The Birth of the Roman Navy

Patrick Quinn Quirke, Dickson College, 2011


The following essay was submitted as part of The Roman Republic unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2011. It was written in response to the following question. ‘Before the First Punic War, the Romans barely had a navy. Explain how the Romans developed and sustained a navy during the course of the First Punic War. Evaluate what, if anything, this explanation reveals about the Romans.’


Prior to the First Punic War, the Roman navy was very small and inexperienced. However, during the twenty-three year period of the war, the Romans were able to develop and sustain a strong naval capacity that matched and eventually defeated the Carthaginians at sea. In building their navy, the Romans were able to draw on their own resources and the resources of their allies, and were clever in inventing a new device – the corvus – that enabled them to overcome their weakness in naval battles. During the course of the war the Romans' inexperience and over-confidence caused them to lose many of their fleets but they persisted in rebuilding, learning from their mistakes and demonstrating a determination to prevail over Carthage.

Historians consider that previous to the First Punic War the Roman Navy was of little importance. During this period the Romans had a small and inexperienced naval establishment that was focused on protecting the coast and stopping piracy, however, this force would never survive in an open battle. As a result, the Romans relied heavily on their allies’ naval forces when battles took place at sea (Flower, 2004, p. 76). At this time Carthage had a large fleet of warships and the Carthaginian navy was well known for its skilled seaman and navigators (Scullard, 1961, p. 140).

The Roman Navy started to take shape when the Romans realised that the only chance they had to defeat the Carthaginians in the First Punic War was to create a naval fleet that would rival that of the Carthaginians (Bradley, 1990, p. 102). In order to build a fleet, the Romans needed a design for their warships, a way of building them and an army of people to sail them (Pitassi, 2009, p. 49). There is much speculation by historians on how the Romans came across the design for the first ships they built. Polybius stated that the Roman warships were designed from a Punic warship that had been washed ashore. However, Pitassi (2009, p.46) believes this to be a myth. A more probable explanation is that the Romans, previously being on good terms with Carthage for three hundred years, had obtained knowledge about the Punic navy and used this information in the construction of their ships. It is also probable that the Romans and the Italian allies already had warships from which they could model new ships (Scullard, 1961, p. 148; Pitassi, 2009, p. 47). The Romans set out to build one hundred quinqueremes, the heaviest type of warship at the time and twenty triremes (Pitassi, 2009, p. 46). They were able to draw on lengths of timber provided by various cities and from state forests and apparently by 265 BC had six shipbuilding yards in operation (Pitassi, 2009, p. 49). The crews were assembled from two sources: the first being the seafaring towns of southern Italy and the second and main source was from inexperienced farmers who needed to be trained in order to handle an oar (Scullard, 1961, p. 148). Scullard (1961, p. 149) believes that the Romans out built the Carthaginians, with one hundred and sixty vessels raised compared to the one hundred and thirty Carthaginian vessels at sea. This initial development of the Roman fleet illustrates the Romans' organizational skills and their ability to draw on internal resources and the resources of allies. It also shows the Romans' strategic skill in assessing the need for a naval power and their boldness as “land-lubbers’ in venturing into this new enterprise (Scullard, 1961, p. 148). Polybius observed that the Roman decision to go to sea illustrated the “extraordinary spirit and audacity of the Romans.”

Related Article: Roman Motives in the First Punic War

The Romans lack of skill at sea should have caused their downfall, however, they turned this weakness to their advantage. The Romans invented a device for the battle ships that would convert a regular sea-battle into a land battle, as the Romans were skilled fighters on land. The device was called the corvus or raven. Fagan (2011) notes that the corvus was a large bridge on a swivel with an iron spike at the far end. This allowed the Romans to pull up parallel to the enemy ships and instead of ramming them in the traditional way, they would drop the corvus on to the enemy’s ship deck, penetrating it and locking both ships together. The Romans would then send their marines across the corvus to fight the enemies hand to hand.

The Carthaginians found that their vessels were invariably held fast by the ravens and the Roman troops swarmed aboard them by means of gangways and fought them hand-to-hand on deck. (Polybius, as quoted in Bradley, 1990, p. 105)

The corvus proved vital in the early battles of the Roman Navy and this was apparent in their first naval victory at Mylae. Polybius mentions the surprise of the Carthaginians at the use of the corvus and their resulting confusion, which contributed to the Roman victory.

As they neared the enemy and saw the ‘ravens’ hoisted aloft in the bows of several ships, the Carthaginians did not know what to make of these devices, which were completely strange to them. (Polybius, as quoted in Bradley, 1990, p. 105)

The invention and use of the corvus demonstrated the tactical skill of the Romans and their ability to turn a potential weakness into an advantage. Clearly the Romans were lateral thinkers who could solve problems. Scullard (1961, p. 149) notes that the Roman invention of the corvus was: “a magnificent tribute to her adaptability and resolve”.

Although the corvus was crucial to Rome’s early naval success, eventually its disadvantages became apparent. It was heavy and unwieldy and made the ships death traps in bad weather (Pitassi, 2009, p. 65). This, and the Roman inexperience at sea, was exposed in 255 BC when a relief fleet of three hundred and sixty four ships ran into trouble on the outer coast of Sicily. After the captains specifically told them not to go that way the commanders took no notice and proceeded onwards (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, I: 37; Steinby, 2007, p. 97). True to the captains' words the fleet ran into a storm and lost all but eighty of the ships (Bradely, 1990, p. 107; Scullard, 1961, p. 153). This is considered to be one of the largest naval disasters ever (Fagan, 2011; Pitassi, 2009, p. 65). The destruction of the fleet highlights the Romans' over-confidence and a lack of judgement (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, I: 37). The Romans did not need to travel down the outer coast of Sicily, however, they intended to intimidate the Carthaginian towns along the coast, so as to assert their authority (Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, I: 37).

In a sign of strength and determination, the following year the Romans built a new fleet of two hundred ships. However, the Roman navy’s ill fortune continued, when after the capture of Panormus in 254 BC, the Romans lost another one hundred and fifty ships due to storms. In 249 BC the Romans suffered their only major naval defeat in the First Punic War, when a surprise attack at Drepana failed. Following this, another Roman naval fleet was destroyed by a storm and subsequently the Romans abandoned all naval activities (Bradley, 1990, p. 110). The Romans spirit and determination seemed to have been broken by ill fortune and bad weather. This period, from 255 BC to 249 BC reveals some interesting characteristics of the Romans. Some of the misfortune experienced by the Romans can be attributed to bad luck, however Roman inexperience at sea and arrogance in ignoring sound advice appear to be major elements in this series of naval disasters.

In 242 the Carthaginian general, Hamilcar Barca, had just enjoyed success in Sicily and the Romans now felt that the war had continued on too long. They decided that the only way to finish the war was to rebuild the naval fleet and meet Carthage once more at sea. With the Roman treasury out of money, the government turned towards the wealthy citizens and persuaded them to fund the new fleet (Bradley, 1990, p. 111). Given their experience with naval disasters, the new fleet was built without the corvus, resulting in the Roman ships being far lighter and more maneuverable than the Carthaginian ships (Pitassi, 2009, p. 75). The Romans met the Carthaginian fleet, which was carrying supplies, and confronted them off the Aegates Islands. The Carthaginian crews, who had just been enlisted for this battle, were untrained and inexperienced and the ships were heavy and unwieldy. In some ways this Carthaginian naval fleet was much like the initial Roman naval fleets. The Romans surprised the Carthaginians and Hamilcar Barca knew there was no chance of victory and thus to save his men negotiated peace with the Romans (Bradley, 1990, p. 112). The Romans were victorious and the First Punic War came to a close. The rebuilding of the Roman navy in 242 BC revealed the fierce determination of the Romans to prevail over the Carthaginians and their ability to adapt their ships to meet changed circumstances. It also revealed yet again their ability to draw on resources from wealthy citizens.

The development and redevelopment of the Roman navy during the First Punic War reveals a number of qualities that were key to the Roman domination in the next few centuries. The Romans were able to make a strategic assessment that naval power would be important in prevailing over Carthage. They were imaginative and organized in their approach to building a fleet, showing much enterprise and determination, as well as the ability to draw on Roman resources and the resources of their allies. While their inexperience and over-confidence contributed to a number of naval disasters, ultimately they were able to learn from their mistakes and adapt their approach in order to defeat Carthage in the final battle off the Aegates Islands. The development of the navy clearly reveals the adaptability and resolve of the Romans, and their immense capacity to draw people and resources together to achieve their goals.

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Annotated Bibliography


Bradley, Pamela 1990, Ancient Rome Using Evidence, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Ancient Rome Using Evidence is a senior secondary school textbook, which provides a comprehensive introduction to Roman civilization. Bradley gives a detailed explanation of the Romans expansion throughout the Mediterranean. Ancient Rome is particularly helpful as it draws on both ancient and modern sources and is an ideal for grasping a clear understanding of Roman development.

Fagan, Garrett. 2011, History of Ancient Rome - Lecture 12 - Carthage and the First Punic War, Online Video, 20 February, Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oi2GaUK4oMY&feature=player_embedded#at=291, Accessed: 26 April 2011].
Fagan provides information on the development of the Roman navy and in particular the invention and use of the corvus.

Flower, Harriet 2004, The Roman Republic, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Flower examines the history of the Roman civilisation during the period of 509 to 49 BC. In chapter 3 Flower gives a detailed account of the Roman navy and its development. Flower uses a wide range of sources varying from ancient to modern.

Pitassi, Michael 2009, The Navies of Rome, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.
Pitassi looks specifically at the development of the navies in Rome from 753 BC all the way through to AD 476. Pitassi gives a detailed description of how Rome went from barely having a navy to being the sea power of the Mediterranean. Pitassi uses references from ancient sources such as Polybius and Livy and compares them with modern sources as well.

Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, (Loeb Classical Library edition), accessed on 28/4/11, <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Polybius/home.html>
The Histories of Polybius covers 264 to 146 BC, focusing on the domination of the Romans in the Mediterranean. Polybius is based on eyewitness accounts and official Roman documents as well as Carthaginian sources. Although a reputable source caution should be taken as some accounts can be biased.

Scullard, Howard 1961, A History of the Roman World 753 - 146 BC, Methuen & Co Ltd, London.
Scullard focuses on Rome and Carthage and section 4 of chapter vii provides a detailed account of Rome’s naval offensive in the First Punic War.

Steinby, Christa, The Roman Republican Navy – From the sixth century to 167 BC, Societas Scientiarum Fennica, Helsinki.
Steinby gives a comprehensive account of the Roman navy from its initial development through to its attempts to conquer the Mediterranean. Steinby uses many authoritative sources.

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