Battles in the ancient world (part 8)

This is the eighth and last part in a series of blog posts on types of battles fought in the ancient world. Previously, I discussed pitched battlesmeeting engagementssurprise attacksambushes,skirmishesraids, and sieges. In this blog post, I will turn to a discussion of sea-battles.

The naval battle

The earliest naval battles are probably lost in time. The first records we have for a naval battle date to the thirteenth century BC: a Hittite fleet of King Suppiluliuma II defeated an enemy fleet from the island of Cyprus and managed to burn the ships at sea. We also have painted scenes on Aegean vases of the Late-Helladic-IIIC-period (ca. twelfth century BC) that depict ships carrying armed men brandishing weapons; perhaps these warships were used not just to transport warriors to a battlefield, but could also engage in battle themselves.

Another early naval battle is the so-called Battle of the Delta (ca. 1180 BC). The Sea-Peoples, whom we already encountered in an earlier blog post in this series, attacked Egypt in the years after 1200 BC. Somewhere in the Delta, the Egyptians under Ramesses III (r. 1185–1153 BC) engaged a fleet of the Sea-Peoples and managed to defeat them. Ramesses recorded his victory on the walls of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, complete with depictions of the battle in relief.

Some ancient civilizations forged brief alliances to be able to field a larger fleet and assault a common foe. One example is the Sea-Battle of Alalia (ca. 535 BC). The Carthaginians and Etruscans were worried that the ever-expanding Greeks would encroach too much upon their own territory and so formed an alliance. A fleet of some 200 allied Carthaginian and Etruscan ships engaged in battle with a Greek force of Phocaean vessels. According to Herodotus, the Greeks managed to win the battle, but at a cost: two-thirds of their own fleet had perished. The Greeks abandoned their colonies on Corsica as a result and sought refuge in Italy.

The earliest known galleys with flat keels – probably to facilitate beaching at speed – appeared in the thirteenth century BC in the Aegean and were clearly the ancestors of those types of vessels that later developed into two-tiered biremes and three-tiered triremes. Biremes and triremes usually had the same pronounced forefoot as the Greek galleys of the eighth century BC, but this time they were covered by a thin sheet of bronze that allowed them to be used as rams. The earliest depictions of biremes date from the seventh century BC and they appear to have been a Phoenician invention. The trireme first appears in the second half of the sixth century BC; it is not clear whether these were invented by Greeks or Phoenicians, or perhaps another people, since these types of vessels spread quickly through the Mediterranean and became the archetypical warships of the age (for more on the trireme, see also Ancient Warfare II.3).

One of the best-known naval battles of Antiquity is the Sea-Battle of Salamis (480 BC), fought during the Greco-Persian Wars. The Persian fleet outnumbered the Greek fleet by more than two-to-one, so the Greeks could not hazard a frontal assault. Instead, they decided to engage in what we might consider the naval equivalent of Thermopylae: the Greek fleet pretended to flee into the narrow straits of Salamis between the island and the mainland. The Persian fleet pursued and found themselves in an area where they could not easily manoeuvre. A hidden detachment of Greek ships then emerged and attacked the Persian fleet in the flanks. Meanwhile, the main Greek fleet turned around and quickly attacked the confused Persians. There were exchanges of arrows and javelins before the vessels engaged in ramming each other, allowing the marines onboard to assault the enemy troops directly. The result was a resounding victory for the Greeks.

The Romans also built fleets to engage in naval battles (see also Ancient Warfare V.5). However, a number of successes against the Carthaginians led them to make a serious mistake during the First Punic War (264–241 BC). The Romans attempted to blockade the harbour of Lilybaeum, but were humiliated by experienced Carthaginian captains who managed to break through the blockade. The Romans decided to assault Drepana, but the ensuing naval battle ended in utter defeat. For more information, refer to Marc G. De Santis’s two-part online article on the Battle of Drepana.

Naval battles were of great importance in a large number of ancient wars. We might even say that a battle at sea dealt the final blow to the last remains of the Roman Republic. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, tensions increased steadily between two of the most prominent of his heirs: Octavian – the later Emperor Augustus – and Mark Antony. The latter finally moved east, where he became the lover of the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra of Egypt. Following a series of political machinations, a battle could no longer be staved off. A Roman fleet engaged the combined Roman-Egyptian fleet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra off Actium, a city in Acarnania, a region in Greece. The fleet of Octavian eventually managed to win the engagement.

Mark Antony escaped, but his days were essentially numbered. Most of Mark Antony’s men slowly began to desert him and, driven to despair, he committed suicide in 30 BC, dying in Cleopatra’s arms. The Egyptian queen followed him less than a fortnight later. Octavian later killed Caesarion, the son that Julius Caesar had fathered with Cleopatra, thus securing his rule and paving the way for the establishment of the Roman Empire.

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