I have read one brief account of military planning around the time of Roman emperor Constantine the Great (272 – 337) whereby the Roman navy's rowers could have been substituted by animals (source citation: Anon. de rebus bell. 17,1 – 2).

Do we know anything more about what animals would have been employed, what the proposed scheme was, and whether something along such lines was ever tried in war? The account mentions that the overall aim was to reduce labor cost.

UPDATE I guess I better add more details about my sources before everybody starts thinking this is some kind of joke :) The brief account occurs on p. 365 of German historian Raimund Schulz' book Feldherren, Krieger und Strategen: Krieg in der Antike von Achill bis Attila. There's a footnote pointing to the aforementioned primary Latin source as well as to this French book as secondary source: M. Reddé: Mare nostrum. Les infrastructures, le dispositif et l'histoire de la marine militaire sous l'empire romain.

And the history of warfare has known some strange war vessels indeed, such as the planned World War II air craft carrier made of pykrete (a mixture of wood pulp and ice) ...

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    [OT] I'm imagining animals actually sitting in benches and rowing using their paws. Oh, look bit.ly/1fSDfql bit.ly/1kGM7Qu bit.ly/1ogtSRV bit.ly/1fSDl16
    – o0'.
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 10:21
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    @Lohoris or elephants blowing into sails :)
    – Drux
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 10:50
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    @Lohoris I was thinking something more like a team of dolphins hitched up in front of the boat to pull it along like a horse-drawn chariot. :)
    – David H
    Commented Mar 2, 2014 at 11:09
  • @Drux elephants could use their trunks to swing oars too. Wow, such multi functional animals.
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 7:53
  • @jwenting Let's file a patent ... :)
    – Drux
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 7:58

2 Answers 2


What animals: Oxen

The scheme: Paddle-Wheel

Used for warfare: Unlikely ~ (No evidence exists)

The first mention of paddle wheels as a means of propulsion comes from the 4th–5th century military treatise De Rebus Bellicis (chapter XVII) you described, where the anonymous Roman author describes an ox-driven paddle-wheel warship:

"Animal power, directed by the resources on ingenuity, drives with ease and swiftness, wherever utility summons it, a warship suitable for naval combats, which, because of its enormous size, human frailty as it were prevented from being operated by the hands of men. In its hull, or hollow interior, oxen, yoked in pairs to capstans, turns wheels attached to the sides of the ship; paddles, projecting above the circumference or curved surface of the wheels, beating the water with their strokes like oar-blades as the wheels revolve, work with an amazing and ingenious effect, their action producing rapid motion. This warship, moreover, because of its own bulk and because of the machinery working inside it, joins battle with such pounding force that it easily wrecks and destroys all enemy warships coming at close quarters."

Sources and suggested reading:

De Rebus Bellicis (anon.), chapter XVII, text edited by Robert Ireland, in: BAR International Series 63, part 2, p. 34

  • paddle wheel steamers were used in a military capacity, but are fragile which makes them less than ideal. I think the last ones were some river boats on the Amazon.
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 7:54
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    +1 Excellent. There is even an illustration in the Latin version that's linked from the Wikipedia article.
    – Drux
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 8:06
  • Given the time during which this fanciful idea appeared (Late Empire falling apart), it feels a lot like some Wunderwaffe... Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 9:21
  • @FelixGoldberg – Agreed, I did some serious research trying to dig up information on whether the Romans ever actually produced a ship of this kind. Nothing recorded or found in archeological surveys would suggest it. My hunch, it was a wonder weapon. I am updating the text above, but if anyone does track down info please post!
    – Courtny
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 13:58

This mechanism would have had limited use in a naval vessel, because of the absence of a reversible gear drive. (The first such was invented by Filippo Bruneschelli during construction of the dome for Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence about 1420 AD.) Changing direction without one involved unharnessing all the oxen, reversing them on the platform, and re-harnessing them. Clearly performing such a maneuver in the midst of naval combat was impracticable.

One exception to the above might have been for driving a fire-ship into an opposing fleet without risk to one's sailors.

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