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.
The intensification of the Punic war at sea was demonstrated when the new Roman fleet first approached Sicily and the Carthaginians made an effort to stop it from securing a position on the Sicilian coast.
The consul Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio had given orders to the captains to sail towards the Straits when the fleet was ready, while he put to sea with seventeen ships and proceeded to Messana to prepare for the arrival of the main fleet. However, Scipio was then taken prisoner at the Lipari Islands. Polybius describes how an opportunity came up to capture Lipara by treachery, and so Scipio sailed there with his seventeen ships. The Carthaginians at Panormus learned about Scipio’s presence at Lipara. Hannibal dispatched Boödes, a member of the senate, with twenty ships and he blockaded the Romans in the harbour. Scipio surrendered to Boödes, who took him and the captured ships to Hannibal.
Much has been made of this failed enterprise. The Romans gave Scipio the nickname ‘Asina’, she-ass, but he was released later in an exchange of prisoners and continued his career. Scipio was right to try to take Lipara. It was one of the ports that the Carthaginians could use to protect traffic in the Straits and interfere in Roman transports. If the Romans had captured it, the crossing of their main fleet would have been safer. While they already controlled the ports of Messana and Syracuse and could rely on the support of their ally Hiero along the east coast of the island, the rest of the Sicilian seaboard was dominated by the Punic fleet and was hostile to them. So, for the Romans, Lipara was an important target and the capture of it could have been their first success in the campaign to conquer the Punic ports.
Next, the Roman and Carthaginian fleets clashed off the coast of Bruttium, near a place called the Cape of Italy. This could well have been the Taurianum promontory, known today as Cape Vaticano. Polybius states that Hannibal came upon the main Roman fleet sailing southwards in good order and trim. He does not give details about the battle but claims that Hannibal lost most of his fifty ships before escaping with the remainder. The reasons for Hannibal’s voyage are not clear. According to Polybius, he wanted to discover the strength and the general disposition of the enemy and perhaps he intended to combine this reconnaissance with a plundering raid. It is possible that his motive was more ambitious than this. Since the Carthaginians had recently captured seventeen new Roman ships and their commander, he may have felt confident enough to stop the main Roman fleet and take over more of their ships.
When the Roman fleet arrived in Sicily, Gaius Duilius, the consul leading the Roman land forces on the island, was called in to command it. He handed over his legions to the military tribunes before leaving to join the ships. The Romans began to get ready for a sea battle. Polybius states that, since their ships were badly-built and slow-moving, it was suggested that they should equip them with boarding-bridges.
There is no doubt about the historicity of the boarding-bridge or corvus. Polybius gives a description of its structure that Wallinga has corrected on some points. It worked as follows: at ramming distance, a gangway located on the bow was lowered onto the enemy deck and the soldiers ran across it in order to fight. The mechanism consisted of a pole with a pulley at the top. A rope ran through the pulley to a gangway that could be raised and lowered. Under the end of the gangway was a pointed pestle that, when the gangway was lowered, pierced the deck of the enemy ship and kept the two vessels locked together.
For anyone who follows Polybius’ view that the Romans were novices in maritime warfare and operated with poor-quality ships, the boarding-bridge has come to be seen as the key to their success, especially as, in his description of the battle at Mylae, he states that this device made combat at sea like a fight on land. However, it is doubtful whether the corvus had such a decisive impact. The Romans won their first battle on their way to Sicily without it, capturing many Punic ships, and the device is only mentioned twice in the sources: in the sea battles of 260 and 256 – thereafter there is no reference to it.
In my opinion, the corvus should not be seen in the context of the Romans’ inexperience in maritime warfare; there is a precedent in naval history that points to its real significance. Thucydides describes how the Athenians used grappling irons when they tried to break out from the harbour at Syracuse in 413. They boarded the enemy ships with soldiers and drove their opponents off the deck. According to Thucydides, the sea battle changed into a battle on land. The mass of troops on board made the Athenian ships heavy and hampered their manoeuvres. The Athenian innovation started a new era in naval tactics.
The boarding-bridge was a typical device in the Hellenistic period, when armies and navies were familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and experimented with new fighting methods in order to surprise them. Once the Carthaginians had recovered from their surprise, they must have come up with a defence against the corvus but the sources do not describe the measures they took. Some of the technical details concerning the operation of the corvus remain uncertain, such as the angle at which it could be revolved, and it is not clear why the Romans stopped using it.
As for the alleged slowness of Roman ships, knowledge about the comparative performance of Roman and Carthaginian vessels is based on the outcome of the battle at the Cape of Italy where the Romans captured around fifty Punic ships and the remainder fled. The excessive weight of the Roman ships may have been due to the fact that they were loaded with troops, equipment and supplies, rather than a consequence of poor shipbuilding. However, the Romans had been unable to take a few of the Punic ships. In this context perhaps the boarding-bridge should not be seen as a defensive tool but as a sign of the Roman determination to hunt down every enemy ship at every opportunity. By using the boarding-bridge, they could make sure that no Punic ships could escape.
We do not know how long the preparations for the battle took. Polybius states that the Carthaginians were ravaging the territory of Mylae and that Duilius sailed against them:
They all [the Carthaginians] sailed straight on the enemy, not even thinking it worthwhile to maintain order in the attack, but just as if they were falling on a prey that was obviously theirs … On approaching and seeing the ravens [corvi] nodding aloft on the prow of each ship, the Carthaginians were at first nonplussed, being surprised at the construction of the engines. However, as they entirely gave the enemy up for lost, the front ships attacked daringly. But when the ships that came into collision were in every case held fast by the machines, and the Roman crews boarded by means of the ravens and attacked them hand to hand on deck, some of the Carthaginians were cut down and others surrendered from dismay at what was happening, the battle having become just like a fight on land.
The first thirty ships were taken with their crews. Hannibal, who was commanding the fleet in the seven that had formerly belonged to Pyrrhus, managed to escape in the small boat. Trusting their swiftness, the Carthaginians sailed around the enemy in order to strike from the side or the stern but the Romans swung the boarding-bridges around so that they could grapple with ships that attacked them from any direction. Eventually the Carthaginians, shaken by this novel tactic, took flight. They lost fifty ships.
According to Polybius, Hannibal had 130 ships; according to Diodorus he had 200 ships involved in the battle. Diodorus says the Romans had 120 ships. Information about the type of ships that Scipio Asina lost at the Lipari Islands is not given in the sources but it seems probable that the Romans still had around 100 ships from their original fleet. Possibly they borrowed ships from their allies and made use of captured Carthaginian ships but no information is available. The brief description of the battle that has survived does not indicate whether the Romans arranged their ships in two lines or one. At first it seems the Carthaginians tried a diekplous attack. When that failed, they switched to a periplous attack but the Romans repulsed that too. If we accept Wallinga’s theory that the boarding-bridge could be revolved through 90 degrees, rather than freely in all directions as Polybius claims, then the Romans must have manoeuvred and regrouped their ships during the battle to defend themselves and to target the Punic ships as they approached. So, in practice, they continued to use the traditional tactics that were intended to sink enemy ships with rams and the deployment of the boarding-bridge did not make a significant difference to this aspect of the battle.
Duilius was given extraordinary honours by Rome. He was awarded the first naval triumph in the city’s history, ‘de Sicul(eis) et classe Poenica’, ‘over the Sicilians and the Punic fleet’. Two columns decorated with beaks were built, one in the Forum, probably close to the Rostra, and the other perhaps at the Circus Maximus, and a waxen torch was borne before him and a flautist made music whenever he returned from dining out. The Rostra and the Columna Rostrata C. Duilii were the two most important war monuments of Republican Rome.
Polybius sees the victory at Mylae as one of the important moments of the war; he states that the determination of the Romans to prosecute the war became twice as strong. This is plausible. The victory and the retreat of the Carthaginian navy opened the north coast of Sicily to the Romans, who used their fleet to take troops westwards when they raised the siege of Segesta and took Macella.
No figures are available for the size of the fleets of 259–257, when the Romans extended their operations to other islands and attacked important Punic harbours. The consul of 259, Gaius Aquillius Florus, operated in Sicily against Hamilcar and celebrated a triumph ‘de Poeneis’, ‘over the Carthaginians’. We do not know exactly what he accomplished. According to Polybius, Roman troops did nothing worthy of note in Sicily that year. Perhaps events on land were slow; as Lazenby puts it, it is most likely that Aquillius had two legions with him consisting of about 20,000 men. This was not a large enough force to take on Hamilcar’s army in which there might have been up to 50,000 men after the fall of Agrigentum. Diodorus, however, states that Hamilcar took Camarina and Enna and fortified Drepana on the north-west coast and that people were moved there from Eryx. Drepana was one of the most important Carthaginian harbours in Sicily. The Carthaginians reacted to the presence of the Roman navy and the threat it posed to them.
According to Polybius, the Romans – from the moment they concerned themselves with the sea – began to entertain designs on Sardinia. Sardinia and Corsica were strategically important and taking Sardinia would put a stop to Carthaginian attacks on the Italian coast from that direction. Moreover, the Romans had a long-standing interest in both islands, demonstrated by their attempts to found colonies on them.
The second consul of 259, Lucius Cornelius Scipio, brother to Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina, was awarded a triumph for his campaign against the Carthaginians on both Corsica and Sardinia. His opponent was Hanno. Scipio started on the east coast of Corsica, capturing Aleria and other ports that are not named in the sources. While sailing towards Sardinia, he spotted a Carthaginian fleet, which turned and fled. He went on to Olbia on the north-east coast of Sardinia. There a Carthaginian fleet put in an appearance but Scipio decided to sail home, judging that his infantry was insufficient to give battle. Scipio’s funerary inscription records his success in Corsica:
He took Corsica and the city of Aleria
He dedicated a temple to the Storms as a just return.
The reference to ‘Storms’ in the dedication presumably alludes to a particular storm that Scipio was fortunate to escape and probably it was Hannibal’s Carthaginian fleet that caused him to turn back. Polybius does not record previous events in Corsica and Sardinia but he continues the story of Hannibal, who had sailed to Carthage after the Battle of Mylae. He collected additional ships and recruited some of the most celebrated Carthaginian naval officers, then returned to Sardinia. There he was blockaded in one of the harbours by the Romans and, after having lost many ships in a battle, he was arrested by his men and crucified in Sulci, in the south-west corner of the island. The Roman consul who defeated Hannibal was probably Scipio’s successor, Gaius Sulpicius Paterculus. He was awarded a triumph ‘over the Carthaginians and Sardinia’. We have no further information about subsequent events in Sardinia until the great mutiny of the Carthaginian mercenaries in the aftermath of the war and the consequent Roman annexation of the island.
The other consul of 258, Aulus Atilius Caiatinus, operated in Sicily. He attacked the Carthaginian winter quarters in Panormus but withdrew his forces when the Carthaginians refused to give battle. The Romans took Hippana, Mytistratus, Camarina and Enna and besieged Lipara. Surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery. Lipara and Panormus were important Punic naval bases and the Roman attacks demonstrate the powerful position the Roman fleet had gained on the north coast of Sicily. Atilius celebrated a triumph ‘over Sicily and the Carthaginians’.
In 257 both consuls operated in Sicily. Information about Gnaeus Cornelius Blasio’s campaign has not come down to us; Gaius Atilius Regulus, however, was awarded a naval triumph ‘over the Carthaginians’. It is hard to say what he achieved; Polybius states that, in a sea battle off Tyndaris on the north coast of Sicily, the Romans took ten Carthaginian ships with their crews, sinking eight. Details of the battle have been lost but he describes the consul’s ship as well-manned and swift. The rest of the Punic fleet withdrew to the Lipari Islands. A surviving fragment in the works of Naevius mentions the ravaging of Malta. Orosius, Zonaras and Polyainos state that Atilius operated against the Lipari Islands and Malta. Certainly, operations against these two islands helped to make the route safe for the invasion of Africa that began in the following year.64 Atilius’ triumph was the seventh that had been celebrated during the war and the second for naval operations. Once again, naval paraphernalia must have been displayed in the triumphal procession; there is no record of a monument being built to commemorate the victory.
What made a naval triumph? All the Roman operations of this period depended on cooperation between the army and the fleet, in particular on the rapid transport of troops, which could only take place in areas where the navy had cleared the coast of the enemy fleet and made safe landing possible. Scipio’s operations in Corsica, which included the capture of important Punic harbours, had not earned him a naval triumph. As for Atilius, we do not know exactly what he achieved but we must assume that he inflicted a serious loss on the Punic navy that could be counted in terms of booty and a significant number of captured or sunken ships. Perhaps his success at the Battle of Tyndaris fulfilled the criteria for a triumph and in addition he may have fought the Carthaginians at the Lipari Islands or Malta, in sea battles of which we know nothing.