Battles and Campaigns

The Role of the Navy in Octavian’s Illyrian War

In the course of Octavian’s Illyrian war (35–33 BC), the navy played an important role, both at sea and on the rivers. Some of its actions are documented by ancient historians (notably Appian and Cassius Dio), While others are hypothesized on the basis of reconstructed military strategy and the logistics of the war. The geographical repartition of the defeated peoples suggests that they were attacked at different times and from several directions: from Aquileia (the Carni and Taurisci), probably from Ravenna (the northern Liburnian islands and mainland). One of the supply bases for the Roman army operating in the north was Senia, while the pirates in the southern Adriatic must have been attacked from Brundisium. Cassius Dio even mentioned naval battles against the Pannonians at Segestia/Siscia, in one of which Menodorus, the navalc ommander of Sextus Pompeius, lost his life.

The outline of the war at sea and the main sources for it 

A year before the outbreak of Octavian’s Illyrian war, in 36 BC, Sextus Pompeius suffered a heavy defeat in the naval battle at Naulochus in Sicily, won by Octavian’s navy under the command of Agrippa.1 Octavian’s victory signified the conquest of the island, which was commemorated on acippus erected by the Papii brothers, C. Papius Celsus and M. Papius Kanus, to honour Octavian. Interestingly, the inscribed monument was found at Tasovčići near Čapljina, the later Ad Turres, on the left bank of the Naro River, to the north of Narona ( Fig. 1); it was probably set up at the beginning of theIllyrian war.2 At Naulochus, the navy of Sextus Pom-peius had been under the command of Menodorus, his admiral and his father’s freedman, who transfered his allegiance to Octavian after the defeat. He was put in charge of a part of Octavian’s navy during the Illyrianwar, in which he eventually lost his life in one of the naval battles at Segestia/Siscia.3

Fig. 1: The brothers C. Papius Celsus and M. Papius Kanus commemorated Octavian’s victory at Naulochus over Sextus Pompey in 36 BC (CIL III 14625 = ILS 8893 = ILLRP 417).

In the course of Octavian’s Illyrian war (35–33 BC), the navy played an important role, both at sea and on the rivers. Some of its actions are documented by the two main sources for the war, Appian and Cassius Dio, while others are hypothesized on the basis of reconstructed military strategy and the logistics of the war. The geographical repartition of the defeated peoples suggests that they were attacked at different times and from several directions: from Aquileia and/or Tergeste the Roman army marched against the Carni and Taurisci. Some troops probably advanced against Segestia/Siscia, also using fluvial transport.4  During the naval operations in the northern Adriatic (the northern Liburnian islands and the adjacent mainland), particularly when Octavian dealt with the Liburnian pirates, the harbours of Ravenna and Ancona no doubt played an important role as military bases and centres for logistics. It is known that the Roman navy established control over the labyrinth of the Liburnian islands, confiscating the ships of the Liburni;5 the type of a ship called a liburnian was a swift bireme, easy to manoeuvre.6 The military port at Ravenna had already been used by Caesar and must have been of great importance during Octavian’s Illyrian war,7 while Ancona would have been even more convenient if Octavian’s ships were directed to Iader (Zadar).8

One of the supply bases for the Roman army operating in the north was undoubtedly also Senia, which – even if dangerous because of the violent northern wind (called “bura” in Croatian and “bora” in Italian) – was the most important port beneath the Velebit Mts.9 It is significant that it is expressly noted on the Tabula Peutingeriana as Portus (4.2). From there the Roman troops must have advanced against the Iapodes, as may be inferred from the itinerary described by Appian. The Liburnian coast played an important role in supplying the army and also as a starting point to march towards Promona.10 The peoples dwelling south of the Liburni were invaded from several strongholds in Roman Illyra, thus undoubtedly from Salonae and Narona, where ci?es Romani are known to have been settled even before Caesar’s time; the Salonitan harbour may have played some role in subjugating the Delmatae. Thee pirates in the southern Adriatic were perhaps attacked from Brundisium,11 as were also the Taulantii, living in the hinterland of Dyrrhachium and Apollonia. It is known that in the autumn of 36 BC, the navy was harboured in Sicily and southern Italy, Antony’s ships notably at Tarentum,12 from where part of it had to be transferred to Brundisium, which was from the first Illyrian war in 229 BC onwards the most important Italian military port for access to the southeastern Adriatic coast and the ports there (Apollonia, Dyrrhachium, and Lissus). Ancona must have also served as a port of departure for the northeastern Adriatic coast; as is mentioned by Livy, it had been a base for the Roman navy as early as 178 BC, during the Histrian war.13 In addition to the warships, naval battles required huge troop and supply transfers and protection of convoys.14

The main sources for Octavian’s war in Illyricum are two Greek historians: Appian of Alexandria, from the second century AD, and Cassius Dio, a Greek senator from Nicaea in Bithynia, from the late second and early third centuries AD. Appian devoted almost half of his Illyrian History to Octavian’s war and based his narrative on Augustus’ Memoirs (Commentarii), which makes it the most important source for the war. Although his account is exhaustive and detailed, it should nonetheless be supplemented with Dio’s much shorter text, which includes some details that do not appear in Ap-pian, such as, for example, the description of the naval battles at Siscia. Unlike Appian, Dio did not disclose his source – or sources – but similarities in both narratives indicate that he, too, probably read Augustus’ Commentarii.15 However, he must also have used a source that was not favourably disposed to Augustus, since he made mention of certain facts that may be regarded as damaging to Octavian’s reputation. It has been suggested that Dio took some information from the mor eobjective Histories of Asinius Pollio or Cremutius Cordus, or both.16

The Taulantii and Dyrrhachium

Although Appian’s narrative is detailed, it is not possible to reconstruct with certainty the chronological framework of the war. The defeated peoples and tribes were listed in terms of their military strength and the resistance they had offered the Roman army. Within the three groups – from the weakest to the strongest –the peoples were noted with no apparent order, certainly not geographical and also not alphabetical; possibly they were again named according to the degree of their resistance. In the first group of peoples that had been conquered with the least effort, the Taulantii are mentioned, along with the Oxyaei, Pertheenatae, Bathiatae, Cambaei, Cinambri, Merromeni, and Pyrissaei; these were defeated in a single military expedition.17 Of these peoples only the Taulantii can be located approximately, while all others, except the Oxyaei (Pliny’s Ozuaei in the conventus of Narona)18 are elsewhere unattested. Cassius Dio does not mention any of the peoples from Appian’s first group.

Fig. 2: The dividing line between the spheres of infuence of Octavian and Antony (the pact of Brundisium in 40 BC; computer graphics M. Belak)

The fact that the Taulantii appear among the conquered peoples is a most interesting testimony that Octavian’s army was engaged beyond the demarcation line at Scodra, which divided the dominions of the two triumvirs, Antony and Octavian, as agreed upon at Brundisium in 40 BC. According to this division, the territory of the Taulantii belonged to Antony. They are located by all literary sources explicitly in the hinter-land of Dyrrhachium and Apollonia,19 except by Pliny, who places them, probably wrongly, in the hinterland of Lissus.20 The boundary at Scodra represented a considerable advantage for Antony over Octavian, since in any future conflict between the two triumvirs the control of the area to the southeast of the town would have been vital (Fig .2). It therefore comes as no surprise that Octavian was indeed active in the area assigned to Antony.21


Fig. 3: Octavian took possession of the Liburnian ships and destroyed the pirates of Melite and Black Corcyra (computer graphics M.Belak)

It may be supposed that some other peoples from the first group would also have been settled in the near hinterland of the coast next to the Taulantii; they were most probably conquered partly from Brundisium and partly from military bases in Roman Illyria; the navy must have played at least some role in subduing them. One of Octavian’s goals was most probably to take control of all three southeastern Adriatic harbours, Apollonia, Dyrrhachium, and Lissus, and particularly the most important of the three, Dyrrhachium,22 which must have been a key base of Octavian’s navy some years later, at Actium. T. Statilius Taurus, who was one of the most capable generals in Octavian’s army, was entrusted, in 33 BC, with the task of bringing the conquest of Dalmatia to an end. Interestingly, shortly before Naulochus, he commanded a fleet of 120 ships which Antony had sent to Octavian in exchange for 20,000 infantry for his Parthian campaign. Furthermore, Statilius Taurus also had connections with Dyrrhachium, which can be inferred from the fact that one of the earliest colonists, L. Titinius Sulpicianus, tribunus militum and tribunus pro legato , was his praefectus quin-quennalis , after holding several municipal functions in the town.23 Dyrrhachium became a Roman colonia either under Caesar or under Octavian.24  Thee city with its important harbour may have come under the possession of Octavian’s headquarters in the course of the Illyrian war.

The defeat of the Taurisci and the pirates

In the same 16th chapter, the first to deal with Octavian’s Illyrian war, Appian made mention of those peo-ples, who offered more resistance than the previously listed ones. His text reads: “With somewhat more effort he conquered the Docleatae, the Carni, the Interphrurini, the Naresii, the Glintidiones, and the Taurisci, and forced them to pay the overdue tribute. When he had defeated these peoples, the neighbouring Hippasini and Bessi surrendered to him from fear. Others who had joined in the uprising, such as the Meliteni and the Corcyreni, who inhabited islands, he completely exterminated, as they had practiced piracy; he had their young men killed and the others were sold into slavery.”25Among the first mentioned, the Taurisci should be singled out, notably because some of them were settled in the valleys of the Ljubljanica and Sava Rivers.26 They were an important league of tribes, who dominated trade along the Savus (Sava) and Nauportus (Ljubljanica) Rivers at least until the proconsulate of Caesar in both Gauls and in Illyricum. As is known from Strabo, they were settled at Nauportus (Vrhnika), where an important fluvial port was located and toll or customs were collected.27 Various goods arrived from the Carnian village of Tergeste at Nauportus on wagons, where they were reloaded on boats and transported further along the Sava to Segestica/Siscia.28 At the time of Caesar, however, who had most probably extended Roman dominion as far as Emona, thereby expanding the boundaries of Cisalpine Gaul,29 trade was controlled by the Romans.30 The fluvial transport along the Ljubljanica and Sava was well established at least from the first half of the first century BC, if not earlier. Thee fluvial route was no doubt exploited as a via militaris as much during Octavian’s war as also during the Pannonian war of Tiberius some ten years later, and no less during the Pannonian-Dalmatian rebellion between 6 and 9 AD.31 Roads had not yet been built. Appian added that Octavian defeated the pirates at Melita (Mljet) and Black Corcyra (Korčula) and almost exterminated them ( Fig. 3). These are two large islands opposite the long peninsula of Pelješac, situated close to each other. The impact of the piracy practised by the islanders probably much exceeded local boundaries and they must have seriously threatened navigation in the southeastern Adriatic, notably also Octavian’s navy, for which they suffered cruel punishment. Octavian gave orders to have them killed, while most of other inhabitants were sold as slaves. The same fate perhaps befell the inhabitants of Pelješac, since around that time rituals at the sanctuary at Spila near Nakovana ceased to be performed.32 Thee severity of the punishment could be better understood if some years earlier, during the struggle between the Caesarian and Pompeian partisans, they had joined Pompey’s party. It is known that Issa eventually supported the latter,33 and Issa’s position perhaps influenced the other nearby islands, who could have also been forced, like Issa itself, through promises and threats by Pompey’s admiral M. Octavius, to join the Pompeians.

The Liburni and the Iapodes

The last sentence in Appian’s chapter 16, after he mentioned the pirates of Melite and Corcyra Nigra, concerns the Liburni: “He confiscated the boats of the Liburni, who had also practiced piracy.”34  The possession of the Liburnian navy was not only important for Octavian in the course of the Illyrian war, but was to have been of great significance in the conflict with Antony. Iader as an important harbour no doubt played a most important role in any actions against the Liburni. 35 By way of controlling the Liburnian part of the Adriatic, Octavian perhaps also wished to avoid the errors committed by Caesar in Illyricum, whose troops were defeated by the Pompeian navy, possibly even with the help of Liburnian ships.36 Before Pharsalus, Caesar had sent to Illyricum C. Antonius with four legions, to unlock the route through Illyricum to Italy for the Pompeians through the Bay of Kvarner (Quarnero) along the line Curicta–Crexi–Apsorus (Krk–Cres–Lošinj). At the island of Curicta he was defeated by Pompey’s navy under the command of M. Octavius and L. Scribonius Libo, who had already defeated a small fleet under P. Cornelius Dolabela, capturing some forty ships and altogether fifteen cohorts. Caesar’s commanders C.Salustius Crispus (the historian) and L. Minucius Basilus had two legions but no ships and therefore could not ensure the defence of the Liburnian coast and of the entrance into Italy.37

Fig. 4: Octavian’s campaigns: documented and hypothetical routes (computer graphics M. Belak)

An interesting question is what route was taken by Octavian’s army to attack the Iapodes, those living in the Alps, as well as those beyond the mountains (Fig. 4). Four out of thirteen chapters of Appian’s Illyrian History, in which Octavian’s war is described, are dedicated to the conquest of the Iapodes on the far side of the Alps.38 This campaign is mentioned immediately after that against the Salassi (outside Illyricum!) and before that against the Segestani, which, however, does not necessarily reflect the actual chronological sequence of events. But Cassius Dio, too, described the campaign against the Iapodes and the fall of Metulum at the beginning of his brief account of the war. He says that those tribes, living on this side of the mountains and not far from the sea, were easily overcome. Appian referred briefly to these less bellicose Iapodes, the Moentini, Avendeatae, and Aurupini, in the last paragraph of the 16th chapter, among the peoples of his second group.

Since Dio explicitly stated that they were settled near the sea, this makes it probable that they were attacked from the coast, and indeed this is the general opinion, already expressed by J. Kromayer.39 It was believed that Roman troops had been shipped to Senia and started their march against the Iapodes from this harbour,40 even if it can be regarded as relatively dangerous and not sufficiently protected from the winds. The road leading through Senjska Draga across the Vratnik Passand the Velebit mountains was no doubt rough, but it was relatively short, leading directly to Lika;41 it had certainly been used by the Iapodes when coming down to the coast. Nonetheless, it has also been suggested that the Romans advanced against both, the Iapodes and Segestia/Siscia simultaneously from Aquileia-Nauportus and from Burnum, but not from Senia.42

While it seems very likely that troops from Aquileia, after having defeated the Taurisci, continued their march against Segesta/Siscia, it is not plausible to assume that they advanced against the Iapodes from Burnum. This is actually contradicted by the logic of Appian’s and Dio’s narratives, and particularly by the itinerary described by Appian. Octavian took part both in the battles against the Iapodes and against the Delmatae, which took place after the capture of Segesta/Siscia, hence Burnum had not yet been conquered, when Metulum had already fallen. In terms of geogra-phy, too, the route leading from Burnum to Lika and Metulum can be regarded as more difficult and longer than the route leading from Senia to Lika. While the Iapodes often descended to the northern Liburnian coast and even conquered large sections of it (the Iapodian litoral is known to Strabo),43 no contacts between them and the Delmatae are recorded by the ancient sources. Thus it can be concluded that Senia almost certainly served as a port and supply base for Octavian’s army, partly perhaps against the Liburni, but most of all against the Iapodes.44

Fluvial battles at Segesta/Segestica (Siscia)

Ap?ian next described how Octavian took posses-sion of Segesta (called Segestica by Strabo and Siscia by Dio, the Flavian colony of Siscia, present-day Sisak), which he intended to use as a supply base for a war against the Dacians and the Bastarnae. The town offered considerable resistance, even if this lasted not longer than a month. Appian added that Octavian had ships built on the Sava to transport provisions to the Danube,45 which is well in accordance with his mentioned plans to invade Dacia. Cassius Dio said that boats had been sent to Octavian by the nearby allies, thus it may be supposed that ships had been provided for his army by the Noricans,46 who had always been Roman allies. However, Dio caused some confusion with his claim that boats had been brought along the Danube to Siscia. He obviously confused the Sava with the Danube, which happened all the more easily since the Danube was indeed the intended goal of these ships. In any case his statement is contradictory, since no nearby allies could have constructed boats on the distant and as yet unconquered Danube. Some boats may have also been confiscated from the recently conquered Taurisci, or been offered by the Roman merchants settled at Nauportus.47 An Aquileian ?icus had been established there perhaps as early as the time of Caesar. It seems strange that Appian does not mention any naval battles at Segesta/Siscia, although he noted that it had been a fortified town situated along the river, and protected as much by the river as by an extremely large ditch.48 On the other hand, fluvial battles against the Pannonians at Siscia are briefly referred to by Dio in his relatively short description of the war (in his narrative the town is never called Segesta).

During one of these battles Menodorus (abridged as Menas), the famous naval commander of Sextus Pompeius and the freed-man of his father, Pompey the Great, lost his life.49  Dio’s text reads: “ Although Siscia had strong fortifications, the inhabitants relied most of all on two navigable rivers. One of them, which is called Colops ,flows close to the town walls, falling a little farther into the Sava; it now surrounds the entire town, since Tiberius had a large channel dug out, across which the river again reaches its original bed. At that time, however, there was an empty space between the Colops, flowing close to the walls, and the Sava, flowing at a slight distance. This area was fortified with palisades and ditches. Caesar (Octavian) procured from the nearby allies boats, which he got across the Hister into the Sava and from there into the Colops, attacking the rebels at the same time with infantry and from the boats; even some fluvial battles took place in the rivers. The barbarians constructed canoes, with which they ventured to pose the Romans, and indeed killed many Roman soldiers, along whom also Menas, the freedman of Sextus. On land, too, they ?a?ded off the enemy successfully, until they learnt that some of their allies had been ambushed and killed. In such a way they were conquered by the Romans, which caused the rest of Pannonia to surrender after negotiations.”50 Appian devoted three entire chapters of his Illyrian History to the conquest of Segesta (22–24), hence it is most unusual that he mentioned neither the naval battles in the Colapis (the Kupa) nor the death of Menas/Menodorus, who must have been quite a celebrity of that time. This could only mean that he did not find these data in Augustus’ Memoirs. He does not mention the river Colapis at all, and at the end of chapter 22 he only mentioned that the Ister is called the Danube in the regions of the Dacians and Bastarnae and that “the Savus flows into it; Caesar had ships built on this river to transport provisions to the Danube.” Concerning the short siege of the town, he says: “ However, they (the Segestani) could not bear the sight of the troops then they approached, and in an enraged assault they again shut the gates and placed themselves on the gates. Caesar then built a bridge across the river and constructed palisades and ditches on all sides. When he had thus confined them, he had two ramparts erected. The Segestani attacked them repeatedly, but since they could not dislodge them, they threw torches and great quantities of fire onto them from above. As help was approaching from other Paeones [i.e. the Pannonians] ,Caesar intercepted them in an ambush; some of them he killed, others fled and none of the Paeones sent aid after this.”51 There is not a word of any boats, neither Roman nor those constructed by the Segestani. The famous Menas/Menodorus, a former freedman of Pompey the Great, and after Pompey’s death the admiral (praefectus classis) of his son Sextus Pompeius,52twice deserted to Octavian, first in the spring or summer of 38 BC, returning to Sextus in the next year. In the summer of 36 BC, a year before Octavian’s Illyrianwar, he difinitely went over to Octavian with a flotilla of 60 ships,53 and was the only freedman whom Octavi-an, having bestowed on him equestrian status, ever admitted to his table.54  Obviously Menodorus took part in the Illyrian war. It would seem strange that Augustus would not have mentioned the naval battles at Segesta and the death of Menodorus by oversight, since these had been major military events in the courseof besieging Segea/Siscia. It can plausi?ly be su?geedthat Au?ustus omi?ed them on purpose. A hypothesishas been put forward that Octavian discreetly got ridof Menodorus on the advice of one of his best friendsand best military commanders and advisors, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa,55 who had most probably been in charge of the Roman navy during the Illyrian war.56 Agrippa no doubt regarded Menodorus as unreliable and feared that in the future he could again change sides and go over to Antony. Agrippa accompanied Octavian in the campaign against the Iapodes, and was perhaps also present at the siege of Segesta, since from Appian’s account this seems to have been a continuation of the war against the Iapodes.

Remarks in conclusion. After the victory, Octavian no doubt rewarded those communities that had cooperated with the Romans during the war. In many respects, he continued Caesar’s policy in Illyricum, and indeed, it is not always easy to distinguish which benefits were bestowed by Caesar and which by Octavian; the foundation dates of many Dalmatian towns are controversial.57 Salonae, Narona, and Epidaurum almost certainly became colonies under Caesar, while Iader was probably founded at the latest by Octavian around 30 BC;58 Aenona, Arba, Corinium, Tarsatica, Vegium, and Senia are also regarded as Augustan foundations;59 all of them are coastal cities, which is noteworthy. Octavian/Augustus may have also settled some new colonists in smaller towns, such as Scodra, Risinium, Olcinium, and others mentioned by Pliny as oppida civium Romanorum ,60 although it is not certain when they attained the formal status of a colonia or municipium.61 It should be noted that all of them were situated on the coast and had harbours, which may have already played some role in the course of the Illyrian war. Liburnia in particular seems to have enjoyed a privileged position, which may reflect the supporting role it had played in the course of theRoman conquest.62

Acknowledgement I would very much like to thank Siniša Bilić- Dujmušić and Francis Tassaux for their valuable comments on my paper, Mateja Belak for her help with the illustrations, Barbara Smith Demo for having edited the English text, and Ivan Matijašić for having kindly translated the summary.



CIL Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum

ILLRP Inscriptiones Latinae Liberae Rei Publicae, ed. A. Degrassi, Firenze, vol. I, 1972; vol. II, 1963.

ILS Inscriptiones Latinae selectae, ed. H. Dessau, Berlin 1892 – 1916


SAŽEAK ULOGA MORNARICE U OKTAVIJANOVOM ILIRSKOM RATU Majea ŠAŠEL KOSijekom Okavijanovo Iiko aa (35. – 33. . . K.), vojno oovje oiao je važnu uogu, kako namou ako i na ijekama. Neke o ih akija okumeniai u anički ovjeničai, ok u oae eoavjai naonovu ekonuiane vojne aeije i ane oiike. Zemjoina ojea oijeđenih naoa ueia a u iinaanui u azičio vijeme iz više avaa: iz Akvieje (Kani i auii) i zaiguno iz Hiije, najvjeojanijeiz Poe (jeveno iunki ooi i kono e najvjeojanije Jaoi). Jena o oknih aza za Rimku vojku najeveu ez umnje je ia Senia. Poznao je a je Rimka oa zaijenia oove o Liuna. Demai i guai na južnom Jaanu moai u ii naanui iz Buniija. Aijan vi ominje Okavijanovu ojeu na guaima Meie (Mje) i Cne Coye (Kočua) i njihovo unišenje. On je zaim oiao Okavijanovo ovajanje Seee(Siia, Siak) kao azu u au oiv Dačana i Baana. Aian oaje a Okavijan ima oove ađene na Saviza ijevoz naminia i oeme ema Dunavu. Peoavio je a će oovi ii okbjivani za Okavijanovu vojku o noičkih aveznika. Moguće je a je oovje jeomično zaijenjeno o neavno okoenih auikaii u iaai imkim ovima iz Nauoa. Dion Kaije navoi iječnu iku oiv Panonaa u Siiji, u jenojo kojih Menooa, ivši ooođenik i avan zaovjenik oe Sexa Pomeja, gui živo.

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