Carthage’s Navy

CARTHAGE Showing naval port.

Carthaginian Tetrere: The Marsala ship. Reconstruction by Michael Leek

Punic hepter. The dimensions of the holds of the military port of Carthage permitted only vessels of 4.80 m wide, the size of a trire, in the islet of the Admiralty with the exception of two holds of 7 Meters wide. The heavy units of Carthage seem to have been very rare, it is quite possible that there never was any deer in service in its fleet. The Hepter above, extrapolated directly from the Penteres of the fleet, did not exceed six meters in width, while embarking 420 rowers and 80 soldiers: It was the flagship of the fleet.

Carthage’s naval might started small. Its earliest known fleet, which joined an equal Etruscan force to fight the Phocaean Greeks of Corsica in 540, was only sixty penteconters strong. A penteconter (`fifty-oarer’) was the normal war-vessel of the time, rowed by twenty-five oarsmen on each side. Battles were invariably fought close to shore (warships could not stay out on the open sea for long stretches); their simple but stressful tactics aimed at piercing enemy ships with the penteconters’ bronze underwater rams or else shearing off one side of an opponent’s oars. The victors would be able to capture or kill survivors in the water or after pursuing them ashore, unless their own losses hampered them.

By the start of the fifth century, penteconters, though still used, were replaced as first-line warships by the trireme. This was a long, sleek and – with trained crews – highly manoeuvrable craft, rowed by oarsmen sitting in three banks, one above the other, each man wielding his own oar. Athenian triremes, the only ones known in any detail, each carried 170 rowers and a few (under twenty) soldiers and archers. The trireme was an eastern Mediterranean development: they were in use in Pharaoh Necho’s fleet in 600 BC, and by 525 formed part of the powerful navy of Samos, then allied with Persia. The Carthaginians probably adopted them some years after 540. Philippus, an aristocratic Italian Greek follower of the Spartan adventurer Dorieus, sailed to join him in Sicily in 510 with his own trireme and crew, which suggests that it was now in common use.

Carthage’s 200 warships for the invasion of Sicily in 480 were no doubt triremes, for Syracuse’s navy was just as large and the Syracusans had triremes. This warship remained standard, Mediterranean-wide, throughout the fifth century and well into the fourth. As in penteconters, the main tactic was to use the heavy bronze ram fixed to the bow below the waterline to smash into an opposing hull or its oars. This manoeuvre could be developed (it took skill and boldness) into what Greeks called the diekplous, the `passage’, whereby a fleet sailing line abreast sought to pass straight through the enemy line, then swing round so that each trireme could attack an opponent from the rear.

The next developments in warships were quadriremes (`four-oarers’) and quinqueremes (`fives’). Each kept three levels of seats for the oarsmen, but had four and five of these respectively. Diodorus credited the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius with being the first to build them, around 398, but they came into regular use only late in the fourth century. They then relegated triremes to secondary status: quinqueremes became the capital ships. Their layout is not certain in detail, as literary and archaeological details are thin, but each was fitted as usual with a massive bronze ram beneath the prow and most probably still had three banks of oars like the trireme. Two Carthaginian rams have been found (so far), along with over a dozen Roman ones, on the seabed just off Sicily’s west coast, relics of the decisive naval battle of the Aegates Islands fought in 241. Every bronze ram projects three horizontally layered ridges or flanges, powerful enough to crash through a thick wooden hull if driven at speed; practised oarsmen could then pull their ship back to let the victim founder.

The quinquereme’s much larger size apparently accommodated two men per oar on both the top and middle levels, while one rower on the lowest bench-level pulled one oar, but details are debated because no clear evidence survives. Its rowing complement numbered about 300, while the on-board soldiery would be several dozen strong. Thus a fleet of 100 quinqueremes could in principle carry as many as 40,000 men, not counting those on lesser companion ships. Quinqueremes were also big enough to embark war machines like catapults, themselves a fourth-century development. Manoeuvrability must have been more cumbersome than in trireme battles. Sosylus’ fragmentary account of a Hannibalic-war clash does attest that its Carthaginian ships were still using the diekplous, but it does not give numbers, ship-types or a location, and it is possible that those combatants were triremes.

In wartime, Carthage’s citizens went into the navy, along with some contributions (of unknown size) from coastal allies like Utica and Hippou Acra. As its population and wealth grew, so did its forces. The penteconter fleet in Corsican waters in 540 can at most have had 3,000 sailors. Sixty years later, the Sicilian expedition’s armada would have some 34,000 – if Diodorus’ figure for warships can be believed – and the crews of the supposedly 3,000-strong transport fleet would be still more numerous. Many of these crews were probably Carthaginians too. Between 100 and 200 remained the usual strength of a Punic fleet, when numbers are mentioned, before the first war with Rome. This suggests that until then, Carthage could normally put 17,000-34,000 trireme oarsmen to sea, accompanied by a few thousand shipboard troops who might be Carthaginians or Libyans and mercenaries.

Crew numbers must have gone up dramatically after 264, for according to Polybius and other sources, the Carthaginians launched fleets of more than 100 quinqueremes, and occasionally more than twice as many, to combat the Romans. Citizen numbers alone may not have been enough to man all these. If so, extra personnel were probably levied from the Libyphoenicians and Libyans. The manpower for smaller naval vessels and transports was an added need in all periods, with crews again probably not limited to Carthaginians.

For most of their history, the Carthaginians kept their navy in dockyards (neoria in Greek), which must have been sited on the city’s eastern shore or in the shipping channel dug from the lake of Tunis up to the city’s edge just below Byrsa. In 368, the neoria were ravaged by a fire severe enough to make Dionysius of Syracuse reckon that no Punic fleet survived, but he soon (and painfully) learned otherwise. In peacetime, existing warships were kept in ship-sheds, like those excavated in the circular enclosed harbour that was built in the third or second century. They could be launched swiftly when needed, so long as crews were available (and trained) and the necessary equipment ready.

Whether the state maintained skeleton professional crews between wars, and whether Carthaginian warships carried out peacetime naval exercises to keep them in trim, we are not told, but Sosylus’ remark about the skill of the Punic diekplous does suggest regular practice. We also know that early in the great mercenary and Libyan rebellion against Carthage, around 241-40, merchants from Italy doing trade with the rebels were intercepted by Punic naval patrols (which kindled a serious though brief diplomatic crisis with Rome). This happened soon after Carthage’s first Roman war had ended in a disastrous naval defeat, but plainly warships were still available for watching home waters.

Carthaginian Ships

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