The Battle of Drepana, 249 BC (part 1)

Did swimming chickens cost Rome a naval battle?


Rome and Carthage would fight three bitter wars with each other between 264 and 146 BC. After more than a century of intermittent conflict, the city of Carthage was destroyed utterly, and Rome stood triumphant, the greatest power in the Mediterranean world. This outcome was far from certain, however, when the two states became locked in battle in 264 BC. The Carthaginians had developed an empire, based upon commerce, that extended throughout the western Mediterranean. It deployed the best navy in the Mediterranean, and the riches garnered from its trade allowed it to field a highly capable army of professional mercenaries.

The Romans, for their part, had very little experience with naval warfare. Their great strength was their army, which was composed of citizen legionaries. At this time, in the mid-third century BC, Rome had relatively narrow horizons, and had only recently solidified its political control of Italy. Carthage’s homeland was in northern Africa, but its influence was especially strong in Spain and Sicily. Sicily was the focal point for the first conflict between these two states, which has gone down in history as the First Punic War, fought between 264–241 BC. The Carthaginians had an established colonial presence in the south of the island of many centuries duration, and had often fought against the various Greek city-states there.

The Mamertines at Messana

At some time in the 280s BC, a company of mercenaries known as the Mamertines seized control of the city of Messana (which is now modern Messina) in Northeastern Sicily. Messana was just across the Straits of Messina from Italy. The Mamertines later found themselves under severe pressure from the Sicilian Greek city of Syracuse. Various factions made appeals to both Rome and Carthage for aid. The Carthaginians responded first, and a contingent of their troops was allowed to take up residence in Messana’s citadel.

After some debate, the Romans decided (as yet unaware of Carthage’s own move) to send troops to the city. The Romans believed that if the Carthaginians were able to take control of a weakened Messana, then ultimate Carthaginian domination of all of Sicily was virtually assured. This raised the specter of a foreign invasion of Italy from an island just a few miles distant. The Romans could not abide this possibility, and soon had mustered an army to send to Messana.

In 264 BC, the Mamertines tricked the Carthaginian garrison into evacuating the citadel. At the same time, the Romans crossed over to Messana. There they found the city under siege from the resentful Carthaginians, who also had their fleet cruising menacingly offshore, and also by an army from Syracuse, which had arrived to rid the island of the Mamertines. The Romans attacked and routed the Syracusans, and then defeated the Carthaginians. Messana was now safely in Roman hands.

Conquering the rest of Sicily, however, proved a far more difficult task. Carthaginian seapower blunted the Roman edge on land. The Roman army could easily scare a Sicilian town into submission, but as soon as the Roman legionaries had marched away, the Carthaginian fleet would appear, and pressure the same town into switching over to the side of Carthage. In this way, the war continued in stalemate for several years, with little progress made by either side. The Romans were stronger on the land, but the Carthaginians were supreme at sea.

The Romans knew that Carthaginian seapower gave them a terrific advantage in Sicily. Carthaginian attacks on Italian shores also added insult to injury, since the Romans themselves had no native means of attacking Africa. They had heretofore relied on their allies from the nautically-minded Greek city-states of southern Italy to provide ships for them when they needed to move their legionaries over water. So in 260 BC, with the war in Sicily grinding, and with no end in sight, the Romans then did an unprecedented thing in the ancient world - they built a navy from scratch.

The Romans had previously captured an intact Carthaginian war galley when they had initially crossed over to Messana in 264 BC. The unfortunate Punic ship had sought to attack the Romans as they crossed the straits with their legionaries, and had accidentally grounded itself on the coast. The Romans took it for themselves. It was of a type of galley known as a quinquereme, because it required five men to row every group of three oars. When the Romans at last decided to create a battle fleet of their own, they copied this vessel’s every detail for their versions of the quinquereme.

The construction of such ships was no simple matter. A quinquereme was not just a big rowboat, but a one-hundred-twenty-foot long, multilevel craft with three banks of oars. It was large enough to accommodate approximately three hundred rowers and perhaps another one hundred or so soldiers to fight as marines. It had to be light enough so that it could be rowed at a reasonable speed by its straining and fatigue-prone oarsmen, but still be sturdy so that it could resist the impact of the waves and the harsh rigours of battle, which included deadly ramming attacks, of which the Carthaginians were master practitioners.

The entire project was so unprecedented that the Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century BC, and our main source for this war, would say that “it was not a question of having adequate resources for the enterprise, for they had in fact none whatsoever, nor had they had they ever given a thought to the sea before this.” But Roman grit and determination would see them through, despite their being so unskilled in seagoing matters that they had to train their farm boys how to row on benches set on land. A force of some 120 ships soon took shape. Polybius wrote:

Once they had conceived the idea, they embarked on it so boldly that without waiting to gain any experience in naval warfare they immediately engaged the Carthaginians.

After a few initial setbacks, the Romans began to make progress. They won victories against the Carthaginians at the battles of Tyndaris and Mylae in 260 BC. A titanic clash off of Ecnomus in 256 BC ended in a crushing Carthaginian defeat. The Romans then landed in Africa, and were all set to storm Carthage when they were stopped in their tracks by a revitalized Carthaginian army in a battle outside Tunis in 255 BC, causing the war to drag on once more.

The Roman secret to success

What was Roman secret for such success against the Carthage’s navy, the erstwhile mistress of the sea? The Romans had a special genius for mechanical innovation, and had developed a remarkable device known as the corvus, or raven. The “raven” was so-named because the device, a gangplank that could be raised, lowered, and rotated in all directions, had a metal spike, or beak, that was dropped onto an enemy ship in the midst of battle. This held the enemy vessel fast, and allowed the tough Roman legionaries to scramble across and board. Once there, the Roman advantage in close combat could be brought to bear against the enemy.

This tactic worked well, and was in large part responsible for the Roman victories at sea. Moreover, it negated a principal advantage of the Carthaginians - their superior seamanship. It did not matter that the Carthaginians were better rowers if the ravens held their ships in place. Galley warfare in the ancient world comprised two primary tactics - ramming and boarding. The Romans made it unwise for the Carthaginians to ram - if they did, they would likely get stuck to a Roman ships packed to the gills with aggressive legionaries - and made it easier for themselves to board. All in all this was a revolutionary and effective method of sea warfare.

But after the Battle of Ecnomus, the ravens are not mentioned again. This is remarkable, since they played such an important part in allowing Rome to gain naval parity, and then superiority over the Carthaginians. Just why this was so has led to some speculation. The Romans suffered massive losses of ships to storms in the years after Ecnomus. Storms actually caused greater Roman losses at sea than enemy action. Some modern historians, such as John Warry and Peter Connolly, have surmised that this was because the ravens made their ships dangerously top-heavy, and thus vulnerable in bad weather. The reason why the ravens are not heard of again after the Battle of Ecnomus is, the argument runs, because they were removed to prevent further losses in rough seas. This is a plausible suggestion, and if correct, the absence of the ravens would explain much that occurred in a subsequent naval battle off of Drepana, Sicily. The Romans would find that their tactical advantage at sea had been lost, and that the outstanding ship handling skills of the Carthaginian crews, coupled with their more talented leadership, would result in a painful drubbing that would help to prolong an already lengthy war.

This article is continued in part two.

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