The Classical Legacy of Admiralty: The Pre-Roman World (Part One of a Two-Part Series)

The classical world, western civilization from the dawn of written history to the fall of the Roman Empire [1] in 476 A.D., [2] was dependant on the arteries of transportation that crisscrossed Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.  Like the modern world, no state existed entirely in a vacuum.  Whether an empire or a city-state lived or died depended largely on its ability to move people and materials efficiently.  What we know today as admiralty and maritime law has its earliest roots in the classical period. [3] This body of law was highly developed in antiquity when compared with other legal subjects, especially considering that many admiralty law doctrines are unchanged from their ancient states.  Studying the state of admiralty in ancient history sheds much light on the reasons why admiralty is the way it is today, and why it differs from other doctrinal areas of law.

One half of the reason for this sophistication in ancient admiralty was the policy of keeping shipping over water quick, efficient, and effective by making detailed laws that were easy to understand and even easier to implement.  The Romans, skilled legalists from the very beginnings of the Republic through the Byzantine era, refined admiralty and provided the means of its transcription into the modern world.   This was done by codifying it into Emperor Justinian’s Digests and Institutes, two Roman legal documents of which we are familiar with today. [4] The Romans developed a modern conception of law as a science, and not a series of universal truths, normative goals, or ethical ambitions. [5] The admiralty matters of the Digests and Institutes were not new promulgations by Roman jurists, but instead a product of thousands of years of seafaring jurisprudence that the Romans simply borrowed and adapted to their own needs. [6]

The other reason for sophisticated ancient admiralty laws has to do with the volume of materials transported on open water during the classical period.  The earliest civilizations through Greece’s dominance in the pre-Christian era relied on the Mediterranean Sea and major rivers such as the Nile and the Euphrates for food and transportation. [7] Rome never came into herself until the Christian era when the Empire completely surrounded the Mediterranean and Roman shipping could sail from one port to another unhindered by threats from pirates or enemies of Rome. [8]

This article is part one of a two-part examination of admiralty in the classical period with a special emphasis on the reasons why the substantive law was created in the way it was.  The state of ancient shipping and the substantive laws of pre-Greek states, Greek states, and Rome will be analyzed and compared to modern doctrine where applicable.  This article specifically concerns the context of the Mediterranean Sea in ancient shipping as well has pre-Roman developments in admiralty.  Every effort has been made to use original sources from antiquity. [9]

I. The Mediterranean in Context

Humanity has been traversing open water in ships long before the dawn of written history. [10] The Mediterranean Sea was ideal for western civilization’s first tentative steps into seafaring because of its small size and great diversity of ethnic groups located along its shores. [11] Although historical evidence indicates that the earliest shipping probably occurred in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula, it is clear that the state of the art in ships and seafaring came of age in the Mediterranean. [12]

Although earlier writers hint at the cultural diffusion that was able to occur between different Mediterranean groups, [13] Roman literature is awash in the commerce that occurred in the region.  A part of the reason for greater sea trade during the time of the Roman Empire was pure necessity.  During the reign of Emperor Gaius Caligula (37-41 A.D.), the population of the Italian peninsula increased to the point that regional farms could no longer sustain the nutritional needs of the population.  Rome itself and the outlying areas between the Rubicon in the north and Sicily in the south became more dependant on foreign-produced food.  The Roman system of roads, although developed far more extensively there than in other parts of the world, was incapable of supplying all the food necessary to feed the Roman population.  Food riots were common, and future Emperor Claudius was nearly killed in one such riot.  [14] As a result, Claudius made it one of his imperial goals to drastically revamp and expand the infrastructure of the Italian Peninsula, including deepening and expanding the capacity of the city of Rome’s chief port at Ostia. [15] Afterwards, the port and the roads connecting it to Rome were more than adequate to feed the population. [16]

At its height, the Roman Empire completely surrounded the Mediterranean Sea and ships could crisscross its entire span without fear of anything but the natural hazards of seafaring in the ancient world.  The city itself was very cosmopolitan by ancient standards, and a Roman of wealth and influence could acquire just about any type of food, material, or service he or she desired. [17] Roman commentator Aelius Aristides notes:

Around the Mediterranean lies the continents far and wide, pouring an endless flow of goods to Rome.  There is brought from every land and sea whatever is brought forth by the seasons and is produced by all countries, rivers, lakes, and the skills of Greeks and foreigners.  So that anyone who wants to behold all these products must either journey through the whole world to see them or else come to this city…. So many merchantmen arrive here with cargoes from all over, at every season, and with each return of the harvest, that the city seems like a common warehouse of the world. [18]

The types of goods and ports of origin were numerous:

One can see so many cargoes from India, or, if you wish from Arabia…. Clothing from Babylonia and the luxuries from the Barbarian lands beyond arrive in much greater volume…. Egypt, Sicily, and the civilized parts of Africa are Rome’s farms.  The arrival and departure of ships never cease, so that it is astounding that the sea – not to mention the harbor – suffices for all the merchantmen.  All things converge here: trade, seafaring, agriculture, metallurgy, all the skills which exist and have existed, anything that is begotten and grows.  Whatever cannot be seen here belongs in the category of non-existence. [19]

The Mediterranean was also an efficient medium to transport troops across vast distances to keep the empire together and ward off enemies of Rome.  History indicates that the Romans did not become skilled in building large ships until the Punic Wars, when it was required to send vast amounts of soldiers and materiel across the sea to North Africa to take the war to Carthage’s homeland. [20]  At that time Carthage was a major naval power itself and conducting an extensive overseas commerce with its own colonies and the Greek city-states. [21] Defeating it was no small feat for the fledgling Roman Navy, and the ship building techniques developed during the period clearly aided future technological breakthroughs in Rome’s peacetime merchant fleet. [22]

Thus, it is clear that the Mediterranean, both geographically and ethnically, was a prime spot for the development of an extensive system of admiralty and maritime laws.  Many of these laws were simply adapted from prehistoric maritime customs, of which become incorporated into various legal systems as time progressed.  In the development of the law, two major periods are easily distinguishable: pre-Roman admiralty and Roman admiralty.  Each developmental period will be discussed separately.

II. Admiralty in the Pre-Greek World

The prehistoric maritime commerce that occurred in the Arabian the Mediterranean Seas was extensive enough to make it necessary for the seamen of the day to develop their own system of customs for ships to interact with each other.  These customs eventually were assimilated into the laws of seafaring nations to give their courts more legitimacy in hearing cases involving parties of more than one nation.  The most ancient law code known to modern society, the Code of Hammurabi, was developed approximately 3,000 years ago in the Mesopotamian civilization. [23]

The Code outlines laws for all facets of society, but mentioned shipping extensively.  Mesopotamia was not a unified state in the sense Rome was a unified state, but instead was made up of a variety of loosely organized cities sharing a common culture.  The cities were linked by an extensive river trade that made use of two major waterways in the region: the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. [24] The Code specifically discusses the remedies of ship collision and the procedure for leasing ships. [25] For example, the law proscribes a rigid cause-and-effect procedure: a man who loses another’s ship while in his custody can only right himself in the eyes of the law by procuring and turning over possession of another ship. [26] Similarly, if the bailee merely founders it, but is able to save the ship and return it to the owner, he was liable to the owner for half the value of the ship in silver; no more, no less, and in no other monetary medium. [27] The Code also details specific compensation owed seamen and longshoremen for certain duties; for example, a seaman who caulks a ship for an owner was entitled under the code to exactly two shekels of silver. [28]

A major theme in the history of admiralty is the almost unbroken evolution of the maritime law everywhere, not in segments occurring in different countries.  At least one commentator has noted that most of Hammurabi’s Code was heavily influenced by even more ancient Sumerian and Akkadian laws, thus the maritime provisions of the Code may date to those earlier laws. [29] Egypt inherited the basic premises of maritime law from Mesopotamia.  Ancient Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories notes that Egypt at its height conducted an extensive commerce on the Mediterranean and he alleges that the Egyptians even circumnavigated the African continent. [30] Egypt’s main port, Alexandria, developed into a large commercial center that retained a large population.  It eventually became known as a major academic center as well, undoubtedly because of the number of foreign persons coming and going.  Egyptian vessels were far more advanced than their Mesopotamian counterparts, and larger too.  One such vessel discovered several decades ago measured 150 feet long. [31] Unfortunately, no documents featuring Egyptian maritime law exist today. [32]

As Egyptian sea power began to wane in 1700 B.C., [33] the Phoenician civilization bloomed in the area now occupied by modern Israel and Lebanon.  The Phoenicians are better known to historians as the inventers of the phonetic alphabet copied by the Greeks and Romans and descended as we know it today, [34] but their history implies that they must have had a detailed admiralty law as sophisticated as the Egyptians, if not more so.  The Phoenicians were the first Mediterranean civilization to expand via the sea, not just over land. [35] The Phoenicians founded several colonies of quasi-independent city-states all over the Mediterranean, including Byblus, Sidon, Tyre, and Carthage. [36] This expansion was predicated not so much on population control, but instead on commercial goals. [37]

By 800 B.C., Greece became the dominant power of the Mediterranean.  [38] Greece, much like the Phoenician civilization, was not a unified empire but instead a series of loosely-organized and occasionally allied city-states sharing a similar culture and similar customs.  The Greeks relied on shipping perhaps more than any group before them in history. [39] Due to the decentralized nature of their culture it was generally acceptable for city-states to branch out and create colonies as far away from Greece as the Italian peninsula, Sicily, and North Africa.

Unlike the Phonecians, the Greeks expanded more for population concerns than any commercial or economic reason. [40] Their maritime law and their shipping customs reflected this.  The Greeks are unique in the history of admiralty law because their law reflected a distinction between admiralty and maritime law and other, land-based disciplines.  The Greeks had their own system of courts to hear maritime claims separate from other courts for land-based claims.  At least one part of the reason for this had to do with the unique nature of admiralty claims over other areas of Greek laws.  By keeping maritime claims separate, the law was made more efficient and did not hinder Greek military transports and commerce between the colonies and the mother city-states.  [41]

The most active Greek city-state on the Mediterranean was Rhodes, and from Rhodes western civilization received much maritime law passed through the ages, from Rome to the modern day.  In fact, our modern understanding of General Average and some concepts relating to collision between ships are directly founded on Rhodian Sea law. [42] Unfortunately, we know of this connection only through references to the Rhodian Sea law through later works; only a very small fragment of the actual Rhodian law exists today, and commentators cannot accurately determine whether the fragment is a part of the code or a judicial enactment.  However, it can be inferred from contemporary authors of the time that the Rhodian maritime law was extensive indeed.

Next month’s conclusion to our examination of classical admiralty will feature Rome and the many features of modern admiralty and maritime law that it was directly responsible for.  Look for it here in the transportation section on March 15, 2007.


[1]  At the end of Roman influence in Europe, the Empire was divided into two separate Empires by the Emperor Constantine in 330 A.D.  Separate sets of emperors ruled the Empires from Rome in the west and Byzantium (later Constantinople and presently Istanbul) in the east.  When historians discuss “the fall of Rome” they are referring to the fall of the western empire in 476 A.D. (see note 2).  The eastern empire lived in for almost 1,000 years, knowing itself as the “Roman Empire” but modern historians knowing it as the Byzantine Empire.  See CHESTER G. STARRA HISTORY OF THE MODERN WORLD 703-709 (4th ed., 1991).


[3]  See 1 BENEDICT ON ADMIRALTY § 2 (2006).

[4]  JUSTINIANTHE DIGEST OF ROMAN LAW 8 (Penguin Classics ed., 1979).

[5]  Id. at 7.

[6]  Id.



[9]  Greek and Latin translations of ancient authors will be from the Penguin Classics edition, or in the alternative from the Loeb Classical Library edition published by the Harvard University Press.

[10]  See SCHOENBAUMsupra note 6.

[11]  Id.

[12]  Id.

[13]  See HERODOTUSTHE HISTORIES (Penguin Classics ed., 2003); HOMERTHE ILIAD (Penguin Classics ed., 2003);XENOPHONTHE PERSIAN EXPEDITION (Penguin Classics ed., 2003).

[14]  On the problems of food supply in the early Roman Empire, see SUETONIUSTHE TWELVE CAESARS 196-197 (Penguin Classics ed., 1989).

[15]  For information and a description of Claudius’s expansion project at the Port of Ostia, and an extensive list of ancient sources verifying them, see VINCENT SCARAMUZZATHE EMPEROR CLAUDIUS 168-170 (1949).

[16]  For an interesting discussion on the food (and decadence!) of the Roman people, see KARL CHRISTTHE ROMANS 108-109 (1984).

[17]  ROBERT B. KEBRICROMAN PEOPLE 2-3 (4th ed., 2005).

[18]  AELIUS ARISTIDES, TO ROME 11-13, translated in Id. at 2-3.

[19]  Id.

[20]  SCHOENBAUMsupra note 6, at § 1-3.

[21]  JOHN WARRY, WARFARE IN THE CLASSICAL WORLD 126-127 (Barnes and Noble ed., 1998).

[22]  Id.

[23]  SCHOENBAUMsupra note 6, § 1-2.

[24]  Both flow through modern-day Iraq and are still heavily used.


[26]  BENEDICT ON ADMIRALTYsupra note 3, § 2 note 1.

[27]  Id.

[28]  Id.

[29]  SCHOENBAUMsupra note 6, § 1-2.

[30]  See id.  For Herodotus’s account of Ancient Egypt, see HERODOTUS, THE HISTORIES 95-173 (Penguin Classics ed., 2003).

[31] BENEDICT ON ADMIRALTYsupra note 3, § 2 note 5.

[32]  Apparently, little Egyptian law exists today at all besides evidence that the Egyptians had a system of enforcing promises and obligations. See SCHOENBAUMsupra note 6, § 1-2.

[33]  STARRsupra note 1, 66

[34]  STARR, supra note 1, 127.

[35]  Id.

[36]  BENEDICT ON ADMIRALTYsupra note 3, § 2

[37]  See SCHOENBAUMsupra note 6, § 1-2.

[38]  Id.

[39]  WARRYsupra note 20, 23-24.

[40]  BENEDICT ON ADMIRALTYsupra note 3, § 3.

[41]  Id.

[42]  Note that the “Rhodian Sea Code” known to legal historians is not directly from Rhodes.  Instead, the common understanding is that it dates to the later Roman / early Byzantine period, around the time of the codification of Roman law under Justinian in 533 A.D.  It is certain that at least some of the Byzantine Rhodian Sea Code is in fact inspired by the actual Rhodian laws, it is unclear exactly what and to what extent it is.