While the Romans were making steady progress in the land war on Sicily, the Carthaginians still controlled the seas. This meant that it was very difficult for the Romans to lay siege to large coastal cities like Lilybaeum and Panormus. These had ports and could easily be supplied by sea, unlike Agrigentum, which was on a plateau several kilometres inland. Furthermore, Carthaginian ships were raiding the coastal regions of Italy, and Rome needed to find an answer against these attacks as well. The Romans realised they needed to build a fleet of their own, and this they did in record time.
The first naval encounters
The Romans probably began building their fleet in 261 BCE, after the Senate had given the order to do so. Within a few months – sixty days according to Plinius the Elder -, they had constructed 100 quinqueremes and 20 of the smaller triremes. These were all oared warships powered by rowers, although they did have a sail for the longer distances (but not for combat). The trireme (‘three’) had been the standard warship of the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War, but during the First Punic War the larger quinquereme (‘five’) was preferred.
There has been much discussion and speculation about the precise design of these ships and the position of the rowers. I will not go into that subject here, as it would distract too much from the main narrative. Polybius claims the Romans based their new ships on a Carthaginian model that they had captured some years previously after it had run aground. The story seems a little fanciful. It is much more likely that the Romans simply copied the design of the ships that their Greek allies used. Especially their Syracusan allies knew full well how to construct a ‘five’. Tradition credited Dionysius of Syracuse (ca. 432-367 BCE) with the construction of the first quinquereme.
Rome now had a sizeable fleet, but it was not yet a match for that of Carthage. The Roman crews, probably mostly recruited from the lower classes, were still very inexperienced. The new consuls submitted the men to an intensive training programme on shore. Polybius writes that:
“Making the men sit on rowers’ benches on dry land, in the same order as on the benches of the ships themselves, they accustomed them to fall back all at once bringing their hands up to them, and again to come forward pushing out their hands, and to begin and finish these movements at the word of command of the fugle-man [the Greek word used is κελευστής].”
Once the crews were ready, the consul Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio sailed ahead to Sicily and began planning his operations there. An opportunity presented itself to take the island and town of Lipara in the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily, so the consul took 17 ships, sailed into Lipara’s port and went ashore. However, his actions had been closely monitored by the Carthaginians, who sent a fleet of 20 ships from Panormus to intercept the consul. The fleet was commanded by Boödes, a member of the Carthaginian Senate or gerousia. Boödes trapped Scipio inside the port and the consul was ultimately forced to surrender or, according to an alternative tradition that emphasised Punic perfidy, taken prisoner during negotiations. This shameful defeat earned Scipio the nickname Asina, ‘the ass’. Scipio Asina was later released by the Carthaginians, perhaps as part of a prisoner swap. The defeat and nickname apparently did not hamper his political career, as he was elected consul again in 254 BCE. Nevertheless, the Roman naval campaign had started disastrously.
But soon the tide turned. Perhaps a little overconfident because of Boödes’ early victory, the overall commander of the Carthaginian fleet, Hannibal – possibly the same Hannibal that had lost Agrigentum – tried to locate the main Roman fleet. He did so rather carelessly, and when he stumbled upon the Roman quinqueremes, he lost most of his 50 ships and was almost captured himself.
The Battle of Mylae
The stage was now set for the first full-scale naval battle between the fleets of Rome and Carthage. The other consul, Gaius Duilius, had originally been charged with fighting the land war. Duilius was a new man (homo novus), the first of his family to reach the consulship. As soon as he heard that his colleague had been taken prisoner, he delegated command of the legions to his tribunes and joined the fleet. The Carthaginian fleet was operating near the Sicilian city of Mylae, located on a peninsula south of the Aeolian Islands. Duilius quickly ordered his fleet to set sail for Mylae to confront the enemy.
The Romans still faced many disadvantages. The Carthaginian ships were of better quality and their crews had much more experience, especially in carrying out complex manoeuvres. It is unlikely the Carthaginians outnumbered the Romans in ships. Polybius claims they had a total of 130 warships. The Romans had lost 17 of their 120 ships at Lipara, but may have received reinforcements from their allies and they may also have used some of the ships captured in the first encounter with Hannibal. Nevertheless, the Carthaginians were supremely confident that they could easily win this naval confrontation.
But the Romans had a surprise for them. Their main strength lay in fighting land battles with their superior infantry, so they needed to find a way to fight a land battle at sea. In the end, they had developed a clever new device. The Romans equipped their ships with a sort of drawbridge called the corvus by modern historians, which could be lowered and used to board enemy ships. Polybius, who used the Greek term korax (‘raven’), has left us a description of the device:
“On the prow stood a round pole four fathoms in height [7.2 metres] and three palms in diameter [30 cm]. This pole had a pulley at the summit and round it was put a gangway made of cross planks attached by nails, four feet [1.2 metres] in width and six fathoms in length [10.8 metres]. In this gangway was an oblong hole, and it went round the pole at a distance of two fathoms from its near end [3.6 metres]. The gangway also had a railing on each of its long sides as high as a man’s knee. At its extremity was fastened an iron object like a pestle pointed at one end and with a ring at the other end, so that the whole looked like the machine for pounding corn. To this ring was attached a rope with which, when the ship charged an enemy, they raised the ravens by means of the pulley on the pole and let them down on the enemy’s deck, sometimes from the prow and sometimes bringing them round when the ships collided broadsides. Once the ravens were fixed in the planks of the enemy’s deck and grappled the ships together, if they were broadside on, they boarded from all directions but if they charged with the prow, they attacked by passing over the gangway of the raven itself two abreast. The leading pair protected the front by holding up their shields, and those who followed secured the two flanks by resting the rims of their shields on the top of the railing. Having, then, adopted this device, they awaited an opportunity for going into action.”
Hannibal was confident of victory and confronted the Roman fleet with his vanguard of 30 ships. Polybius claims his flagship was a septireme or ‘seven’. This exceptionally large vessel was not a Carthaginian ship, but one captured from Pyrrhus when his Sicilian campaign collapsed and the king was forced to leave the island. Unfamiliar with the new Roman device, the Carthaginian rowers engaged their adversaries. But the corvus proved to be very effective. The Romans dropped the drawbridges onto the Carthaginians ships, making it impossible for the latter to free themselves and escape. The legionaries swarmed across the bridges and boarded the enemy vessels, making short work of the Carthaginian marines. The first 30 Carthaginian ships were soon captured. The Romans then captured or sunk another 20 ships, before the remainder turned and fled.
Although the Romans must have suffered some casualties themselves, they had certainly won a resounding victory. The Roman commander Duilius was the first magistrate to be awarded a naval triumph (triumphus navalis). According to a passage in Livius’ Book 17 (now lost), “he was given a lasting right to have himself accompanied by a torch carrier and a flutist when he returned home from dinner”. The Romans decorated the speaker’s platform in the Forum Romanum with the prows (rostrata) of captured Carthaginian warships, which was henceforth known as the Rostra. Carthage had been humiliated at sea and Rome had established herself as a naval power.
The land war
But not all went well for Rome this year. The Carthaginian commander Hamilcar advanced against Segesta, a city in the northwest of Sicily that had joined the Roman side two years ago. The military tribune Gaius Caecilius came to the aid of the Segestans and whatever Roman troops were stationed at the city, but was ambushed by Hamilcar and suffered many casualties. Although Duilius and his forces managed to raise the siege of Segesta later that year, the Romans got a bloody nose elsewhere on the island. Hamilcar struck again and surprised a large contingent of Roman allied infantry when they were breaking camp near Thermae in the north of Sicily. As many as 4.000 allies were killed, perhaps even 6.000 if we are to trust Diodorus Siculus’ fragmentary account. It left the Romans with a bitter taste in their mouths, even though they were able to replenish these losses.
– Cassius Dio, Roman History, Fragments of Book XI;
– Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Fragments of Book XXIII;
– Livius, Periochae, Book 17;
– Plinius the Elder, The Natural History 16.74;
– Polybius, The Histories, Book 1.22-23;
– Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 96-109;
– Richard Miles, Carthage must be destroyed, p. 180-184.
 A rival tradition claims the name derives from the prows of warships captured by the Romans from the Latin city of Antium during the Latin War of 340-338 BCE. See Livius 8.14.