The Value of Thinking Outside the Box
Roman ingenuity, the birth of marines, and the largest naval battle in history.
In the third century BC the Roman Republic’s power, size, and influence was growing rapidly. This quickly resulted in them bristling up against the influence of their neighbor to the south, Carthage, which quickly escalated to all out war, a small part of which we talked about previously in The Story of Marcus Atilius Regulus.
Controlling the entirety of the Italian peninsula and going to war with Carthage, whose power rested on her maritime trade network, meant a war at sea. For Rome, this was a major problem; according to Polybius the Romans had never even built a warship before the start of the first Punic War.
This was a small exaggeration; in 311 BC they created a board of two officials with the responsibility for construction and maintenance of warships. It seems as though they each commanded a squadron of ten ships and there is little record of their activities, aside from one of the squadrons being very easily defeated by Tarantine ships in 282 BC (Taranto being the Greek colony who got our old friend Pyyrhus involved with the Romans). The roman “navy” of 20 ships appears to have been disbanded after this disaster.
Before they went to war with Carthage all Rome’s enemies were easily reachable by land; and any small amount of non-merchant shipping needs they had they could rely on their allies for. This was not going to cut it against Carthage.
Gunpowder was over 1000 years away from being invented at this time, so how exactly did naval warfare work at the time? Basically what you had was a giant ship, generally triremes, quadriremes, or quinqueremes, depending on how many levels of rowers it had, and a big ram at the prow (front) of the ship.
The goal was to successfully maneuver your ship such that you could ram the side of your adversaries ships; while avoiding having the same done to you. If you were very successful it would look something like this:
To do this well took a tremendous amount of highly trained individuals; not to mention the ships themselves. The Carthaginians had more of these ships and individuals than anyone. The Romans had none of either.
The Romans realized they needed a fleet of their own. They were able to replicate the construction method of the Carthaginians and at astonishing speed built their own fleet of 120 ships. They soon realized however that, despite copying the design and construction method, they were not able to match the speed or maneuverability of Carthage’s fleet. Their rowers were the equivalent of a group of high schoolers who decided to create a football team and the Carthaginians were a seasoned NFL team with a fantastic coaching staff. Sure they had the same pads and helmets, but there was a lot more to it than the equipment. The Romans trained as best they could to try and close the skill gap, and they also put their outside the box thinking caps on…..
In 260 BC (4 years into the war) the Roman and Carthaginian fleets spotted each other off the northern coast of Sicily. The Carthaginians were confused by the appearance of a tall unrecognizable…… something near the prow of each of the roman ships. Confused though they were, they remained supremely confident of their superiority to the inexperienced Roman fleet.
The ‘something’ that the Carthaginians spotted on the Roman ships was an ingenious invention of the Romans called the “corvus”. It looked like this.
It was basically a walkway attached to a pully with a very sharp spike on the underside of the end of it. When the Carthaginian ships would get close (which was a necessity for them in order to engage in the ramming that defined ancient naval warfare) they would drop the corvus onto the enemy ship and across it would stream something that looked like this.
Not a pleasant site if you’re a dead tired unarmed Carthaginian rower. The roman legionaries made short work of other well trained and well armed soldiers who were ready to fight them on land; so the ease with which they dealt with the crew of a surprised Carthaginian ship was supreme. Each time they did this the size of the Roman fleet was increased by one ship and the Carthaginians decreased by one.
Just like that the concept of marines, aka naval infantry, was born. Previously some Greeks would have hoplites (picture the protagonists from the movie 300) on their ship to try and do something similar when enemy ships got close, but they were basically just trying to do Olympic long jumps in armor from one moving ship to another, so it was minimally effective and resulted in a lot of drowning.
Four years later in 256 BC the Romans defeated the Carthaginians in what appears to be the largest naval battle in all of human history, the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, pitting ~140,000 Romans on 330 ships against ~150,000 Carthaginians on 350 ships. The sheer scale of the battle worked further in the favor of the Romans, with the sea as crowded with ships as it was the Carthaginians superior speed and maneuverability was hampered; and the ease with which the Romans could find a ship to drop their corvus onto and board was increased.
This 290,000 person battle took place at a time when the total global population was probably about 150 million (source: Atlas of World Population History). This means that approximately 1 out of every 517 people on earth was involved in this battle. An equivalent naval battle today would involve 15.3 million people! The entire U.S. Navy currently has around 440,000 people in active duty and ready reserve combined. China’s navy (the second largest) is even smaller. If you assembled every member of every navy in the world today in one place, and had them do battle, you would still have a (much!) smaller percentage of the world population engaged in naval warfare against each one another than did the Romans and Carthaginians almost 2300 years ago.
The war would last another fifteen years after the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, a total of twenty four years. The peace would last less than 30 years before they were at each other’s throats again, in the most famous of the three Punic Wars. The second one is where we have the famous general Hannibal crossing the Alps with his army including war elephants. We have the invention of the Fabian Strategy, we have almost every military leaders wet dream in the the Battle of Cannae, and we have peace terms that established a casus belli which the Romans used to start the third and final Punic War some fifty two years later; though calling that conflict a war is not much different from calling the Holocaust a war between Nazi Germany and Untermensch. But those are other stories of other wars for another day and another post.
“When the emerging Roman empire, which wasn’t an empire yet, destroyed a more than 600 year old civilization in Africa, it was a sign of things to come. In 146 BC Rome destroyed it’s last major competitor for power and world domination, at least the Mediterranean world that the ancients considered to be the world. After 100 years of subduing this state called Carthage they rolled over the rest of the Mediterranean world rather easily. The wars between Rome and Carthage were the heavyweight championships of antiquity.” - Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Episode 21