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Atilius Regulus

War at sea

260 bc

Sea powers
Until now the Romans had only fought in land based wars, they did have a, probably small, fleet though. In Cassius Dio 9.4 even an admiral sails to Tarentum, but they had no experience in sea battles what so ever.
Carthago, founded by de Phoenicians, had had ages of experience in sea fare, trade and warfare. They were THE most experienced of all peoples.

Did the Romans plan this war?
Carthago had been trying to subdue Sicily for ages. The Romans were well aware of this, but until they had defeated Pyrrhus, Sicily was still far away. One must realize this war didn't came out of the blue; The Carthaginians didn't attack, the Romans did. Knowing the Romans they planned this war. They must have realized they were up to a power that controlled the sea.

Roman fleet
Polybius tells a nice story about a Carthaginian vessel that had ran into the ground. From this example the Romans would have copied their fleet. Since the Romans knew in advance this war was coming and they would need a fleet that could cope with the Carthaginians. They will have bought a war vessel, maybe in Greece, maybe even from the Carthaginians. To learn how to build a ship like this will have taken several years as it will have needed years to learn how to maneuver and navigate. Polybius' story that the men trained on benches on land can't be true.

Sea tactics
Warships were propelled by manpower. Up to 300 men rowed a trireme of quinquereme, which suggests there were 3 respectively 5 rows of rowers and oars. Since no good example survived we don't really know how these ships looked like. Missile weapons were limited to archers, slingshots and javelins. For heavier weapons the ships were simply too instable. If you wanted to sink the enemy vessel you had to ram it. To this end a bronze ram was fixed at the bow of the ship. This way of warfare had existed for ages and the Phoenicians were true masters, but the Romans were about to change everything.

The Romans had an extensive experience in conquering cities and other strongholds. Towers, scales and other instruments for besieging and storming were all known. Most of the times they wanted to conquer and not destroy. From this way of thinking it must have been a small step into wanting to conquer the enemy ship. They constructed a bridge so the legionnaires could cross over to the enemy ship. When not in use it stood upright against a mast. At the far end of the bridge a strong and sharp pin was attached. This pin would attache the two ships together when it hit the enemy deck with force. When standing upright it looked a bit like a raven. Corvus is latin for raven.

Once attached to the enemy vessel. The legionnaires would run over the bridge and started to use their favorite weapon the gladius against the mostly unarmed rowers. in the beginning of the war this was a great surprise for the Carthaginians and the Romans would win several battles this way. The corvus had also a great disadvantage: It made the ships unstable and the Romans would loose many warriors to the sea. In the end of the war they were capable seamen and would abandon the use of the corvus.

    Carthago's harbour    
      This picture I found in nowadays Carthago. In the entrance of a small museum. You can see the rectangular commercial port and behind it the circular military harbour. Since nobody really knows how Carthago looked like, the rest of the city comes from the the artist's phantasy. The amphitheater in the left upper corner s an improbable item; even in Rome gladiator games first started to be developed in 211 bc, the first stone amphitheatre many years later.    

Bow of a ship with the ram

    Corvus or raven


Corvus or raven in sailing position

    Corvus in action    

Corvus down


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