In the 3rd century BC, Rome was not a naval power, and had little or no experience in war at sea. Before the First Punic War, the Roman Republic had not campaigned outside the Italian Peninsula. The Republic’s military strength was on land, and her greatest assets were the discipline and courage of her soldiers. The boarding-bridge allowed her to use her marines against the superior Carthaginian naval skills. The Romans’ application of boarding tactics worked; they won several battles, most notably those of Mylae, Sulci, Tyndaris, and Ecnomus.
Despite its advantages, the boarding bridge had a serious drawback: it could not be used in rough seas since the stable connection of two working ships endangered each other’s structure. Operating in rough seas, the device became useless and was abandoned. According to Bonebaker, Professor of Naval Architecture at Delft, with the estimated weight of one ton for the boarding bridge, it is “most probable that the stability of a quinquereme with a displacement of about 250 m3 (330 cu yd) would not be seriously upset”.
Some other historians believe that its weight on the prow compromised the ship’s navigability and the Romans lost almost two entire fleets to storms in 255 and in 249 BC, largely due to the instability caused by the device. These losses were probably the main reason for the abandonment of the boarding-bridge in ship design by the end of the war. As Roman naval tactics improved and the Roman crews became more experienced, the boarding-bridge was no longer used in battle. It is not mentioned in period sources after the battle of Ecnomus and apparently the Battle of the Aegates Islands that decided the first Punic war was won without it.
Fought in 256 bce between the fleets of Carthage and the Roman Republic, Cape Ecnomus was one of the largest naval battles in history, with almost 700 ships and 300,000 men engaged. The Romans emerged victorious, winning overall command of the western Mediterranean Sea.
The Battle of Cape Ecnomus By the year 256 BCE, the Roman fleet numbered 360 quinqueremes, a number that would have required a full staff of 99,000 rowers. If each ship also carried its maximum capacity of marines on board, the total number of men at sea would have reached nearly 140,000. The sheer magnitude of this naval effort must have required not only Romans from the capital city but also recruits from all of Italy. Historians have posited that to secure such a huge number of rowers and marines, the usual length of an individual’s naval service was probably just the summer season.
The main purpose of this unprecedented naval expansion was to launch a campaign directly to Africa, meeting the Carthaginians on their home territory. Certainly, this would have been helpful in extracting enemy forces from the lands surrounding Italy, which had been constantly under pressure for nearly a decade at that point. Furthermore, if Rome’s movements toward the south could help flush enough Carthaginians out of Sicily, remaining Republican troops could take advantage of the opportunity to claim large tracts of the island.
The Roman naval units at Messana set sail down the eastern coast of Sicily, around Cape Pachynus (Pachynum/Passero/Passaro), and to Ecnomus to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet. Concerned that the Carthaginians had ramped up their naval fleet and weaponry as well, Rome’s fleet traveled in an unorthodox wedge shape, with the two largest ships at the front. Each of these held one of the consuls and led what may have been the largest naval procession in all history.
For his part, Carthage’s new general, Hamilcar, knew that the Romans were planning something big and that the upcoming battle would have a serious impact on the future of the war. If Carthage won, the remainder of the war would be confined to Sicily. If Rome won, the fighting would spread into North Africa and potentially wreak havoc on Carthage itself.
The entire Roman fleet was divided into four squadrons, with the first two led by the consuls. These squadrons consisted of the two long sides of the wedge formation. The third squadron consisted of the back edge of the wedge, with the fourth squadron lined up in parallel behind them. The Carthaginians made a simple attacking line, intent on splitting the Roman squadrons into a multitude of small groups and engage in a series of smaller battles.
Carthage planned to encircle the Roman wedge within its line, and to facilitate this, the center of the line held back while the Roman navy approached. The left and right wings of the Carthaginian line plowed ahead, folding around the third and fourth Roman squadrons, while the consuls pressed on, hoping to take advantage of what looked like a sparse central line. It was a dynamic mash-up of offensive formations, but the Romans still had an important edge over their enemies thanks to the corvus. Carthage had no answer to the mechanical boarding anchor, meaning that, in hand-to-hand combat, Rome fared much better.
It was Hamilcar’s fleet that was forced to retreat as the consuls gathered up the occupied enemy ships and horse transports. Rome captured a total of sixty-four Carthaginian ships, fifty of which still had their crews on board. Twenty-four Roman ships and thirty of Hamilcar’s were sunk, but the overall victory went to Rome. The consuls ordered their fleet ashore for repairs, and when the ships were readied once more, they all set out toward Africa.
The invasion force of 256 B. C. was commanded by Marcus Atilius Regulus. The Romans landed in Africa, seized the coastal city of Aspis, and ravaged the neighboring area. Regulus advanced into the Carthaginian hinterland (apparently he intended to cut Carthage off from its allies and revenues and force it to come to terms). When he was confronted by a much larger Carthaginian army, well supplied with cavalry and elephants, he feigned retreat, lured the Carthaginian army after him into rugged terrain (where their cavalry could not operate), and smashed them. Regulus then went into winter quarters at Tunis, from which he ravaged Carthaginian territory and persuaded Carthage’s Numidian allies (or subjects) to join him in ravaging Carthaginian territory. Regulus had every reason to be confident. The Romans outside Africa had won all but two (minor) engagements against the Carthaginians, he himself had defeated them in Africa, and he expected to defeat them again in the spring. Consequently, when he offered them terms, he named terms so harsh that he seemed to be goading them to further resistence rather than trying to settle the war.
During the winter, therefore, the Carthaginians sought, and found, help in a mercenary general, Xanthippus of Sparta; Xanthippus retrained and reorganized their army to fight the legion, and in the spring he met Regulus in battle. Xanthippus used 100 elephants to break the Roman formation and trample the soldiers while his cavalry encircled the Roman army and forced Regulus to surrender. The Carthaginian army killed or captured all but 2,000 Romans.
The defeat was severe but need not have been decisive; the Romans still held Aspis and their fleet of 350 ships defeated a Carthaginian fleet off Aspis and captured, or destroyed, over a hundred ships, but chance, and the Roman unfamiliarity with the sea, wrecked their plans. As their fleet was returning to Rome by way of the Messana strait, an enormous storm struck, hurled almost 300 of their ships on the rocks, strewed wreckage for fifty miles, and drowned the crews, perhaps as many as 100,000 freeborn Italians, a large number of whom were Roman citizens.
The Romans raised taxes and in three months built and manned 200 new quinqueremes, but in the next ten years the Romans suffered one disaster after another. In 253 they lost another 150 ships in a storm off Africa, and they abandoned the campaign there. In 249 the consul Claudius ignored bad weather and the consequent ill omen that the sacred chickens wouldn’t eat (“let them drink, then,” he said, and had them thrown overboard), and he lost 100 ships and 20,000 men in an attack on the Carthaginian fleet at Drepana. Nonetheless, Roman tenacity, leadership, and their enormous resources drove the Carthaginian forces in Sicily to the westernmost reaches of the island where the Romans overcame storms, poor judgement, counterattacks, hunger, and the loss of naval support to cling to the siege of the great Carthaginian stronghold in the west, Lilybaeum. The Romans had suffered huge losses of men (the census of 247 B. C. shows a drop of 50,000 citizens) and materiel-a total of 1,500 warships and transports-and their treasury was depleted. The Carthaginians had suffered even more. They had lost their revenues from Africa and from their trading empire, they were about out of money to hire mercenaries (rumor had it that they had murdered Xanthippus because they could not afford to pay him), and they could no longer afford to man their fleet.