Sharks, war galleys, and the rise of the Roman Empire

Editorial note: Marc G. DeSantis is a regular contributor to Ancient Warfare magazine. His first book, Rome Seizes the Trident, has now been published by Pen & Sword Books. In order to help him spread the word about his new book, I’m happy to publish this blog post in which Marc tells a bit about the background and subject matter of the book. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Ancient Warfare endorses the book, and a review will be published in a future issue!

You know you’ve been with a subject for a long time when you start dreaming about it. My dream had me standing on the deck of a Roman war galley, leaning over the side. Beneath me, in the crystal clear water of the Mediterranean, swam several dark, unmistakable silhouettes of sharks. Great big sharks, with lots of teeth. The ones that mean business. The ones that aren’t more scared of you than you are of them. No, these are the sharks that see people as human ravioli. Soft on the outside, softer on the inside.

Fortunately, this was only a dream. But my exploration of the naval wars between Rome and Carthage was very real. It was 2015, and I had been researching my first book, Rome Seizes the Trident, non-stop, for months. I had been living with the war for Sicily, the building of Rome’s first large battlefleet, and the corvus boarding-bridge every day of my life. I was in a zone, and I was becoming one with my work.

So what brought me to the third century BC in the first place? I had been interested in the naval battles of the ancient world for some time, and what made the Roman-Carthaginian sea fights stand out for me was the, superficially at least, incongruity of Romans making war at sea. The legions had always been the Roman war machine to me, and many others, but in the First Punic War (264–241 BC) Roman fleets had been at the forefront of the fighting. The war itself was decided in 241 in a final, climactic sea battle at the Aegates Islands that saw the last Carthaginian fleet crushed. Rome and Carthage made peace, but it was a bitter one that served to set the stage for the next conflict.

Rome had wrested control of the sea from the Carthaginians, a people with a much longer seafaring tradition than the Romans had. When Hannibal marched out of Spain across Gaul on his way to Italy, he was perhaps compelled to do so. Roman domination of the sea did not win the war for Rome. That took some sixteen years of hard fighting, especially after Hannibal had walloped the Romans at Cannae. But without control of the sea, Rome would surely have lost the war.

Once Carthage had been defeated in the Second Punic War, Roman ambitions settled on the East, and wars were fought for dominion in Greece and Asia Minor. A third and final war with Carthage saw the complete ruin of that once majestic city. In all of these conflicts the navy had been crucial to Roman success, but the historical memory of Rome still overlooks to one extent or another the contribution of the fleets in favour of the legions. This is in part the fault of the Romans themselves, who were landlubbers at heart, and for whom proper war was made on dry land. The naval battles of Mylae, the Aegates Islands, and Myonnessus deserve to be as well-known and appreciated for their role in the building of the Roman Empire as the land battles of Zama, Cynoscephalae, and Magnesia.

The story of Rome’s acquisition of naval power is also a story of what sheer determination can achieve. From just a relative handful of ships at the beginning of the First Punic War, Rome engaged in a crash-programme to build war galleys to compose a fleet strong enough to take on that of Carthage. With these ships it was successful from the first, and with the unique corvus boarding-bridge, they had found a way to make the use of her greatest weapons, her legionaries, at sea, by turning naval battles into something more resembling fights on land.

Roman tactics brought success in her wars with Carthage, and fueled the rise of her nascent empire. The establishment of the Roman Empire as a polity dominating large portions of three continents, and the cultural and political legacy that it left behind, still resonates today. I think that the tale of the rise of the Roman navy in the great wars with Carthage deserves to be told, and Rome Seizes the Trident is that story.

Rome Seizes the Trident is available in hardcover and e-book formats through Pen & Sword, Amazon, and other booksellers. 

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