Rome vs Carthage- Part 3: Rome Builds a Navy

The First Punic war had started, but the Romans were still at a clear disadvantage. They barely had a navy; the Carthaginians had the most powerful fleet in the entire Mediterranean. Follow us as we look at how the Romans decided to take the war to the seas…

(Previous posts in this series: Part 2- Trouble in Sicily)

The Consuls elected in succession to those who had besieged Agrigentum, Lucius Valerius Flaccus and Titus Otacilius Crassus, appeared to be managing the Sicilian business as well as circumstances admitted. Yet so long as the Carthaginians were in undisturbed command of the sea, the balance of success could not incline decisively in their favour. For instance, in the period which followed, though they were now in possession of Agrigentum, and though consequently many of the inland towns joined the Romans from dread of their land forces, yet a still larger number of seaboard towns held aloof from them in terror of the Carthaginian fleet.

This was how the Roman writer Polybius described the situation in Sicily after Rome moved its army onto the island to clash with the Carthaginians. Victories on land seemed to be always assured for the Romans- but they were still continually assailed by the dominant Carthaginian fleet. The Carthaginians still had an upper hand in the war, the Romans knew.

But that was all to change.

An unfortunate Carthaginian ship had washed up on the shores of the territory of the Roman Republic early during the First Punic War. It was also unfortunate, for the Carthaginians, that the Romans were fast learners. The Romans were in need of a fleet to use against Carthage’s overwhelming naval superiority, and, according to the Roman writer Polybius, they saw this as their chance.

Or perhaps not. The story that the Romans captured a Carthaginian ship and copied the design is believed by many historians to be false; instead, it is more probable that they took designs from their seafaring allies. In any case, the Romans quickly undertook a project unprecedented in military history up until then: the Roman Senate, realizing that to win the war against Carthage would require Rome to take control of the seas, ordered a fleet of 100 quinqueremes, the heaviest warship of the day, and the another 20 triremes.

Polybius describes this valiant undertaking:

There could be no more signal proof of the courage, or rather the extraordinary audacity of the Roman enterprise. Not only had they no resources for it of reasonable sufficiency; but without any resources for it at all, and without having ever entertained an idea of naval war,— for it was the first time they had thought of it,—they nevertheless handled the enterprise with such extraordinary audacity, that, without so much as a preliminary trial, they took upon themselves there and then to meet the Carthaginians at sea, on which they had for generations held undisputed supremacy.

Indeed, it was a difficult task for the Romans. They had, as Polybius said, never seriously considered building for themselves a powerful navy; and now, faced against the naval superpower of the Mediterranean, they had no choice. They spent two months constructing the ships,  and during those two months they also constructed ships on land in order to train would-be sailors to row. An upstart to the sea was about to take the war to the masters themselves.

The Romans didn’t forget why they were victorious on land. They were superior in hand-to-hand land combat, and the Romans pondered the question of how to win against the Carthaginians if they had so little naval experience. For this task they came up with an ingenious innovation: the corvus. A boarding device, it acted as a bridge gripped onto enemy ships and allowed Roman marines to run from their own ship to the Carthaginian ones, and fight the way they knew it best: like disciplined land soldiers.

Roman corvus.

At Lipari, in 260 B.C, the Romans decided to meet the Carthaginians for the first time at sea. The minor battle was lost by the Romans, but later that year at Mylae the Romans proved themselves to be able to be victorious not just on land, but also on water. The Carthaginians had lost to a year-old navy.

It was not a one-hit wonder for the Romans. Successive naval battles would also be won by the Republic, and the Roman Senate began to contemplate taking the war to North Africa, the homeland of Carthage itself. The two consuls of Rome, Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus, took a fleet of two hundred ships to finish off the Carthaginian fleet in Sicily, as to pave the way for a land invasion of Carthage.

In retrospect, it is truly amazing that the Romans managed to accomplish what it did. A people with no history at sea was now winning battles at sea against another people whose history had been spent at sea. At the Battle of Cape Economus, the Romans managed to defeat the centre of the Carthaginian fleet after a long battle, before defeating the other wings. It was a disaster for Carthage. Half its fleet had been captured or sunk, and now the Romans were free to attack Rome.

Battle of Cape Ecnomus.

Indeed, not long after the battle, consul Regulus would be standing on the shores of North Africa. The war had been taken to Carthage itself. Follow us next week as we look at how the Carthaginians, desperate to turn the tide of the war, would hire a Spartan mercenary to do for them exactly that.


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