Warships and Warfare at Sea in the Hellenistic Period

Ancient seafaring was largely dependent on weather conditions. Sailing was restricted to the annual sailing season and was only possible in good weather, and most voyages followed the coasts. This practice continued all over the world until steam engines became widely used in ships in the nineteenth century. The sailing season in the Mediterranean began in March and lasted until November; for the rest of the year the ships stayed in port unless an urgent voyage had to be made. Sailing in winter was avoided because cloud, fog and mist made navigation difficult and winter storms were dangerous. Seafarers preferred sailing close to the coast and used landmarks such as promontories and islands to locate their position. On longer voyages they would venture further out to sea but tried to ensure that the coast was always visible. They used the sun and night sky for navigation; the constellation of Ursa Minor was known in the ancient world as Stella Fenicia. The sailors were familiar with the winds and sea and land breezes and took advantage of them. Currents and tides did not generally play a significant role in Mediterranean seafaring except in narrow channels such as the Chian Strait, the Strait of Messina and the area of Syrtis Minor. Coastal routes were preferred, not only because of the protection they offered in bad weather but also because most of the ships, and especially the warships, had little room to store water and food, so easy access to the coast was essential to obtain supplies. This necessity became one of the basic elements in dictating strategy in ancient warfare at sea: warships could only operate in areas where they could reach the coast in order to take on water and food and rest their crews. As a result, the control of harbours and landing places was most important and this can be seen in the strategies adopted by Rome and Carthage during the conflicts.

Warships worked in cooperation with the army, to transport troops to attack and ravage enemy territory. Raids were intended to put political, economic and psychological pressure on the enemy. The rowers had multiple tasks to perform. As well as rowing and beaching the ships, they built siege engines when needed and fought on land. Fleets were used to escort transport vessels and to support or disrupt sieges. Sea battles resulted from situations where rival powers fought for control of territory that offered safe harbours and landing places; they were most likely to occur when one side was intent on taking over an area controlled by a rival. For example, in 260 in Mylae the Romans defeated the Punic fleet and then started to operate on the north coast of Sicily, and in 217 a Roman victory at the Ebro allowed Rome to extend its influence on the Spanish coast. During the Punic Wars there were many sea battles; in contrast, the First and Second Macedonian Wars saw no sea battles when the Roman navy established itself in Greece. This was because during these wars, Rome, with its allies, possessed overwhelming power at sea, which Philip of Macedon’s fleet was not strong enough to challenge.

The main shipbuilding materials were fir and pine. The types of warships used in the Punic Wars – the trireme, quadrireme, quinquereme and six, as well as the pentecontor and other smaller vessels – were the result of centuries of development in Mediterranean shipbuilding. Advances in naval design had been made in the eastern and western Mediterranean and they were quickly adopted by other states around the coast. There were significant differences between the fleets of the various cities as each city commissioned ships according to the fighting force it needed and could afford. Cities constructed their own versions of the main types of ships – for instance, there were several different types of trireme.

The earliest evidence that has come down to us about warships is in the Iliad. Homer describes how the Greeks used their oared warships – longships – to transport men and their equipment to the battlefield. In this period oarsmen sat on one level and each one pulled an oar. The ships were triacontors with thirty oars and pentecontors with fifty oars. At the end of the eighth century BC, however, as naval tactics changed and ramming became more important, a two-level arrangement of the oarsmen was introduced. By using the same number of oarsmen but on two levels, one above the other, the ships could be made shorter which increased the power, speed and agility that were needed when ramming. Pentecontors were used not only for war but for commerce and piracy as well. Specially constructed harbours were not needed for the ships of this period: they used natural landing places along the coasts, where they could be pulled onto shore to dry out after a voyage.

In these archaic societies, pentecontors were not built and maintained solely by the states, as in these archaic societies, pentecontors were not built and maintained solely by the states, as was the case later on with the more expensive triremes. Aristocrats owned ships and used them for various purposes. There was a horizontal social mobility of aristocratic families and individuals throughout the Mediterranean world. The Greek nobility used ships in war and diplomacy, to visit religious festivals and games, and they travelled abroad to keep up personal contacts with the leading families in other states. Similarly, the Carthaginians used ships to maintain contact with influential families in the Punic colonies as well as in Greek Sicily and Etruria, and the Etruscans were involved in trade and piracy. At the time, this activity was not regarded as dishonourable. Plundering was seen as one way to acquire wealth and status and so ships were used for piracy when the opportunity arose. The label ‘pirate’ was applied to an enemy to discredit him. Perhaps this explains why Etruscan and Tyrrhenian pirates are a common motif in Greek archaic literature and art and yet the Greeks probably behaved in a similar way at sea.

The next step in ship development was the trireme, in which oarsmen were located on three levels on each side of the ship. The new design was probably introduced at Sidon and Corinth at the end of the eighth century and the first part of the seventh century BC. The trireme was clearly a more powerful weapon than its predecessor but it was expensive to build and operate so only the wealthiest states could afford them. The pentecontor required fifty oarsmen and ten to twenty additional crew members and soldiers, while a trireme required a crew of about 210. As a result, triremes were adopted slowly and at different times by Mediterranean states. So, during the Persian Wars (490–479), while the trireme was the commonest type of ship, other types were still deployed – pentecontors continued to be operated in the sixth century BC and even later. However, by the beginning of the fifth century BC, the trireme had become the principal tool for projecting power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Carthaginians probably adopted triremes soon after they were invented and the Romans introduced them to their fleet in 311, when the offices of the duoviri navales – naval commissioners in charge of equipping and refitting the fleet – were introduced. While the wealthier states developed ever more sophisticated ships, triremes, pentecontors and triacontors continued to serve in the navies of the smaller states; for example, pentecontors were still deployed in the third century BC and triacontors in the second century BC.

The development of new types of ship had so far been concentrated in the eastern Mediterranean. In the fourth century BC, however, the focus shifted to the west, where the introduction of the quadrireme, the quinquereme and the six took place. This was the result of naval competition between Carthage and Syracuse that, together with Athens, were the major maritime cities of their time. Pliny states that, according to Aristotle, the Carthaginians invented the quadrireme. According to Diodorus, Dionysius invented the quinquereme. He probably also built sixes. These innovations in ship design and construction should be seen against the background of how the Greek colonists sought to put themselves on the map of a history shared with the old homeland. The Sicilians and especially the Syracusans sought to gain influence in the Greek world by making it clear that they were sharing the burden of fighting the barbarians. This attitude is revealed in the tendency of Greek texts to represent the battles against the barbarians in the east and west as happening in a synchronized manner: for example, Himera and Salamis in Herodotus; Pindar mentioning the battles of Salamis, Plataea and Himera as the crowing glory of the Athenians, Spartans and Syracusans respectively; and Timaeus highlighting the connection between Himera and Thermopylae. In effect, these authors were seeking to show that the west is superior to the east when it comes to fighting the barbarians. In this case, the leading role in shipbuilding and innovation in ship design had shifted to Syracuse, to the new Greek world, and these new vessels were used in their campaign against the barbarians, the Carthaginians. The new types of ship were quickly adopted by the navies in the east – quadriremes were in use at Sidon in 351 BC, and the Cypriot kings who came to support Alexander after the Battle of Issus in 333 had quinqueremes. In the fleet of the city of Tyre, which Alexander besieged, there were quadriremes and quinqueremes, and Alexander’s own fleet had both these types of ship. In Athens, quadriremes and quinqueremes are recorded in the naval lists starting from 330. According to Polybius, the Romans first introduced quadriremes, quinqueremes and sixes at the beginning of the First Punic War.

A quinquereme needed a crew of around 350. The aim with the new types of ship was to target the increasing problem of finding skilful oarsmen. In a trireme only one man sat to an oar, whereas in the ships of the higher denominations more than one man sat to an oar, thus only one skilled rower was needed for each oar-gang, the rest of the rowers being there for power. In a quadrireme, the oarsmen were probably located on two levels, with two men pulling each oar. In a quinquereme, the oarsmen were arranged on three levels, with the top and middle levels manned by two men pulling an oar.

All these warships were designed to operate using the same tactics as had been devised for triremes. They could be used to ram, in which case the agility and speed of the ship were important as the aim was to stop the enemy ship or to damage its oars so that it was immobilized and could easily be put out of action. Warships could also be used as platforms for hand-to-hand fighting and launching missiles, and soldiers, archers and javelin-throwers were included in the crews. Warships that were intended to be employed in this fashion required a more solid superstructure to accommodate the large number of fighting men and the hulls were modified to ensure greater stability. In consequence, such ships tended to be slow and less manoeuvrable.

Various ramming tactics were used. The diekplous or breakthrough was an operation in which ships were arranged in a column in front of the enemy. They then tried to break through the enemy line and, by using the ram, damage the hulls and oars of the enemy ships. The defensive tactic against a diekplous attack was to keep the ships close together, side by side, so that it was difficult for the attackers to find space between them. Alternatively, ships could be arranged in a two-line formation; the ships in the second line were positioned in order to stop any enemy ships that penetrated the first line. This method was used at the Battle of Ebro in 217 when the Romans, together with the Massilians, defeated a Punic fleet. Obviously, this tactic put the attackers at great risk as their ships might be rammed or lose their oars and become immobile, which would make them easy targets. In the manoeuvre known as periplous, attackers attempted to sail around the flank of the enemy ships so as to come at them from the rear. Diekplous and periplous tactics could only be carried out by well-trained and well-organized fleets and both types of tactic can be seen in operation in the battles of the First and Second Punic Wars.

Sails were used when possible, although rowing was considered to be faster – the average speed of a ship under oar was 7 or 8 knots. There are no surviving representations of how a trireme under sail appeared. Naval inventories, however, indicate that there were two masts on a ship. The main mast was probably located in the middle of the ship and another smaller mast at the front of the ship was probably raked and stepped forward. The sails were almost certainly rectangular. Battles always took place near a coast and, before the fighting started, all unnecessary weight, including the main mast and rigging, was removed and left on the coast so that the ships were as light and easy to manoeuvre as possible. During a battle, only oars were used. When breaking off a battle, the small sail at the front of the ship was raised on the second mast. As with battles on land, one side could refuse to engage. However, if the commanders chose to fight – or if they could not avoid it – they had to consider the speed of their fleet compared to that of the enemy and to decide whether they should adopt offensive or defensive tactics. If a slow fleet found itself in an unfavourable tactical situation, it might be forced to attack in order to avoid a certain defeat.

Several factors affected the speed of the ships. They had to be regularly hauled onto the shore or put into ship-sheds so they could dry out; if this was not done, their wooden hulls became waterlogged and they became heavy and slow. Newly-built ships were likely to be faster than the old and, of course, their speed depended on their design. The speed of the ships also depended on the strength of the oarsmen; rowing was exhausting work and rowers could be expected to do it for only a few hours a day. Sometimes actions were interrupted so that the crews could rest and the fighting then resumed the following day.

Standardized shipbuilding was used. The rival states of the Mediterranean borrowed shipbuilding designs and innovations from each other. For example, Polybius records that at the beginning of the First Punic War the Romans used as their model a Carthaginian ship that they had captured when it ran aground. The Romans were not completely unaware of how to build such a ship – Polybius exaggerates their ignorance – but they were keen to see the latest development in Carthaginian shipbuilding. The main Roman contribution to warfare at sea in this period was the corvus, the boarding-bridge, which they used to attack enemy ships in the First Punic War. This innovation is characteristic of the Hellenistic period in which the armies and navies knew their opponents well and were evenly matched. In these circumstances they were eager to come up with a new weapon or tactic that would give them an advantage. This kind of development is particularly visible in the armies and navies operated by the successors of Alexander the Great.

Alexander’s successors competed for supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean and, in the arms race that followed, built ships of even greater denomination. The names of these ships are puzzling. In the literature they are described as the ‘seven’, the ‘eight’, the ‘nine’ and so on – all the way up to the ‘forty’. We do not know how they were constructed or how the oarsmen in them were arranged but big ships were a fleet phenomenon: they were used for ramming and needed the support of smaller vessels in the navy, which protected the larger ships. A large number of armed soldiers would have been aboard. Ships of these types were not used in the Punic Wars, except for a Carthaginian seven which had been captured from Pyrrhus.

Carthaginian Naval Power

The period of Carthaginian naval power spanned the sixth to third centuries (with some minor activity in the second) bce. It was a period of technological evolution, beginning with penteconters and the developments of the trireme in the sixth century, `fours’ and `fives’ in the fourth century, and, at the end of that century, `sixes’ and `sevens’, although the Carthaginians appear to have resisted the gigantism of contemporary Hellenistic fleets, and to have not gone in much for ships larger than the `five’. Other ships were used; the Marsala wrecks might have been of hemiola (`one and a half ‘) design, or perhaps were fast transport ships. This might not preclude their temporary use as com- bat craft. Some transports could be fitted with temporary rams, as it appears the Marsala wrecks were. Our understanding of the types of craft in use is hindered by the terminology employed by our sources and our general ignorance of the concepts underlying the classification of polyremes. It is likely that our literary sources employed shorthand terms that masked the true complexity of the make-up of fleets and obscured the diversity of ships, or indeed ship-designs within such a class as the `five’ (penteres, quinquireme). However, it seems clear that fleets were often a mixture of quality, design and size. The force left by Hannibal in Spain in 218 bce (Polyb. 3.3.14) contained fifty `fives,’ two `fours’ and five `threes.’ The Carthaginian fleet during the `Truceless War’ consisted of triremes, penteconters and the largest of their skiffs (akatia) (Polyb. 1.73.2), perhaps because the potential for enemy action at sea was limited and did not warrant the launch of those `fives’ that had survived the Roman triumph at the Aegates in 241 bce, perhaps also because the cost of manning them was prohibitive for the cash-strapped repub- lic. According to Livy (30.43), 500 oar-powered ships “of all types” were towed out to sea and burned by Scipio at the end of the Second Punic war. Warships, transports and merchantmen might sail together: Diodorus (14.59.7) mentions transports (olkades) and “ships with rams” (chalkemboloi) present at the battle of Catana, while Livy (25.27) reports that Bomilcar sailed for Syracuse in 212 bce with 130 warships and 700 transports.

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