Battle of Ecnomus (256 BC) – Largest Naval Battle in History

The Roman expedition to Africa should be considered in the light of Agathocles’ campaign against the Carthaginians half a century earlier. The similarities were many. According to Diodorus, Agathocles was hoping to ‘divert the barbarians from his native city and from all Sicily and transfer the whole war to Libya.’ The Syracusan attack had come as a surprise. Agathocles had escaped from the siege of Syracuse and his fleet reappeared close to the African coast. The Carthaginians had chased it but had failed to stop it. The Syracusans landed near the Latomiae on Cape Bon. After seeing the beached Sicilian ships burning – Agathocles had ordered them to be set on fire so that his soldiers would have no option but to fight for victory – the Carthaginians spread hides over the prows of their ships to mark the misfortune that had befallen their city and they took the bronze beaks of Agathocles’ ships on board their triremes. Agathocles conquered cities in Carthaginian territory, yet his campaign had been made easier by revolts launched by inhabitants who resented the exactions that came with Carthaginian rule. Polybius makes it clear that the Carthaginians were well aware that the local people could easily be subdued by an invader and they were prepared to run the risk of a sea battle to prevent the Romans from crossing to Africa. The Romans planned ‘to sail to Libya and deflect the war to that country, so that the Carthaginians might find no longer Sicily, but themselves and their own territory in danger.’

We do not know when the plans for the invasion were made. Polybius states briefly that the Romans, after making preparations for the coming summer, went to sea with a fleet of 330 decked ships and two sixes and put in to Messana, then started again and sailed southwards, doubled Cape Pachynus at the south-east corner of Sicily and came round to Ecnomus, where their land forces were. The Carthaginians set sail with 350 decked vessels, touched at Lilybaeum and anchored off Heraclea Minoa. Heraclea Minoa was the furthest point under their control on the south coast. Both Heraclea Minoa and Ecnomus were well-suited as staging areas for the two fleets before the battle as they were located on rivers Halycus and Himera, respectively, which would provide the fleets with drinking water.

The route the Romans used was safe until they turned onto the south coast. They wanted to follow the coastline as far as possible in order to reduce the distance of the sea voyage. However, they were likely to encounter the Punic fleet, which was determined to stop them from making the crossing. Polybius does not say where the battle took place. It is a modern assumption that it occurred off Ecnomus but Zonaras places it off Heraclea and this makes sense since the Carthaginians found the Romans towing their horse transports. If the Romans had been near Ecnomus, it would not have been necessary for them to do this, so clearly they must have left their staging area and been on their way to the west.

Polybius states that the Romans had prepared for action at sea and for a landing on enemy territory. Around 140,000 men were embarked on the Roman ships, each ship carrying about 300 rowers and 120 marines. The Carthaginians adapted their preparations to fight at sea and, based on the number of ships, over 150,000 of their men were involved. These figures are essentially credible, except that the number of staff on board the Punic ships may well be too high. Polybius probably made a mistake by multiplying the number of warships by a Roman complement of 420 per ship; the Carthaginians almost certainly had fewer soldiers on board as they were expecting to fight at sea, not on land. As discussed above, some researchers have seen numbers of ships over 300 as too high and have tried to reduce them. There are nevertheless reasons for keeping them as they are. This battle probably involved the largest number of men in any naval battle in history.

The figures for the number of ships refer to both new and old ships that were used in the operation; it was customary to see how many old ships were seaworthy and then build new ships to fulfil the number required. Rome had built 120 ships in 260; most of these were probably still in operation. At this time the Romans had over 100 Punic ships and possibly some of these were repaired and used in the Roman fleet. Thus the invasion would require the building of 100–200 additional ships. The Punic fleet was probably put together in the same way but for Carthage we have no information of the pace of their shipbuilding. However, the number of captured Roman ships was very low and they did not play a role in the Punic fleet.

Polybius wrote a detailed description of the battle, the most complete account we have of all the sea battles of the Punic Wars. The Romans took up a protective wedge formation, with their three sections of ships in a triangle. The commanders, consul suffectus Marcus Atilius Regulus and consul Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus, were placed at the front of the triangle, each commanding a six. The third section, at the base of the triangle, towed the horse transports and behind it was the fourth squadron, the triarii, in a single long line.

The Carthaginians adapted their formation to that of the Romans. Polybius states that they tried to surround the Romans and deployed their ships so that the left wing, commanded by Hamilcar, was close to the coast. The swiftest quinqueremes were on the seaward wing, commanded by Hanno. Three separate engagements followed at a long distance from each other. The first began when the Romans, in their wedge formation, noticed that the Carthaginian line was thin and attacked in the centre:

The Carthaginian center had received Hamilcar’s orders to fall back at once with the view of breaking the order of the Romans, and, as they hastily retreated, the Romans pursued them vigorously. While the first and second squadrons thus pressed on the flying enemy, the third and fourth were separated from them … When the Carthaginians thought they had drawn off the first and second squadrons far enough from the others, they all, on receiving a signal from Hamilcar’s ship, turned simultaneously and attacked their pursuers.

Polybius says the Carthaginian ships were superior in speed so they could move around the enemy’s flank and approach and retire rapidly. In contrast, the Romans relied on their strength, grappling each Carthaginian ship with a boarding-bridge as soon as it approached.

The second phase of the battle started when the Carthaginian right wing attacked the ships of the triarii, causing them great distress, and the third phase began when the third Roman squadron towing the horse transports was attacked by the Carthaginian left wing. The Romans released the tow lines and engaged the enemy. Hamilcar’s division was forced back and took to flight. Lucius took the prizes in tow. Marcus went to help the triarii and the horse transports with those ships from the second squadron that were undamaged. Hanno’s division soon found themselves surrounded by the Romans and began to retreat out to sea. Both consuls hastened to relieve the third squadron, which was shut in so close to the shore, according to Polybius, that it would have been lost if the Carthaginians had not been afraid of the boarding-bridges. When the consuls came up and surrounded the Carthaginians, they captured fifty ships with their crews, although a few managed to slip away along the shore and escape. The Romans lost twenty-four ships sunk, the Carthaginians more than thirty. No Roman ship was captured but in all the Romans captured sixty-four from the Carthaginians.

The detailed information that has come down to us allows a full analysis of the battle but does not necessarily make it easy to understand. Some scholars have rejected the triangle formation on the grounds that it would have been impossible to organize. However, as Tipps has demonstrated, the alleged difficulties have been overstated as the wedge was hardly anything more than a variation of the line-astern formation that offered safety: the outer flank of each ship in the wedge was covered by the ship on its quarter, thus any ship that was attacked was defended by its neighbour with a ram or boarding-bridge.

Other areas of debate are the Punic plan and the reasons for the Roman victory. According to Tipps, forming a trap to lure the enemy was a common Punic manoeuvre in the period of the First Punic War and the Carthaginians expected the Romans to keep their formation. The partial retreat of the Carthaginian centre was a part of the plan. They wanted to draw the Roman fleet forward so that the Carthaginian wings could close around the Roman formation. The Romans were saved because they allowed their formation to split when the consuls made a vigorous charge towards the centre of the Carthaginian line.

Goldsworthy argues that it was Hamilcar’s plan to break the Roman formation in order to produce small-scale encounters between different parts of each fleet and in these clashes the Carthaginians could use ramming tactics. According to Lazenby and Goldsworthy, the Roman victory depended on the boarding-bridge, which turned out to be especially effective in a battle taking place near the shore. At this point in the conflict the Carthaginians had not yet found a way of counteracting it. Moreover, Goldsworthy points out the speed and the skill with which the consuls finished the first battle and came to help in the second and third battles. Most of the damage the Carthaginians suffered was inflicted in the last two battles.

The Carthaginians had lost a crucial battle. Using the boarding-bridges, the Romans had captured a significant number of Punic ships but the boarding-bridges are not the sole explanation for their victory; the speed and mobility of the Roman ships were also important factors. It is intriguing that there must have been a considerable difference between the weights of the ships in the opposing fleets, just as there had been in 260 when the Carthaginians lost to the Romans off the coast of Bruttium. The Roman ships were carrying soldiers and equipment needed in Africa, whereas the Carthaginians had prepared for the sea battle only and had made their ships as light as possible – they had probably left the main masts and rigging on shore. Despite this, the Roman ships managed to move from one side of the battle to another, always giving each other support.

The Romans spent some time, probably at Ecnomus, taking on extra supplies, repairing the captured ships and giving prizes to their men for their success. Then they crossed the sea, meeting no resistance on the way. First a group of thirty of their ships reached Cape Bon, east of the Bay of Carthage. Then, when their remaining ships arrived, the fleet was united and sailed along the coast and landed at Aspis on Cape Bon. The ships were beached and surrounded with a trench and palisade; then the siege of the town began. The Carthaginians watched the situation as it developed. The Punic ships that had escaped from the naval battle had sailed for home and the Carthaginian land and sea forces kept a lookout at different points over the approaches to their capital. When they learned that the Romans had landed, they brought their forces together to protect the city and its environs.

The Romans took Aspis and garrisoned the town and the district, then sent a mission to Rome to report and ask for instructions. In the meantime, they pillaged the fertile countryside, destroying rich country houses and taking many cattle. They also captured over 20,000 slaves and took them back to their ships. Then messengers arrived with the senate’s instructions: one of the consuls, Marcus Regulus, was to remain with forty ships, 15,000 infantry and 500 cavalry, while Lucius was to return to Rome with the ships’ crews and the slaves. He celebrated a naval triumph ‘over the Carthaginians’.

Bibliography

Lazenby, J.F., Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War (Warminster, 1978)

Lazenby, J.F., The First Punic War (London, 1996)

Goldsworthy, A., The Punic Wars (London, 2000)

Tipps, G.K., ‘The battle of Ecnomus’, Historia 34/4 (1985)

 

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