Ancient History & Civilisation

The Early Rounds

The Romans' decision to include twenty triremes in their fleet of quinqueremes has been plausibly interpreted as a revival of the old duumviral squadrons, perhaps a sign of the Romans' innate conservatism. Triremes were no longer large enough to play a significant part in a massed battle, but any fleet needed a number of faster vessels to support its heavier warships. Polybius is inclined to imply that later fleets consisted entirely of 'fives' and they were clearly the majority type, but he does mention the presence of smaller 'fours' and 'threes' as well as occasional larger vessels, and it is clear that he uses 'five' as a shorthand for 'warship'. Polybius tells us that the model for the Roman quinqueremes was a Punic 'five' which had been captured after running aground near Rhegium in an attempt to prevent the crossing of Claudius' forces. It is unclear where the construction work was undertaken. Presumably the skills of the shipwrights from the naval allies was drawn upon, but it is distinctly likely that the work was undertaken at a central point under the direct supervision of Roman magistrates, perhaps at Ostia. Many of the skills involved were those of carpentry and woodworking used in many other day-to-day activities with which Roman craftsmen would have been familiar. Although inexperience may have lowered the quality of the first ships produced, the production of so many vessels makes it highly likely that the standard of workmanship steadily improved. Whilst the ships were being built crews of rowers began their training on benches erected to represent their positions in a ship. Pliny tells us that the ships were completed in only sixty days.10

The story is a typical instance of the Romans' pride in their ability to copy the technology and tactics of their enemies and eventually surpass them, but there is no good reason to disbelieve it, nor to doubt Polybius' explicit statement that quinqueremes had not been manufactured in Italy before this time (Polybius 1. 20. 10). Syracuse had constructed large ships in the past, but if Morrison and Coates are right then the Carthaginian 'five' may anyway have been of a different design to Greek patterns and perhaps believed to be superior. The speed of the construction has recently been given added credibility by the analysis of the Marsala wreck. This small Punic warship revealed traces of many markings on its timbers clearly indicating the stages of construction. For instance the outlines of tenons had been painted onto the planks showing the workmen where to cut. The Punic alphabet, used as numerals, had been painted along the keel at intervals which corresponded to the positions of the ribs. Unlike more modern techniques, the shell of the hull was made before the skeleton of ribs was put into it. Since this meant that the men working inside the hull to fit the timbers of the floor would therefore have been unable to see this series of marks on the keel, the same sequence had been repeated on one of the strakes inside the hull. Another word of instruction had been painted upside down, since this was the direction from which a workman would have looked at it during construction. Interestingly, the shipwrights had not followed the more modern practice of trying to employ suitably shaped pieces of wood to make each component, but had been quite happy to join several bits of timber to form the requisite shape. Such joints could be stronger than the natural wood. The use of a pre-marked template conforming to a standard design must have gready speeded construction. For a long time it was believed that such techniques of mass production had been unknown before the Industrial Revolution.11

Before describing the first operations of the newly created Roman fleet, we must consider who provided its crews, in particular the over 30,000 rowers required. Clearly some were drawn from the socii navales, who probably also provided a good number of the skilled captains and deck crew, but it is doubtful that these cities could have provided such a large number of rowers and certain that they could not have mustered the bulk of the huge crews required for the Roman fleets later in the war. Some of the other Italian peoples seem to have provided some men, notably the Samnites who are mentioned in this respect purely because they attempted a mutiny in 259. There is no reason to suppose that it was only the Samnites who supplied sailors. However, despite the dismissive comments of some historians regarding the seafaring aptitude of the Roman people, it is distinctly probable that a good proportion of the crews were from the class of citizens known as proletarii, the very poor who lacked the qualification for service in the legions, as well as freedmen from the urban population. This seems to be confirmed by the, admittedly problematic, census figures recorded by Livy, as well as the colourful anecdote told of the sister of Claudius Pulcher which we shall encounter later in our narrative.12

As the ships of the completed Roman fleet put to sea, their crews spent a short time training before moving along the Italian coast to the Straits. Of the two consuls in 260, the patrician Cnaeus Cornelius Scipio was appointed to command the fleet, whilst his colleague, the novus homo Caius Duilius, was given command of the land forces in Sicily. Scipio went on ahead with the first seventeen ships to be ready and crossed to Messana, to prepare the logistical support for the fleet's arrival. Whilst there, he received the offer to betray Lipara to the Romans already mentioned in the last chapter. Lipara was the most important port in the small group of islands lying off the north-eastern tip of Sicily, ideally placed to threaten the direct route to Italy. Denying the Carthaginians this base was clearly highly desirable and Scipio readily seized this opportunity for an early success. Taking his seventeen ships he travelled the short distance to Lipara and occupied the harbour. Whether or not this was a deliberate trap, the Carthaginian response was swift. The Punic fleet was currently at Panormus, a short distance away on the northern coast of Sicily, under the command of Hannibal, the man who had led the defence of Agrigentum. As soon as he was aware of Scipio's movements, Hannibal sent twenty of his own ships to the city. Led by Boodes, a Carthaginian nobleman, this squadron arrived at night and boxed the Romans into the harbour. The Roman ships failed to put up any serious resistance; some of the inexperienced crews panicked and fled inland. One tradition maintained that Scipio and his officers were treacherously seized whilst negotiating with Boodes, although this may simply be a stock tale of Punic perfidy. Scipio was later to acquire the nickname Asina or 'donkey' as a result of this disaster, the feminine form perhaps intended to add to the insult; but it did not have too great an effect on his career, for he achieved the consulship for the second time in 254. Presumably he had been released from captivity either by ransom or exchange at some stage before this.13

Soon after this success, the Carthaginians themselves suffered a similar small-scale setback when Hannibal himself stumbled upon the main Roman fleet, whilst he was carrying out a reconnaissance or perhaps mounting a raid on Italy. Rounding a place Polybius calls the Cape of Italy, Hannibal lost the majority of his fifty ships before making his escape. This encounter highlighted the difficulty ancient fleets encountered in trying to keep track of each other's movements and there is no reason to accept suggestions that Polybius has created a garbled account of a mythical action through misunderstanding Philinus' account of the later battle of Mylae. Despite these initial setbacks, both sides remained eager for a major confrontation with the enemy fleet and the Romans were already preparing for this at Messana when Caius Duilius arrived to take charge.14

The Romans realized that their ships were neither as fast nor as manoeuvrable as their Punic counterparts. The Romans had copied the method of construction, but as yet could not duplicate the skill of Carthaginian shipwrights, and even more importantly the Roman crews were far more poorly trained. It was clear that they could anticipate little success if they relied on ramming to defeat the enemy and that therefore they must depend on getting close and boarding. To this end someone put forward the idea of a new type of boarding bridge, known to modern historians by the Latin word corvus (raven), although no ancient author employs the term and Polybius uses the equivalent Greek word corax. The name of its inventor has not been recorded, so that some have suggested that the man was a Sicilian Greek, a foreigner with whom the Romans had no wish to share the glory of their subsequent success, or even that the inventor may have been the young Archimedes, but these can never be more than conjectures.

Later sources viewed the corvus as some sort of grapnel, which encouraged some historians to doubt Polybius' description, but the reliability of his account was finally confirmed when Wallinga constructed a viable working model of the engine. The corvus wasa boarding bridge 4 feet (1.2 m) wide and 36 feet (10.9 m) long with a knee-high parapet on either side. The last third of its length formed two prongs separated by a long groove which slotted around a 24 foot (7.3 m) high pole erected on the deck of a ship. Pulleys allowed the bridge to be raised at an angle against the pole. Underneath the raised end of the bridge was a heavy, pointed spike resembling a bird's beak, from which the device probably derived its name. When released, the corvus fell onto the deck of an enemy ship, the spike embedding itself into its planking. The groove allowed the bridge to be swung around in a wide arc to fall ahead or to either side of the ship's bow, depending on the direction of the approaching enemy. Once the bridge was securely fixed in the other vessel, the Roman marines could swarm across and overwhelm the enemy crew with their skill as swordsmen, their ferocity and their numbers. It was a simple, practical device allowing the Romans to extend their advantages in land fighting to naval battles, and was to enjoy spectacular success during its brief career.15

Soon after his arrival with the fleet, Duilius received a report that the Carthaginian fleet had been raiding the area around Mylae, a city situated on a peninsula on the northern coast of Sicily, not far from the Lipari Islands. The entire Roman fleet put to sea and moved around the coast towards Mylae, and as soon as this was reported to Hannibal he prepared his fleet to meet them. Polybius tells us that the Carthaginians mustered 130 ships, which seems more likely than Diodorus' figure of 200. Hannibal himself led the action from a hepteres or 'seven' which had been captured from Pyrrhus in 276. The Romans presumably had what was left of their original 120, minus the seventeen lost with Scipio, plus however many Punic ships captured in the earlier engagement they had been able to salvage and man, as well as any vessels provided by the naval allies. The bulk of ships on both sides were presumably quinqueremes and it is improbable that either fleet was markedly bigger than the other.16

Polybius tells us that the Carthaginians were confused by the strange appearance of the tall corvus near the prow of each Roman ship, but remained supremely confident of their own superiority over their inexperienced enemy. It was difficult for the commander of an ancient fleet to exercise much control over his squadrons during a battle, but Hannibal seems to have allowed his fleet to get out of hand almost immediately. The Punic ships surged towards the enemy, the great 'seven' in the van. Some of the Romans ships were rammed, but each dropped its corvus, whose beak speared through the deck of the enemy vessel and held them fast. Thirty Punic warships, all those who had first engaged, were grappled and held fast. Amongst them was Hannibal's flagship, attacked by a trireme according to Zonaras, although he tends to use the word as a generic term for a warship and it is more likely that the Roman ship was in fact a 'five', since the difference in height between a seven and three must have been considerable. In each case the Roman marines poured across their boarding bridges and swiftly defeated the enemy crews. Hannibal abandoned his flagship and escaped in a small rowing boat. The remainder of the Carthaginian fleet then took advantage of the superior speed of their vessels and swung around, outflanking the Roman line and attacked from astern, hoping in this way to avoid the corvi. Somehow the Romans were able to manoeuvre to meet this onslaught, and once again any Punic ship which came within range was pinned and held by the 'ravens'. Polybius describes how the boarding bridges 'swung around and plunged down in all directions', but it is not quite clear what he means by this (1. 23. 9-10). A corvus mounted near the prow of a ship would have been able to be dropped ahead and for a short distance to port or starboard, but clearly could not have reached nearer the stern. Evidently a Roman ship seeing an enemy vessel approaching would have tried to turn to bring the enemy within this arc. Thiel suggested that the Roman ships may have been formed into two lines and that it was the second line which turned to face the second Punic attack, but, whilst this suggestion is plausible enough, our sources are too brief to confirm or deny it. He may well have assumed that it was more difficult to turn a quinquereme than was in fact the case, even one rowed by an inexperienced crew and overloaded with a corvus and, probably, marines.17

The ease with which the Carthaginians were able to disengage and retreat again confirmed the superior speed of their ships, but they had failed to achieve anything positive through this advantage. It was a spectacular success for the fledgling Roman fleet, owed almost exclusively to the ingenuity of whoever had designed the corvus. According to Polybius fifty Punic ships were lost, although our later sources give thirty-thirty-one captured and thirteen-fourteen sunk, figures which may derive from the inscription erected by Duilius himself in commemoration of his victory, the columna rostrata, although this has survived in fragmentary form so that only the first X of a numeral can be read. The tone of the surviving text is typical of the Roman aristocracy's self-promotion, with its emphasis on having been the first Roman ever to defeat a Punic navy, and claiming that in his land operations Duilius defeated all the greatest of the Cartiiaginian forces. The extant texts mentions triremes and has been reconstructed as also mentioning quinqueremes, which may offer additional confirmation for our suspicion that the fleets of this conflict were not exclusively composed of'fives'.18

The new man celebrated Rome's first naval triumph, decorating the speaker's platform in the Forum with prows (or rostrata) cut off captured ships, from which it later derived its name. When Duilius went out to dine at Rome he was accompanied to and from his host's by a procession of musicians. However, in spite of these great honours, his subsequent political career was not especially distinguished.19

The Carthaginians were chastened by this defeat and although Hannibal avoided punishment for his incompetence on this occasion, he was executed by his own officers not long afterwards for allowing his ships to be blockaded in a Sardinian port by the Romans. Sardinia offered a good base for raids against Italy and its conquest rapidly became a Roman objective. Otherwise in the next years the Roman fleet mainly acted in support of the army in Sicily and it was not until 257 that another major clash occurred at sea. Like many naval battles in this period it was brought on by a chance encounter. Caius Atilius Regulus (brother of Marcus), one of the consuls in 258-257, was with the Roman fleet off Tyndaris, a short distance to the west of Mylae, when the Carthaginian fleet was observed sailing past. It is probable that neither side had been aware of the other's presence until they came into view, and certainly neither fleet was formed and prepared for battle. Nevertheless Regulus decided to attack and headed straight towards the enemy with the first ten ships ready to move, the remainder of the fleet trailing far behind. The Carthaginians reacted quickly and turned on the small squadron led by the consul with overwhelming force. Nine ships were rammed and sunk, only the consul escaping in his fast and well-manned ship. However, as the main body of the Roman fleet managed to get itself into formation and finally reached the enemy the odds began to swing back in their favour. Ten Punic ships were captured and eight sunk, although it is unclear whether this included any of the Roman vessels taken earlier in the fight. Unwilling to bring on a full-scale action, the Punic fleet withdrew to the nearby Lipari Islands. It is probable that the Roman fleet was in the area in the first place to raid the well-placed Punic base there.20


The Roman fleet had steadily improved in efficiency and training, although judging from the ease with which the Carthaginian ships disengaged at Tyndaris their ships were probably still slower and less manoeuvrable than the enemy's. A measure of equality in strength had developed between the two fleets and both sides threw massive resources into ship construction in an effort to gain a decisive advantage. In 256 the Romans made their bold, but characteristic, decision to escalate the conflict by mounting an invasion of North Africa. To this end they amassed an enormous fleet of 330 vessels which moved along the Italian coast and crossed to Messana, before sailing south along the Sicilian shore past Syracuse, round Cape Pachynus where they linked up with the main army in Sicily. The pick of the Roman infantry were taken on board to serve as marines and provide an invasion force, so that each quinquereme now had a complement of 120 marines. Polybius claimed that the combined total of the crews and marines in the Roman fleet was about 140,000. The Carthaginians had managed to put together a grand total of 350 ships which sailed from Africa to Lilybaeum, before moving round to Heraclea Minoa. Polybius gives their strength in men as more than 150,000, presumably calculated on the assumption that their crews were roughly the same size as those of the Romans.21

Many eminent scholars have refused to accept the numbers Polybius gives for the fleets in this and other battles of the war. In particular Tarn and Thiel tried to analyse the narratives of the war and establish the real size of the navies involved. In the case of Ecnomus, they have tended to reduce the total of each side by about 100 ships. It may be that the numbers preserved in our sources are not always accurate, and, as has been pointed out, there has always been an understandable tendency for victors to inflate the size of the defeated enemy forces to add to the glory of their achievements. Yet acknowledging that this may be so does not provide any guidance as to what the actual figures may have been. Analysis of fleet numbers has tended to be very rigid in its methods, assuming that only when specifically mentioned by our sources were ships constructed, manned, lost or captured, when it is very unlikely given the brevity of the accounts of this twenty-three-year war that we can expect such a full coverage of these small details. Ultimately, we cannot know whether or not Polybius' figures are accurate, but do best to assume that they are broadly so. In the narrative of the action he mentions that the Roman flagships were two 'sixes', and we may assume as mentioned earlier that the Roman fleet was not exclusively composed of 'fives' even if these were the majority type. Some of the Roman ships may have been smaller and thus the overall total for Roman crews slightly reduced. It is also not at all clear that the Carthaginian ships carried as many marines as the Roman 'fives', and certainly they did not do well in the boarding actions brought on by the Roman use of the corvus22

The Romans put to sea ready either to fight a fleet action or to continue the journey to the African coast and stage a landing, since they could not yet know the likely Carthaginian reaction to their move. Amongst the fleet were a number of horse transports, although precisely how many is unknown. They were later to land horses for the 500 cavalry left with Regulus, presumably as well as the mounts required by the senior officers. The transports did not travel under their own power, but were towed behind war galleys, allowing them to keep station with the rest of the fleet. In fact, the Punic commanders had already resolved to fight a fleet action off the coast of Sicily, judging this to be the best way of protecting Carthage itself. In addition, if their fleet was as strong as Polybius suggests, then it may well have been the largest naval force ever assembled by the city and this, with their continued belief in their superior skill to the enemy, may well have encouraged the belief that that they had the opportunity to win a major success over the Romans. The two fleets moved towards each other, within sight of the coast of Sicily.

Such was the importance of this venture that both of the year's consuls, Lucius Manlius Vulso and Marcus Atilius Regulus, were present. They had divided the fleet into four divisions, numbered one to four and known either as 'squadrons' or 'Legions'. This was simply a nickname and bore no relation to their actual size, and it seems that the four divisions were not equal in numbers. The first two groups were led by the consuls themselves, whose two 'sixes' headed the Roman formation. The other ships from these squadrons took station from the flagships, in line echeloned back to either side, so that each ship's prow lay behind and to the side of the ship in front. In effect these squadrons formed the apex of a triangle, the base being composed of the third squadron, arrayed in line abreast, each ship towing one of the horse transports. The fourth squadron was arrayed in line behind this group and was probably more numerous than the third, for its ships overlapped its line on either flank. Protecting the rear of the formation and acting as an ultimate reserve, this squadron was also nicknamed the triarii. The Roman formation was praised by Polybius for its practicality, being relatively dense and keeping the fleet together, but also permitting it to turn and face a threat from any direction. It was a sign of the improved quality of the Roman crews and the greater experience of their commanders that they were able to adopt such a plan, and there is no good reason to doubt Polybius' account or assume that he had misunderstood what was no more than an accidental formation.23

The Carthaginians made some changes to their deployment once the Roman fleet came into view, having apparently advanced in the normal battle formation of line abreast. The Carthaginian line was formed with the coast of Sicily to its left. The left wing, one quarter of the fleet's ships, reached forward towards the shore. Angled away from this was the remainder of the fleet; the extreme right wing, commanded by Hanno (the general who had failed to relieve Agrigentum in 261), was made up of the fastest ships and extended beyond the flank of the Roman formation. The centre was led by the overall commander in Sicily, Hamilcar, who had instructed the captains of his division to begin by withdrawing in the face of a Roman attack. Hamilcar's plan appears to have been to break up the compact Roman formation, so that his divisions on the right and left could sweep in and attack the enemy from the flank or rear. This would produce a series of smaller encounters between parts of each fleet in which the Carthaginians might hopefully exploit their skill in ramming tactics and avoid frontal attacks on the corvus-equipped Roman ships. Attempts to suggest a far more complex Carthaginian plan are not convincing.24

At first the battle seemed to be developing as Hamilcar had hoped. The Roman consuls had judged that the centre of the Punic line was weak -Polybius describes it as 'thinner' which may suggest that there were wider intervals between the ships than elsewhere. The flagships led the charge of the first and second divisions straight at this apparently vulnerable spot, and Hamilcar's ships withdrew in haste, so that a large gap swiftly developed between the consuls' ships and the third squadron, still towing the transports. Deciding that the Romans had been lured far enough forward to isolate the rear of their fleet, Hamilcar gave a signal to his ships to turn and engage. A fierce fight developed as the Romans surged forward and tried to grapple the enemy vessels, inspired by the presence of both consuls who played an active role in the fighting. The Carthaginian ships' greater speed produced some successes and some may even have passed through the Roman line and turned to deliver rams from the stern.25

In the meantime, Hanno's right wing had enveloped the Roman fleet and mounted a fierce attack on the triarii, whilst the left wing had changed its alignment to face the Romans and closed with the third squadron. The horse transports were cast adrift and the Roman galleys surged forward to meet the enemy. Thus, as Polybius comments, in effect the battle developed into three separate and widely spaced actions. Although this was probably the situation that the Carthaginians had hoped to achieve, in the event they failed to gain a lasting advantage from it. The Roman sailors were no longer as poorly trained as they had been in 260. More importantly, the great expansion in the Carthaginian fleet can only have reduced the average quality of its crews, so that their superiority over the enemy was no longer as marked. The sheer number of ships involved in each action added to the confusion and made it far harder for Punic ships to attack and ram a victim and then escape without encountering another Roman ship. Finally, as Lazenby rightly emphasizes, the Carthaginians had failed to discover an effective remedy to the corvus. An army or navy with a long tradition of success may well have difficulty in adapting to a novel tactic employed by an enemy, as seen for instance in the radically varying attitude to aircraft carriers of the navies in the Second World War.26

The clash between the Carthaginian centre and the first two Roman squadrons was decided first, when Hamilcar's ships gave up the struggle and fled. Despite initial successes, several Punic vessels had been caught by the ravens' beaks and boarded. As the Carthaginians fled, Manlius Vulso supervised the securing of the captured prizes, whilst Regulus led as many ships as he could back to the aid of the rest of the Roman fleet. The triarii had been given a hard time by Hanno's squadron until the Roman ships came up behind him; together the Roman forces drove the Carthaginians off. The Punic left had driven the Roman third squadron up against the shore, but when the Roman ships had bunched up and formed a line with their prows facing towards the enemy, the Carthaginians had been reluctant to close for fear of the corvi. Their ships had done little more than hem the Romans in and were finally driven off when Manlius Vulso came to their aid from one direction and Regulus from the other. Fifty Carthaginian ships were captured in this final phase of the action, for it was difficult to escape, trapped as they were between the shore and the Roman third squadron and the converging forces led by the consuls. Another fourteen Punic ships were captured, probably mainly in the centre, and thirty were sunk. Roman losses were twenty-four sunk and none taken.27

The largest clash of the war, and possibly the biggest naval battle in history, had ended in a clear Roman victory. Once again the corvus had proved its worth, most markedly when the beleaguered third squadron had still been able to hold the enemy at bay despite its bad position. The achievement of the Roman consuls also deserves mention. It was difficult at the best of times to control a fleet in this period, with only the simplest signals and plans standing much chance of success. The speed with which, following the defeat of Hamilcar, Regulus and then Manlius also gathered enough ships to make a difference and led them to the aid of the rest of the Roman fleet was truly remarkable. It was in these last phases of the action that the most damage was inflicted on the Carthaginian squadrons. Carthage's greatest ever fleet had not performed well and its commanders had failed to have much influence on the fighting after the initial clash. The Carthaginians did not take advantage of their success in dividing the Roman fleet up. There is no evidence for their successfully boarding and taking a Roman ship, which may suggest that they carried significantly fewer marines. The sheer size of the fleets may have made them clumsy and been better suited to the simpler boarding tactics favoured by the Romans.

At the end of the battle the three divisions of the Punic fleet had retreated in different directions and were in no position to renew the fight. The Romans returned to Sicily to rest their men, repair their ships and salvage as many of the captured warships as possible. This action has caused needless surprise amongst some scholars and led them to doubt that the fleet had intended to cross to Africa in the first place, which would then render the presence of the horse transports somewhat curious. Yet it is important to remember that the battle had been fought close to Sicily and the bulk of the journey still lay before them. The exertion required of crews during a battle was far greater than that of normal travel and it was sensible to allow the rowers to rest and to renew each ship's supply of water before continuing the voyage. Probably the majority of Roman marines were transferred to transport ships to ease the burden on the warships. In addition some of the Roman ships may well have been badly damaged in the fighting and the fleet had certainly become scattered and needed to be reorganized. The Carthaginian fleet still retained a large number of serviceable ships and crews, but its morale must have been very low after its decisive defeat. There was no reason to expect it to risk a second encounter soon after Ecnomus, but in fact this proved to be the case when the Roman fleet sailed to Africa shortly afterwards.28

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