Ancient History & Civilisation

The End: The Battle of the Aegates Islands

Although the Romans had abandoned their maritime ambitions, they continued to prosecute the war on land with no apparent doubt about their eventual success. The Carthaginians made little use of their naval superiority, the few raids mounted against Italy achieving very little, whilst the war continued sporadically in Sicily. It was not until late 243 that the Romans decided once again to rebuild their fleet and push the war to a decisive conclusion. Even so, the State was not able to afford this project from its own resources and the money was provided by private citizens, one man, or two or three banding together, agreeing to provide the cost of building and equipping a quinquereme. The money was a loan to be paid back after the victory when the State's finances had recovered, but it appears to have been interest free and should be interpreted as a gesture of genuine patriotism. The Roman elite clearly identified themselves very strongly with the state in a way which modern cynicism should not make us doubt.40

In this way 200 quinqueremes were constructed, and once again a Carthaginian design was copied, for all were modelled on Hannibal the Rhodian's captured ship. Morrison and Coates have suggested that both this ship and the new Roman fleet were in fact 'fours'. They claim that a quinquereme was significantly higher than a quadrireme and that Hannibal's ship could not have been successfully boarded by the captured 'four', citing an incident in the Second Punic War when the smaller ships proved unable to capture a disabled 'five'. Yet in that case the encounter was unexpected, whereas the Romans had planned to waylay Hannibal's vessel with their swift 'four' and had prepared accordingly. It may well have been because their marines were outnumbered rather than unable to reach the enemy deck that the 'fours' in the later incident were unable to take the 'five'. There seems no good reason to doubt Polybius' statement that the new Roman fleet were quinqueremes.41

One of the consuls for 242, Aulus Postumius Albinus, held the priesthood known as the flamen Martialis and was forbidden by religious taboo from leaving the city, so the fleet was entrusted to the command of his colleague, Caius Lutatius Catulus, backed by the senior praetor, Quintus Valerius Falto. The Romans immediately renewed the pressure on their enemy's last major strongholds in Sicily, moving to capture the harbour at Drepana and cutting off Lilybaeum from the sea. Hamilcar Barca's forces were now cut off from re-supply by sea. Polybius states explicitly that the main Roman objective in these operations was to provoke a major encounter with the Carthaginian fleet, since they felt that its defeat would be a greater blow than any successes that might be achieved in Sicily. To this end Catulus took great care to exercise his ships at sea each day, training the crews to a high level of efficiency. His sailors were not allowed to waste away in the heavy labour and privations of siegework, but were kept healthy and provided with a good diet of food and drink. By 241 the Roman fleet was in superb condition, its crews experienced and skilled, its ships built to a far better design than in the past. The number of ships constructed in the preceding twenty years and the Romans' practical experience of naval operations can only have refined the skills of their shipbuilders.42

The Carthaginians were far less well prepared for the upcoming encounter, for they had made little use of the naval superiority which they had achieved after Drepana and the Roman losses to weather. The Punic navy had done little in the years since then, and it appears that relatively few ships had been kept in commission. It took them some time to muster the crews for the fleet of 250 or so ships which they gathered to send to Sicily. For probably the first time in the war, the average Carthaginian crew was to prove less well trained than their Roman counterparts. It is also possible that many crews were under strength, although certainty is impossible. Their objective was twofold. In the first instance the priority was to load the ships with supplies of grain for Hamilcar's army and the remaining Punic garrisons in Sicily. The Roman pressure on these troops must have made it difficult for them to survive by foraging. Once the supplies had been offloaded, the fleet was to take on board the pick of Hamilcar's soldiers to serve as marines and seek out and destroy the Roman fleet. Command in this operation was given to one Hanno, who may or may not have been the same man who had presided over the defeats at Agrigentum in 261 and Ecnomus in 256.43

The Carthaginians followed the same route as the fifty ships carrying reinforcements and supplies which Hannibal, son of Hamilcar, had sailed into Lilybaeum in 250. Crossing to the Aegates Islands just to the west of Sicily, they stopped at the westernmost of these, known as 'the Holy Island', and waited for a favourable breeze to carry them into Eryx before the Romans were aware of their presence and could react. However, Cat-ulus received a report of their arrival and immediately took on board extra marines drawn from the army and crossed to another of the islands in the group. The next day, 10 March 241, the wind blew strongly from the west in just the direction that Hanno had hoped for. The Punic ships raised their sails and began the run in to link up with their land forces. Catulus was faced with a difficult decision. The heavy swell was against the Romans, since their rowers would have to battle hard against it if they were to move and intercept the Punic fleet. In the past, Roman commanders who had treated the elements in a cavalier fashion had presided over spectacular disasters. Yet if Catulus delayed, then he was unlikely to stop the Carthaginians joining Hamilcar and taking on board large numbers of experienced soldiers. Catulus took the risk and put to sea.

The carefully trained and prepared Roman crews then proved their worth, coping well with the high seas and forming a line to intercept the enemy before they reached Sicily. In response the Carthaginians lowered their sails and took down their masts to prepare for battle. Polybius says that the Punic crews yelled out encouragement to each other as they bore down on the enemy, but they were at a serious disadvantage. Their ships were overburdened with the supplies they carried, they had few marines and their crews were poorly trained. Not only would the Romans have the advantage in boarding actions, but their ships were for once faster, more manoeuvrable and better prepared for ramming. The difference in the two sides was quickly apparent, as the Romans sank fifty ships and captured another seventy. Polybius does not mention Roman losses, but Diodorus implies that the battle was less of a foregone conclusion, and that for the 117 Punic ships lost, twenty of these sunk with all hands, the Romans had thirty vessels sunk and fifty crippled. However, he also claims that the Roman fleet numbered 300 rather than 200 ships. Both authors provide relatively low figures for the number of Punic prisoners, given their heavy losses in ships; Polybius saying 10,000, whilst Diodorus tell us that Philinus made it 6,000, but other sources 4,040. This has been used to support the suggestion that the Punic ships were undermanned, but it may be that more men were drowned when their ships were rammed and floundered than was normal for a sea battle in this period because conditions were rougher.44

Fortunately for the Carthaginians the wind changed during the battle, shifting to an easterly, which allowed many of their ships to raise masts and sails once again and escape. The Romans, who had been deliberately prepared for battle, were probably not carrying masts and were unable to pursue very far. However, the excavators of the Marsala wrecks conjectured that these light Punic warships may have been sunk in the aftermath of this defeat, so the Roman pursuit may have been a little more effective than our sources suggest. Catulus returned to Lilybaeum to continue the blockade and deal with the spoils of success, both the captured ships and prisoners. Soon, the consul and the praetor began to bicker over who deserved credit for the victory. The praetor Falto was later to claim that Catulus had been incapacitated on the day of battle as the result of a wound to the thigh suffered in a skirmish outside Lilybaeum. Both men were allowed to celebrate a triumph.45

The battle of the Aegates Islands decided the war. Hamilcar Barca's army and the few strongholds left in Sicily were now utterly isolated. Carthage lacked either the will or, according to Polybius, resources to build another fleet and try once more to wrest naval dominance back from Rome. The Punic aristocracy seems to have made no attempt to follow the example of the Roman elite and put their private wealth at the disposal of the state. However, given the difficulty encountered in crewing the last fleet, it may have been shortage of manpower rather than resources to construct ships that prevented the rebuilding of the navy. For whatever reason, the Carthaginians conceded defeat and resolved to make peace.46

The resources expended in the naval campaigns of the war had been massive, Polybius claiming that the Romans had lost about 700 warships and the Carthaginians nearer 500, although the accuracy of these figures has been doubted. The heaviest Roman losses all occurred in storms and this ensured that the casualties suffered by the crews were disproportionately high. Many of the crews of these Punic ships were saved, although this sometimes meant going into captivity. It was the victors who suffered the greatest losses at sea. Ultimately the Romans won because their ruthless determination and pursuit of victory made them willing to accept its high price in men and ships. The initial decision to create a Roman fleet may have been at least in part motivated by a desire to defend the Italian coast from the depredations of the Punic navy, but the Romans were to use their naval power in a consistently aggressive manner. The support of the navy allowed the Roman land forces in Sicily to press on more successfully with the task of subduing the Punic strongholds there. The fleet's first action was the bold if unsuccessful attempt to seize Lipara. The ingenuity which produced the corvus allowed the Roman ships to face and defeat the superior Carthaginian ships in battle, and encouraged the increasing Roman willingness to seek encounters at sea. The direct attack on North Africa again showed the Roman willingness to escalate the fighting in an effort to achieve a decisive result. Roman confidence was curbed by the heavy losses in the storms in 255-254, and again by the defeat at Drepana and the catastrophic storm in 249, but each check was only temporary On each occasion the Romans eventually rebuilt their fleet and resolved to make another effort. Had the new fleet been badly defeated in 241 - a real possibility if the Carthaginians had been able to unload their ships and cram them with Hamilcar's veteran mercenaries - then at the very least the delay before the Romans were able to contest the sea again must surely have been even longer.

Throughout the war the Carthaginians failed to make much use of their initially superior fleet, and let it decline after they had regained naval dominance in 249. The Carthaginian approach to war on land and sea was markedly less aggressive and determined than their opponents'. The objective seemed always to be to endure and continue the struggle, rather than to force it to a conclusion. Fleets of galleys were heavily dependent on land bases because of the comparatively short range of their warships. This meant that control of the sea was ultimately based on control of the bases in the area, adding to the importance of Sicily's, and to a lesser extent Sardinia's, coastal cities. The war in Sicily saw the steady reduction of Carthage's strongholds which, despite the temporary checks and the recapture of some strongholds, was never halted. The Carthaginian commanders, despite the length of time they remained in their posts, never managed to maintain a concerted offensive to win back lost ground and drive the Romans from the island. Their successes on land tended to have no more than local significance and were often small-scale. The achievements of the Punic navy were similarly minor and it never was able to derive a wider advantage from its greater skill and experience. Drepana, the only battle won by the Carthaginians, was notably smaller in scale than most of the other clashes, involving fewer than 150 ships on either side. As the size of fleets grew larger, so the superiority of the Punic navy declined. Its spectacular successes, such as the blockade running at Lilybaeum, were always small-scale, and even these were eventually checked by Rome.47

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