As Carthage’s stock as the pre-eminent power in the central Mediterranean had fallen ever lower, one arm of its military still remained with its exalted reputation intact. The Hellenistic kings may have built ever larger and more pointless ships, but everyone in the Mediterranean world in the early third century BC knew that Carthage ruled the waves. Yet it had been a very long time since that much-vaunted maritime supremacy had really been tested. Apart from a few minor skirmishes, the Sicilian wars had produced little in the way of naval warfare. But nothing about Rome–a land power with virtually no fleet of its own –suggested any challenge to Carthage’s navy.
In all its dealings with Carthage after the defeat of Pyrrhus, Rome clearly considered itself to be an equal. Only in one area did this Roman perception of parity with Carthage not exist: the sea. Polybius described the Carthaginian position at the beginning of the First Punic War as one of ‘undisputed command of the sea’.1 The Carthaginians had been the pacesetters in naval technological innovation throughout the fourth century BC. They had been the first to develop the quadrireme, which was both bigger and more powerful than the trireme, the ship that had dominated naval warfare for the previous 200 years. Indeed, a veritable arms race developed, with different Mediterranean powers vying with each other to develop larger and larger warships, to the extent that some of these craft were so huge that they were of no use at all for naval warfare.2
However, the quadrireme was fairly quickly replaced by the larger quinquereme, which was first developed under the aegis of Carthage’s old enemy Dionysius of Syracuse. The quinquereme (from the Latin for ‘five’, quinque) took its Roman name from the number of men required to power each section of it: two pairs of men operated the upper two tiers of oars, while a single man operated the lower. Although they were not the original inventors of the quinquereme, the Carthaginians quickly adopted it and did much to improve its original design. It is thought that one of these innovations was to house all three levels of oars and their rowers in a single oar box that projected from the hull. This meant that the hull was exceptionally wide and could also be strengthened.3
These innovations were particularly important for contemporary naval warfare, in which the two main aggressive tactics were boarding and ramming. The latter involved driving the ram, a long blunt-headed metal implement that was fixed to the ship’s keel, into the side of the enemy ship, so that it would start taking in water and be abandoned or taken or sink. The reinforced hulls of the Carthaginian quinqueremes gave them extra protection from ramming, but made what was already a difficult manoeuvre even trickier to complete successfully themselves. In fact the size of the quinquereme made it too unwieldy for this tactic to be really effective.4 Increasingly, war fleets tended to rely on securing themselves to enemy ships with grappling hooks before boarding parties attempted to overpower the enemy crew. Once again the quinquereme offered an advantage for this form of combat, because its wide deck could accommodate a larger number of marines for hand-to-hand fighting.
Marine archaeologists have found the remains of several Carthaginian ships dating to this period, of which one in particular, found lying on the seabed just off Marsala on the west coast of Sicily, has excited much interest. It was a small military craft in use sometime around the mid third century BC. On close inspection, archaeologists were amazed to discover that each piece of the boat was carefully marked with a letter which ensured that the complex design could be easily and swiftly assembled. The Marsala wreck had, in effect, been a flat-pack warship.5 The excavators were also able to provide invaluable insights into the crew’s diet, which appears to have consisted of preservable foods such as meat (horse, beef, venison, poultry, pork and goat) and nuts (almonds and walnuts). Wine appears to have been drunk in response to the lack of fresh water.6
Rome, on the other hand, although not quite the maritime virgin that Polybius (who was generally sympathetic towards the Roman cause) tried to portray it as, had very little experience of naval warfare.7 After all, the Roman army had never fought outside the confines of the Italian peninsula. By the last decade of the fourth century the Romans had officials whose responsibility was the building and maintenance of a small number of warships, but when this fleet had seen action against the Tarentines in 282 BC it had been soundly defeated. After that embarrassment the Romans had preferred to rely on their allies to provide shipping for troop transportation.