleet was tasked with patrolling the Adriatic Sea, as well as the eastern waters of the Mediterranean. In 69 AD Vespasian himself honored the fleet with the award of  honorific praetorian for its support during the Civil War. At the time, the  Classis Ravennas was seen as being at the disposal and command of the emperors in Rome and as such could be seen as the counterpart of the Roman Army’s Praetorian Guard.

Archaeological site of the Roman port of Classe, Ravenna, Italy. This was one of the most important port for docking in the ancient world. (Image: Clawsb / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Archaeological site of the Roman port of Classe, Ravenna, Italy. This was one of the most important port for docking in the ancient world. (Image: Clawsb / CC BY-SA 4.0)

When Vespasian became the emperor of Rome, he took sailors from this fleet at Ravenna to raise a new Roman Legion, named the 11 Adiutrix, who were to become the fleet’s marines. During the civil battles fought between 192 and 193 AD, this fleet gave its support to Septimius Severus. The naval fleet worked with the Classis Ravennas when the war was fought with Pescennius Niger. It transported the legions of Septimius over the sea to the east where it stayed for the next number of decades. It was about then that a new threat emerged from the Persian Empire. This required the fleet to supply the Roman Army with men and supplies while this emergency continued.

During the time of Constantine the Great and his battles against Licinius, the Roman fleet of the Classis Ravennas was engaged in action, and in 324 AD it won a great victory fought at the Hellespont. Sometime after this, the ships from the fleet where dispatched to Constantinople, where the emperor had made his new capital of the Roman Empire.

Tapestry depicting the Classis Ravennas in action during the sea battle between the fleets of Constantine and Licinius. (Public domain)

Tapestry depicting the Classis Ravennas in action during the sea battle between the fleets of Constantine and Licinius. (Public domain)

The History of Ravenna

During those ancient times, the town of Ravenna lay much closer to the sea than it is today. It was surrounded by a series of lagoons which silted up over time. The first peoples in that area are thought to date to about 1400 BC. There are some legends that tell that both the Gaols and the Etruscans had lived in this area. By the time of the 2nd Century BC the port had come under the control of Rome itself. One main reason being that it was an excellent harbor and so by the 1st century BC this port had assumed its role as the main port for the Roman Adriatic Navy.

In 402 AD, the Roman Emperor Honorius moved the capital of the Western Roman Empire from Mediolanum to Ravenna. Here it remained until the Western Roman Empire came to an end in 476 AD. This can be evidenced by the many fine mosaics and statues visible in Ravenna.

One of the most outstanding features that can still be seen today at Ravenna and Classe are the wonderful mosaics, such as in the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe, the ancient port of Ravenna. (Vanni Lazzari / CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the most outstanding features that can still be seen today at Ravenna and Classe are the wonderful mosaics, such as in the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe, the ancient port of Ravenna. (Vanni Lazzari / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Back in the time of the Emperor Trajan one of the main problems in the region was the lack for fresh water. This could have been a major problem for its development. Luckily, Trajan gave orders to the engineers and builders of the army to construct an aqueduct which runs nearly 22 miles (35.4 km) in length. Its objective was to supply water for the town of Classe and the inhabitants.

Once the new fleet was constructed, the population of the soldiers and sailors, along with their families, brought about a steady growth of the population. Over the next three hundred years, Classe became one of the most important Roman settlements due to its Adriatic fleet. The historian and writer Cassisu Dio tells us that this naval fleet had some two hundred and fifty ships of many different sizes at its disposal.

This port serving the Adriatic sea was unlike that of the other important base for another Roman fleet which was at Ostia on the opposite coast to that of Ravenna. This port was made by being artificially in the large lagoon. It did not follow the Roman hexagonal design but was built upon hundreds of stilts made from Oak. By the 2nd century the Roman engineers had started to rebuild this using bricks.

Archaeologists note today that there is little evidence to show that people lived there before the period of Emperor Augustus (Octavian). If they did, then it was in very small numbers. What they have found is the remains of cemeteries which contain what are probably pre-Christian and possibly pagan burials.

Ancient streets and walls in Classe (, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ancient streets and walls in Classe (, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Changing Fortunes of Ravenna and the Port of Classe

Investigations have shown that the importance of Ravenna and the port of Classe had declined by the 3 rd century AD. Ravenna itself was sacked no less than twice between 250 and 260 AD which meant that the important harbor could no longer be kept or maintained. As the lagoon began to dry out, the remaining waterways also suffered from silting up. 

When Ravenna and its port once again became the Western capital in 402 AD, this led to the port having renewed importance for the Roman Army and the Imperial Fleet. A secure residential area was also built by Roman builders to the south of the harbor area which was also given a wall. Thanks to this, once more merchant ships as well as the naval vessels with their sailors and marines were able to carry out their trading with warehouses and buildings to supply and store grain coming into the empire. With the navy making the seas safe from attacks, trade could and did flourish.

Even after 476 AD, when Ravenna no longer functioned as the imperial capital of Rome, the port of Classe continued to survive and the town there was enhanced by Theodoric who ruled as a king of the Ostrogothic people. 

Archaeology has even been able to show us that during the 2nd century AD an early Christian community existed around Ravenna and the area of Classe. This has been established thanks to research into early cemeteries excavated in the area. One important find was that of a church in the Classe area built to worship the very first bishop of Ravenna, who was known as Saint Apollinare.

One of the most outstanding features that can still be seen today at Ravenna and Classe are the wonderful mosaics. Also discovered within the walls of Classe the remains of the Roman basilica and amphitheater. At the entrance to the harbor there once stood two lighthouses, whose remains have never been found.

Ancient Mosaic depiction of the port of Classe at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. (José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ancient Mosaic depiction of the port of Classe at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. (José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Roman Desire for a Strong Sea Presence

In establishing both Ostia and then Ravenna with its port at Classe, one can begin to understand the prime importance that Roman emperors placed in achieving a strong sea presence around their shores and seas both to the West and to the East.

The eastern end of the Roman Empire established just how important this port and harbor at Classe would be. This Roman naval fleet controlled the Aegean Sea along with the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. When the Western Empire got into trouble and lost some Roman territory, this fleet was sent to help the West. Some scholars estimate that the coming together, in some form of transition, of the two fleets of the west and the east may have happened around the mid-300s. From then it was again this eastern fleet at Classe which controlled the Aegean Sea, although it seems to have been disbanded around the end of the 400s.

The Roman Port at Classe was indeed quite a vast complex being able to hold up to some 250 ships of many shapes and sizes within its secure waters. There are tombstones that have been found from the many sailors of the fleet stationed there. By 324 AD, the proud fleet set up in the west under Augustus had come to an end. It is thought that this happened due to the continued unrest caused by civil wars.

The eastern end of the Roman Navy had been joined with the west because of the Port of Classe, but in the following centuries there were going to be many changes of ownership. Justinian I gave instructions to his General Belisarius to capture this part of Italy during the so-called Gothic Wars.

In the late 6th century AD people known as the Lombards invaded the city of Ravenna, destroying the port at Classe in the process. While the port was completely laid to waste, Ravenna was for the most part spared from the destruction caused by the Lombard Wars. The once magnificent harbor silted up and dried out, and from this point onwards, the port at Classe was never again to be either used successfully for commerce or for military and naval campaigns.

Ravenna today is famous throughout the world for its many grand monuments. It is also famous for its Byzantine art and wonderful mosaics. These artistic gems and monuments from the past, pay testament to the importance of Ravenna throughout history. 

Top image: Ancient mosaic depicting Classe, the ancient port of Ravenna. Source: Petar Milošević / CC BY-SA 4.0

John Richardson’s recently published book, The Romans and The Antonine Wall of Scotland, is available from  Amazon.

By John S. Richardson


Bustacchini, G.  Ravenna Capital of Mosaic. Salbaroli, Ravenna. 

Gardiner, R. 2004.  Age of the Galley. Conway Maritime Press.

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John S.

From a very early age I had this interest in the subject of history, and as I grew older this interest in the past deepened. I was fortunate to be able to visit lands such as Egypt, Greece and Rome... Read More

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