Ancient History & Civilisation

ROME BUILDS A FLEET

For Polybius this was the real turning point in the conflict, for he later claimed that it was the capture of Acragas that first alerted the Roman Senate to the possibility of forcing the Carthaginians completely out of Sicily.10 According to Polybius, it had been decided that this could be achieved only if the Carthaginian dominance of the sea was successfully challenged. In fact the Romans had already identified their lack of a navy as a significant weakness. By 260, four years into the war, it had been decided to build a fleet of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes. The catalyst had been the preceding year, when the Carthaginian fleet had started raiding the Italian coast, possibly from bases in Sardinia. There was also some suggestion that Carthage’s maritime dominance had discouraged many of Sicily’s coastal cities from siding with the Romans.

It appears that the Romans took as their model the Carthaginian quinquereme that ran aground and had been captured at the start of the war. New crews, made up of both poorer Roman citizens and Italian allies, were trained on land using unorthodox methods, described here by Polybius: ‘Making the men sit on rowers’ benches on dry land, in the same order as on the benches of the ships themselves, they accustomed them to fall back all at once bringing their hands up to them, and again to come forward pushing out their hands, and to begin and finish these movements at the word of command of the chief crewman.’11 The boats themselves were constructed at breakneck speed, taking just sixty days to complete, perhaps by copying the Carthaginian method of construction by numbers.12

The new fleet was tested at sea as soon as it was completed, so that its crews could gain some experience on water before they were called on to fight. However, the new admiral, the consul Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, anxious like all Roman aristocrats for military glory, was in no mood to wait around. In 260 BC, while at Messana with an advance guard of seventeen ships, he got news that the citizens of Lipara, the main town on the Aeolian Islands, were ready to surrender their city to the Romans. However, the Carthaginians soon received intelligence of the plot and sent a force to the city, where they trapped Scipio and his ships in the harbour. The panic-stricken Roman crews quickly showed their inexperience by deserting their ships and fleeing to the shore, where they were promptly captured, along with their commander.13

Unlike his Carthaginian counterparts, who would have been severely reprimanded or worse for presiding over such a debacle, Scipio’s career seems to have been unaffected. After he was ransomed, a story was put about that he had actually been a victim of treachery rather than his recklessness, and he went on to hold the consulship for a second time in 254. While public honours continued, however, the more cynical members of the Roman population privately bestowed on him a mischievous new nickname–Asina, or She-Donkey.14

For the Carthaginian admiral, yet another Hannibal, this was clearly a good start. However, as he sailed with a reconnaissance squadron of fifty ships to locate the remainder of the Roman fleet, he suffered the misfortune of encountering it head on as it sailed towards Messana. Heavily outnumbered, many of the Carthaginian ships were lost, although Hannibal himself managed to escape.15 The victory over the impetuous Scipio now looked like less of a triumph. Not only had he been replaced by his more competent consular colleague, Gaius Duilius, but the wait for Duilius’ arrival at Messana had given the novice Roman fleet more time to train.

While they prepared for active service, the fleet became increasingly conscious of the poor construction and unwieldy nature of their hastily built ships. Polybius describes how, in order to counter these shortcomings, an ingenious new device called the corvus(‘the crow’) was developed. The crow was a type of boarding bridge 1.2 metres wide and 11 metres long with a low parapet on either side. The first 3.6 metres of the bridge was made up of two prongs separated by a channel into which slotted a tall vertical pole on the deck such that the bridge could be raised up at an angle against the pole by a pulley system. When in battle, the bridge could then be released so that it fell on the enemy ship’s deck. A heavy pointed spike on the underside of the bridge would pierce the timber of the deck, so that the ships were now effectively fixed together, and the Roman marines could then use the bridge to board the enemy. The beauty of this system was that it negated the Roman fleet’s manifold disadvantages, particularly its lack of manoeuvrability, its slowness and the inexperience of its crews.

In a clear sign of Roman recognition that Carthage would be completely defeated only if the war at sea were won, Duilius handed over control of the Roman land forces in Sicily to his lieutenants and took personal command of the fleet. Knowing that the Romans possessed the element of surprise through their new invention, he now risked a full-scale confrontation. The Roman fleet caught up with the Carthaginians off Mylae, on the northern Sicilian coast. Polybius vividly recounts what happened next:

The Carthaginians on sighting him put to sea with 130 ships, quite overjoyed and eager, as they despised the inexperience of the Romans. They all sailed straight towards the enemy, not even considering it even worthwhile to maintain order in the attack, but just as if they were falling on a prey that was obviously theirs . . . On approaching and seeing the crows nodding aloft on the prow of each ship, the Carthaginians were at first nonplussed, being surprised at the construction of the engines. However, as they entirely gave the enemy up for lost, the front ships attacked daringly. But when the ships that came into collision were all held fast by the machines, and the Roman crews boarded by means of the crows and attacked them hand-to-hand on deck, some of the Carthaginians were cut down and others surrendered from dismay at what was happening, the battle having become just like a fight on land. So the first thirty ships that engaged were taken with all their crews, including the commander’s galley, Hannibal himself managing to escape by a miracle in a rowing boat. The remainder of the Carthaginian fleet was mustering as if to charge the enemy, but seeing, as they approached, the fate of the advanced ships they turned aside and avoided the blows of the engines. Trusting in their swiftness, they veered round the enemy in the hope of being able to strike him in safety either on the broadside or on the stern, but when the crows swung round and plunged down in all directions and in all manner of ways so that those who approached them were of necessity grappled, they finally gave way and took to flight, terror-stricken by this novel experience and with the loss of fifty ships.16

Duilius was rewarded for Rome’s first major naval victory with a triumph and the construction of a monument, the Columna Rostrata, on which his achievements were listed.17 According to Diodorus, the defeated Carthaginian admiral, Hannibal, escaped punishment for defeat by sending a post-battle message back to Carthage, pretending to ask if he should engage the Roman fleet. When the affirmative answer came back, he was able to claim that he was merely following orders.18

The victory at Mylae, although by no means decisive, emboldened the Romans to extend their field of operation to Sardinia and Corsica, where they launched a number of raids. It was one of these operations that led to Hannibal, the defeated Carthaginian admiral, being executed by his own subordinates. Zonaras, citing the historian Cassius Dio, claims that Hannibal was tricked into open water by the Roman admiral, who had planted false reports of an invasion of Africa. Hannibal had rashly chased after the Roman fleet, only to be ambushed in the fog, and with the majority of his ships sunk he took refuge with the remainder of his forces in the Sardinian city of Sulcis. According to the same source, however, his disaffected men then turned on their commander and crucified him.19

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