Monday, 12 December 2016


What was a 'liburna' and what did it look like ?
 A lot of books declare that the Romans shifted to just using a ship type called a 'Liburnian'  after the victory at Actium, whereafter the Mediterranean had become 'mare nostrum'. However, as one can see from the latest Osprey offering, New Vanguard 230, there is uncertainty about what exactly a Liburnian was.
Liburnian after Viereck 1975. (Also used by D'Amato in 2016, complete with corvus and bolt shooters and 112 oars ?!)

Cobel at Tynemouth
'Liburnian' is a common noun for a ship type. It does not imply all Liburnians were exactly the same. A modern equivalent would be a 'Northumbrian Cobel' or a 'Brighton Hog'. It was a type that had its origin with a recognised form from a specific area.

   Liburnia is a region of Dalmatia with a myriad islands. In the ancient world it was pirate territory and the channels and islands gave cover for ambush and escape. The Liburnians were the first area of Illyricum subdued by the Romans, hence their close relationship.
 The piratical tribe of Liburnians must have had a ship suited for their profession. It was a small galley. Small, because it needed to be handy and pirates tend to operate in small groups. A Three needs 200 men to get around. It would need the men from several rural settlements to man one. And where would it be hidden or maintained?

There are some candidates for what the original Liburnians may have looked like on an engraved gravestone from Novilara in Italy. It dates to the sixth century BC and purportedly shows Liburnian and Picenian ships.

There seems to be no difference between the ships shown. Archaic features on the ship combine with a waterline ram which looks wierd.  In addition, the dating of the stele is circumstantial - it was a loose find about which nothing is known. A fake ? A misattribution ? Unfortunately we cannot use these ships as a model for a Liburnian.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History


This animal attacks the balænain in its places of retirement, and with its teeth tears its young, or else attacks the females which have just brought forth, and, indeed, while they are still pregnant: and as they rush upon them, it pierces them just as though they had been attacked by the beak of a Liburnian galley.

 And here are the translator's notes to the same passage....
The Natural History. Pliny the Elder:  John Bostock, London. Taylor and Francis. 1855
The Liburna, or Liburnica, was usually a bireme, or two-oared galley, with the mast in the middle, though sometimes of larger bulk. From the description given of these by Varro, as quoted by Aulus Gellius, B. xvii. c. 3, they seem, as it has been remarked, somewhat similar to the light Indian massooliah boats, which are used to cross the serf in Madras roads. Pliny tells us, in B. xvi. c. 17, that the material of which they were constructed was pine timber, as free from resin as it could possibly be obtained. The beak of these vessels was of great comparative weight, and its sharpness is evidently alluded to in the present passage, as also in B. x. c. 32. The term "Liburna" was adopted from the assistance rendered to Augustus by the Liburni at the battle of Actium.
Here we should digress to look at a truly wonderful craft.The masooliah boats were deep-hulled wooden boats of sewn construction used to ferry goods and people ashore on the ocean coast near Madras. Bostock may himself have risked life and limb to come ashore through the surf at Madras on a 'masooliah boat'. Bostock, from Liverpool, was a President of the Royal Geological Society, MD who first described Hay Fever, and still found time to translate Pliny !
Masooliah boats : circa 1900
Europeans come ashore at Madras : The Masooliah Sleigh Ride ?
Masooliah boats have a nice connection with ancient galleys. They were handcrafted by artesans and sailed by thoroughbred seamen. The prows of the boats were decorated with apotropaic eyes.
Asiatic Society of Bengal 1920

Well, we did not find a Liburnian there, but, suitably refreshed, on with Liburnians....

During the Punic Wars Polybius tells us that it was usual for lemboi to scout ahead of the fleet. Lemboi were light galleys - another generic name for a type. Appian uses the term Liburnian for the same function, describing the same campaign. 

In the introduction to The Illyrian War, ( I.3) Appian writes :
 The Liburni, another Illyrian tribe, were next to the Ardiæi as a nautical people. These committed piracy in the Adriatic Sea and islands with their light, pointed (oksea) fast-sailing pinnaces, from which circumstance the Romans to this day call their own light, swift biremes (dikrota) liburnidas.
Bireme with 100 oars ! And tower .... Old Italian reconsruction copied in Osprey New Vanguard 225 : Not a Liburnian
 Plutarch, Cato the Younger 54.3 -Liburnians are grouped with other fighting ships as cataphract.
  ' Here, indeed, and most clearly, Pompey was thought to have made his opinion of Cato manifest. For he determined to put the command of his fleet into the hands of Cato, and there were no less than five hundred fighting ships, besides Liburnian craft (kataphrakta)  look-out ships, and open boats (pentekonters) in great numbers (aphrakta).'
Actium : 19th Cen view : Liburnians ?
 From Imperial fleet lists we know that Trajan's Moesian flotilla had a Three as its flagship. Thus implying the liburnians which formed the rest of the unit were lesser in size.

Trajan's column has somewhat compromised depictions of what are probably Liburnians.

Men are too big, ship should be decked, upper oars worked from ports below the lattice.

The majority of ships in the surviving ship identifications we have for the Ravenna and Misenum bases are  not liburnians. For example..from 1st century BC to 4th Century AD. Accumulated inscriptions....
At Misenum : 54 Threes, 15 Liburnians ;  et al
At Ravenna : 22 Threes , 4 Liburnians , et al
Unknown station : 18 Threes, 7 Liburnians

Liburnian or lembus ? from Sousse, Tunis 250AD

From a later date, the 10th century we have 'The Stronghold' or Suda which is a massive Latin dictionary. This was compiled using all available literature at the time, including material from BC we no longer have access to.
Entries for 'Liburnian'....

L496  Ships [which] did not have the form of a trireme but were instead rather piratical: brazen-beaked and strong and armoured, and unreliable in respect of speed.

L490  "[He] having built thirty-oared runners after the model of Liburnians".

British Museum : A Liburnian ? : 2 tiers of oars, fine lines, sharp beak and cataphract
The balance of this pot pourri seems to be that a Liburnian was a galley with up to  50 oars. It was light but it was capable of fighting. so it was decked and the sides could be closed to protect the oarsmen. It had a ram and its bow was very pointed in shape. It is interesting to note that these characteristics equate with the Three's predecessor - the dikrotic pentekonter / 'bireme'. This was a crucial niche, apparently, in the ecosystem of ancient galley warfare. An agile smaller warship with a reduced crew, easy to maintain and suitable for a range of roles.

John Coates reconstructed a Liburnian in 1994 as below.
18 x 3m at waterline. 50 oars. Decked - 2m above water, 5 to 30 fighters.
 ( If a ship has a two-level oar system and 50 oars we can calculate it must be a minimum of  (25/2)  X (1.38) metres long. Here the solution is 17.27m. This is a basic calculation for galleys. Any extra length will slow the ship. )

There is a tendency in some books to elevate the Liburnian to a wannabee Three. e.g. John Warry's nice book Warefare in the Classical World.
Liburnian from John Warry's book as copied in Osprey NV225 : It is the wrong size - has a strange oar arrangement, is not fully decked, cannot be a Liburnian nor is it a dikrotic pentekonter. But it is from 1980!
This is not necessary. Rome still had Threes in its fleets all through the Imperial period as well as the manpower-efficient, handy Liburnian. A Liburnian could catch and fight any 'native' or piratical craft likely to be encountered in Roman waters.
Mmmmmmaybe not...
There does not have to be a single pattern for a Liburnian, just as there was no single pattern for a Three. But any candidate has to fit with the characteristics we found above:
  • Maximum 50 oars
  • Dikrotic - two oar tiers
  • Length circa 18m
  • Width - two men 3metres or so
  • Height to deck - with 2 oar tiers - circa 2m
  • Sharp-pointed bows and a ram
  • Decked - this means a continuous deck over the oarsmen. Could have a light railing.
  • Cataphract - along with a deck, the latticed deck-supports could be closed with canvas, leather or  shuttering to protect the oarsmen from missiles in battle
  • After Roman practice there could be a shelter in the poop.
  • The focsle could be built up to deck height or open.
  • Such a small ship could not mount a tower.
 Within these limits we could have a Liburnian with 30 oars,  a Liburnian which was not decked-over to be used as a courier, a Liburnian with a single row of oars - but this would have to have 30 or less oars to keep the length down and more than 24 or it would have not enough power to do anything, it would still probably not be worth putting a ram on such a weak ship.

If the Mainz ships HERE could mount bolt shooters then so could a Liburnian.

Meanwhile, over at there are some nice  reconstructions of Liburnian type ships.
Liburnian after Trajan's Column

Lembus/Liburnian ? - Probably not...

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