Ancient History & Civilisation

Sieges and Storms

The African campaign and Regulus' ultimate defeat have already been described. As soon as the outcome of this was reported to the Romans they mustered a large fleet to rescue the survivors from Aspis. The expedition was led by the consuls for 255, Servius Fulvius Paetinus Nobilior and Marcus Aemilius Paullus, who led 350 ships. The Carthaginians were only able to provide crews for 200 vessels to oppose them and were defeated off Cape Hermaeum north of Aspis, a success which may have been aided by a fortuitous attack by the forty ships from the besieged Roman garrison of that city. However, both numbers and morale may anyway have made a Roman success likely. Polybius claims that 114 of the Punic ships were taken along with their crews. The survivors at Aspis were then taken on board and the Roman fleet returned to Sicilian waters. Polybius tells us that the consuls wished to take advantage of their recent victory and the great size of their fleet by cruising along the Carthaginian held south-western coast of Sicily, hoping to overawe the cities tiiere and persuade some to defect. This was against the advice of the experienced ships' captains, who knew that this shore was hostile and possessed few safe harbours, and that there was a strong risk of bad weather at this time of year, between the rising of Orion and that of Sirius (roughly mid July). Off Camarina the fleet was caught in a violent storm and many ships floundered or were driven against the shore and wrecked with huge loss of life.29

Polybius says that only eighty ships survived out of the 364 in the Roman fleet, although other sources provide a wide range of alternative figures. Again the numbers have been doubted. If the Romans had begun the expedition with 350 ships and captured 114 at Hermaeum then they should have had at least 464, apart from the surviving ships from the squadron originally left to support Regulus in Africa. Many ingenious, and often plausible, solutions have been proposed for this problem, but once again we are forced to admit that we cannot establish a precise figure. Clearly it was a major Roman disaster with more men and ships being lost than had previously fallen to enemy action. An attractive suggestion is that the fitting of the corvus to the Roman ships made them dangerously unseaworthy in bad conditions and contributed to the catastrophe. The sensitivity of the reconstructed trireme to shifts in weight caused even by movements amongst the crew would tend to support this view. The corvus was mounted near the bow of the ship and its weight may well have made the galley bow-heavy, which would clearly be a major problem in a rough sea. If the Romans had captured so many ships at Hermaeum then this would suggest that the corvus was still in use, and indeed there seems no reason for the abandonment of such a successful device, although it is not mentioned in our sources after Ecnomus. It is in this section that Polybius famously comments on the Roman reliance on brute force (bia) in all their activities, throwing massive resources into a project and expecting success through effort alone. This attitude, he says, has usually been a source of frequent victories on land, but at sea, when opposed by the power of nature, it has produced some spectacular failures. The narrative of the Punic Wars on the whole supports this judgement on the Roman character. Nevertheless, although the consuls may have been blamed for this disaster, it does not seem to have outweighed the credit they had gained by their earlier victory, for both men survived and went on to celebrate a naval triumph.30

An indication of the Romans' capacity for massive effort came in their swift rebuilding of their naval power. In 254, 220 ships were built and floated in three months, a remarkable but not unprecedented building programme. Sailing to Messana and gathering the eighty ships which had survived the storm (which may imply that this figure included only those ships which were still felt to be seaworthy), the fleet attacked Panormus. The two consuls for 254, Cnaeus Cornelius Scipio, the man who had been captured at Lipara in 260, and Aulus Atilius Caiatinus, who had been consul in 258, besieged the city by land and sea. The election of two experienced former consuls, even if Scipio's reputation may not have been entirely creditable, may suggest a Roman feeling about the seriousness of the situation after the disasters in 255. Panormus' defences were breached nearest the sea and the city was successfully stormed.31

In late 253 the bulk of the Roman fleet crossed to Africa and made extensive raids along the coast, collecting a large amount of booty, but achieving little. Near the island of Menix (modern Djerba) much of the Roman fleet became grounded on a shoal when caught by the unexpectedly low local tide. At high tide they managed to float the ships, but only after ditching all of their heavier and non-essential equipment. Sailing round the western tip of Sicily to the recently captured Panormus, they then attempted to return directly to Italy, but were caught in another storm, probably near Cape Palinurus in Italy, and lost 150 ships . However, once again the consul in command survived to celebrate a triumph for the dubious successes of his African expedition.32

This string of heavy losses seems to have reduced the aggressiveness of the Roman commanders in the next years, and in particular deterred them from major efforts at sea. However, in 252 they did capture Lipara, denying the Carthaginians the control of these well-placed islands. In 251 the consuls chose to man a mere sixty ships, simply to protect the supply routes to Italy. A greater effort was made in the next year when fifty new ships were constructed. The victory at Panormus in 250 encouraged a major effort against the Carthaginian stronghold at Lilybaeum, a fleet of 200 ships supporting the combined armies of both consuls. The navy's primary role was to seal off the city's harbour and prevent any reinforcements or supply reaching the active garrison. The approaches to the harbour were difficult, only a narrow passage running between the shoals, and this may have encouraged some complacency amongst the Roman fleet. Early in the siege fifty warships had been specially prepared at Carthage to carry supplies and a force of 10,000 mercenaries to the city. Commanded by Hannibal, the son of Hamilcar, this squadron travelled to the Aegates Islands west of Sicily and from there waited for a favourable wind. With a strong wind behind their stern, the Punic ships sailed straight into the harbour of Lilybaeum in broad daylight, surprising the Romans, who failed to make any move to stop them, in part because of a reluctance to risk being blown into the harbour. Hannibal's arrival gave a major boost to the garrison's morale as well as adding to its strength. However, he took care to leave the city at night, carrying out the useless cavalry from the fortress, and sailed undetected by the Romans to Drepana further up the coast.33

No more attempts at re-supply were carried out on such a large scale, since without the benefit of surprise the chances of success were slight, but Carthage was eager to keep in communication with Himilco, the commander at Lilybaeum. Another Hannibal, called 'the Rhodian' - perhaps a name intended to celebrate his skill as a sailor, for the Rhodians were famously skilled seamen - volunteered to take his ship into the city and report on the status of the defenders. Hannibal's crew was clearly highly trained and experienced and he took great care in preparing for the voyage, before adopting a similar plan to the other Hannibal, sailing to the Aegates Islands and there awaiting a favourable breeze. Then, when conditions were right, he used his knowledge of the waters to sail straight into Lilybaeum's harbour in mid morning, in open sight of the Roman fleet. Eager to avenge this humiliation, the Romans stationed ten fast ships to catch him on the way out. Hannibal declined to make the attempt under cover of darkness, and rowed out on the next day. Again his intimate knowledge of the shoals and the superb training of his crew allowed the Carthaginian ship to avoid its pursuers and escape. Disdainfully, Hannibal halted in sight of the Romans and waited without setting sail, challenging any Roman ship to fight. The enemy were so impressed by the speed and manoeuvrability of his ship that they declined the offer. Hannibal was to repeat this exploit on several later occasions and his success encouraged a number of other Carthaginian captains to run the blockade, so that the garrison remained in full communication with Carthage and was kept well supplied.34

Failing to intercept the blockade runners, the Romans attempted to block the passage leading to the harbour by dumping boulders and spoil into the sea. Most of this material was swept away by the current, but in one place enough of an obstacle was created to cause a Punic 'four' to run aground whilst attempting a night-time escape from the port. The Romans discovered this to be an exceptionally well-made and speedy ship, so they gave it a picked crew and crammed it full of boarders, and then set it to patrol in an effort to catch their swift opponents. By chance, Hannibal the Rhodian once again sailed openly into the harbour that night and left just as confidently. The captured quadrireme gave chase and managed to overhaul him. Unable to escape, the Punic vessel turned to fight, but was grappled by the Romans and then swiftly overrun by the flood of marines. Hannibal's ship was then also equipped with a chosen crew and a strong force of marines and set to patrol the approach to the harbour. In this way, the Roman fleet was finally able to seal off Lilybaeum from the sea. This episode was the main occasion where the superiority of Carthaginian seamanship was demonstrated. Yet throughout the war it proved exceptionally difficult for them to turn this skill to any tangible advantage in battle, although, unlike the Romans, they avoided any serious losses to the elements. It is notable that the differences in skill were most marked in actions involving only a small number of ships. The massed naval battles offered slight opportunity for subtlety, perhaps the most important factor explaining the Romans' early successes.35

Apart from blockading the city by sea, the Roman fleet played an active part in the progress of the siegeworks on land, since the job of rowing a warship produced large numbers of strong men who were an ideal labour force. As a result of this role, heavy casualties were suffered by the fleet during this siege, probably more from disease spread in the crowded camps than from enemy action. Therefore the Senate collected a draft of 10,000 rowers and dispatched them to Sicily, where they marched overland to Lilybaeum. Guessing that the Carthaginians would be unaware of this accession of strength and so doubt the readiness of the Roman fleet, one of the consuls for 249, Publius Claudius Pulcher, decided to mount a surprise attack on the main base of the Punic fleet at nearby Drepana. It was a bold action but, as we have seen, a surprise attack if successful was probably the easiest, quickest and least costly means of taking a stronghold. The capture of this supporting base would certainly have added to the pressure on the defenders of Lilybaeum. The prospects seemed good, and there were plenty of volunteers from the army to serve as marines, everyone anticipating a good haul of booty.

Claudius went down in Roman history as a reckless incompetent, famously falling into a rage when favourable omens for the attack were not forthcoming. When the sacred chickens refused to eat and so signify that the gods favoured the enterprise, Claudius picked them up and hurled them into the sea, proclaiming that if they would not eat, then let them drink. However, despite his reputation for Claudian arrogance, his initial preparations were careful enough. He put to sea at night to avoid being spotted and news of his departure being carried by land to Drepana, and sailed along the coast. However, in the darkness it was difficult for the Roman ships to remain in close formation, especially since they were crewed by a mixture of the experienced rowers and the new, unabsorbed draft. The route was simple to follow, since it hugged the coast, but throughout the night the Roman fleet straggled and by morning it was in a long, scattered line as it approached the enemy base. Claudius' flagship was somewhere near the rear. The Romans were spotted and word brought to Adherbal, the Punic admiral, who then took the bold decision to put to sea and confront the enemy, rather than permit himself to be blockaded in the harbour. He gathered his crews and collected large numbers of mercenaries to act as marines. It now became a matter of time as to whether Or not the Carthaginian fleet could escape from the harbour and gain sea room before the Roman ships were able to block the entrance.36

The disordered and scattered formation of the Roman fleet and the poorer quality of their crews proved decisive, but only by the narrowest of margins. The entrance to the harbour at Drepana was wide and as the first Roman ships were entering at its southernmost edge, Adherbal's flagship was rowing out past the long spit of land which formed its northern edge. He had signalled the rest of the fleet to follow him, so the Carthaginian ships proceeded in line astern, rounded the two small islands opposite the harbour mouth and ran southwards parallel to the coast, but further out to sea than the Roman fleet. Claudius saw that he had just missed his chance and sought by signal to bring some sort of order to his fleet which was spread over a wide area. Dreadful confusion resulted as the ships which had entered the harbour tried to turn around and escape back into the open sea. Collisions occurred and ships had oars sheared off by friendly vessels. Eventually, the Romans managed to form a rough line of ships close in to the shore, with their rams facing out to sea. The flagship was on the extreme left. In the meantime Adherbal had outflanked the left of the Roman line with five ships, angled forward, and placed his own ship facing the Roman line. As the rest of the fleet came up, he ordered them to form line on his vessel, subordinate officers regulating the deployment, presumably in small boats. After this delay as the two fleets formed up, Adherbal signalled his ships to attack. It would prove the only significant defeat suffered by the Roman navy throughout the war.

The size of the opposing fleets is not certain. Polybius mentions that about thirty Roman ships survived and that ninety-three were captured, but does not make clear whether this figure includes any ships that were sunk. The Carthaginian fleet has been variously estimated as between 100 and 130 and on the whole there is no suggestion of a marked disparity between the two sides. On this occasion the Carthaginian ships carried large contingents of marines and were evenly matched with their Roman counterparts. The Punic crews were undoubtedly better than their opponents, making their ships faster and more manoeuvrable. This might not have mattered had the Romans not been in such a bad position, with their sterns close to the shore. If hard pressed a Carthaginian vessel could back water and pull out of the fighting, but the Romans lacked room to do this. Polybius does not tell us explicitly, but it seems clear that the Roman ships were no longer equipped with the corvus, that major deterrent against attacking them from the front. For the first time in a significant action, the Carthaginians were able to display their skill in ramming, striking the enemy and then pulling back without being grappled. The Roman ships lacked the room to manoeuvre to avoid rams or move to each other's aid, and their crews simply did not have the skill to drive through the enemy line and try to ram them from the rear. They may also have felt that it was better to stay in as close a formation as possible for mutual security. The battle was not over quickly, but steadily the Carthaginian advantage became overwhelming. Many Roman ships were sunk, others ran aground and were abandoned, whilst only the thirty ships including Claudius' flagship were able to break out and escape. Claudius was later brought to trial for treason(perduellio) at Rome and only narrowly escaped with his life.37 The victory at Drepana heralded a series of further Roman disasters at sea. Claudius' consular colleague Lucius Junius Pullus was with another Roman fleet of 120 warships escorting a convoy of 800 transports, carrying grain to supply the besiegers of Lilybaeum. This got into some disorder crossing to Sicily, so Pullus halted with half the ships in Syracuse to allow the stragglers to catch up. The remainder were sent ahead under the command of the quaestors who were given a small number of warships to protect them. The Carthaginian fleet had also divided, Adherbal adding thirty more vessels to the seventy recentiy brought to Sicily by Carthalo and sending them to attack the Roman naval support at Lilybaeum. After creating some havoc there and burning several ships, Carthalo sailed around the coast towards Heraclea Minoa, hoping to intercept any Roman supply convoys. The quaestors were warned of his approach by the small ships (lemboi)y which Polybius tells us in an aside normally preceded a fleet, but lacked the strength to face him at sea or the speed to escape. Instead they put in to the shore near a Roman-held town and drew their ships out of the water. Getting ballistae from the town's fortifications, the quaestors managed to establish a rudimentary fortified line protecting the ships, which proved enough to deter the Punic squadron, who only managed to capture a few ships. Pullus had by this time brought on the remainder of the convoy, and rounded Cape Pachynus south of Syracuse, heading towards Lilybaeum. Unaware of the recent Roman defeats, he unexpectedly sighted Carthalo's fleet. Pullus was unwilling to risk a fight so led his warships and transports close in to this rugged part of the Sicilian coast. Carthalo did not follow, but merely observed from a distance. At this point, once again the weather took a hand. A heavy gale blew up and the signs of this impending gale were spotted by Carthaginian captains who knew this coast, and who prompdy advised Carthalo to sail immediately around the Cape. Again the skill of the Punic sailors was displayed as they battled to bring the fleet successfully round the headland where they were sheltered from the wind. The Romans were exposed to the full force of the gale and so close inshore that they stood no chance of escape. The entire fleet was dashed to pieces on the rugged shore, but numbers of the crew escaped, including the consul, although he seems to have been captured soon afterwards.38

The disaster suffered by the Roman fleet was probably more total than the earlier losses to the weather and, unlike them, came in the aftermath of naval defeat and not victory. Polybius tells us that the Romans for the moment abandoned all efforts to fight the war at sea and it is unlikely that the State could have afforded to construct another fleet. A few private citizens were given licence to equip ships at their own expense and act as privateers raiding Carthaginian territory, but this was never going to contribute anything significant to the outcome of the war. Some idea of the scale of Roman losses may come from the census figures preserved for this period, although the reliability of these figures for the period before 225 is uncertain.39 These give the total number of male Roman citizens registered by the censors as 292,234 in 265-264, 297,797 in 252-251, but only 241,712 in 247-246. The drop of more than 50,000 in the last figure may well indicate the losses suffered at sea, although the absence of any noticeable fall after the storms in 255 and 254 may make the second figure doubtful. However, it is important to remember that even if these figures provide a guide it is only to citizen losses. Many men in the fleet were drawn from the allies. It was in these years that Claudia, the sister of Claudius Pulcher, was prosecuted. Whilst travelling through the streets of Rome, the progress of her carriage had been blocked by the crowd. In a display of aristocratic arrogance she was heard to wish that her brother would lose another battle and drown some more of the poorer citizens.

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