The Romans and the First Punic War

Lauren Slater, Dickson College, 2011

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This 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."

The First Punic War between the Romans and the Carthaginians lasted for twenty-three years from 264-241 BC. Previously, the Romans had never needed a fleet as most of their expansion had been within Italy. However, they knew that to defeat the seafaring Carthaginians they would need a strong fleet. Thus, the First Punic War led to the development of the Roman’s first naval force. Studying the navy’s development and how it was sustained reveals that the Roman’s were resourceful, courageous, determined and loyal to their country. They were insightful and resourceful when it came to building the fleet, especially as they had no previous experience. They were also brave and daring when they attacked the Carthaginians, as they went into a battle in which they had far less experience. The Romans were a tenacious society when it came to fighting back and sustaining their navy, even after failure. Lastly, the Romans were patriotic, and this was also something which aided their success in the war. The building of their fleet shows us much about the essence of the Roman character.

On deciding to attack Carthage, the Senate ordered one hundred and twenty ships to be built from scratch in the astonishing delivery time of two months. (Bradley 1990: 102)The Romans, having never needed a navy before, were, as Polybius (I: 20) tells us, “...absolutely inexperienced in building quinqueremes”. Luckily, in the opening conflicts of the war, a Carthaginian quinquereme “...fell into the hands of the Romans.” (Polybius, I: 20)Having assessed their own skills, the Romans decided that they knew nothing about building ships. Consequently, they built their whole fleet based on the pattern of the Carthaginian quinquereme.

The Romans were also aware of their lack of naval skills and on examination found they lacked in manoeuvring and ramming ability. They counteracted this weakness by devising a way of turning sea battles into land battles.

A movable boarding bridge, with an iron spike attached beneath its outer end, rotated on a mast and was dropped on the deck of an enemy ship when it came within reach. (Bradley 1990: 102)

This mechanism was known as the corvus or “raven” because of its iron “beak” which allowed the Roman soldiers to board the enemy ship and fight hand to hand with the Carthaginians. This was something the Romans were very skilled at and would allow them to defeat the Carthaginians. This kind of inventiveness and intelligence played a major part in the success of the Roman navy. It won them many battles, such as the Battle at Mylae in 260 BC where they used the corvus with considerable success. The fact that the Romans analysed their weaknesses (as above) and devised a way of counteracting them, marked how resourceful and intelligent they were when they constructed their fleet.

Rome’s momentous decision to take to the sea against Carthage also displayed their outstanding courage and enthusiasm. They had little experience in naval warfare, but nevertheless realised that they had to challenge Carthage at sea if they were to be victorious. Rome had not originally wanted to attack Carthage because of their alliance with them. However, they foresaw problems if Carthage were to take over Messana. If Carthage were to ally with the Mamertines of Messana then, as Polybius (I: 10) says “...they would be most troublesome and dangerous neighbours”. This was because they had seen how Carthage had “...reduced Africa to subjection” (I: 10) while also controlling all of the islands in the Sardinian and Tyrrhenian seas surrounding Italy. It was thus desirable for Rome to attack and prevent Carthage from taking Messana and Sicily.

Related Article: Roman Motives in the First Punic War
For a long time Carthage had enjoyed an unchallenged supremacy at sea. After the events in 262 BC when Rome captured Agrigentum at great cost, Carthage was able to “...plunder the shores of Italy” (Gascoigne, 2001) with the use of her warships. After these disastrous events, Rome decided in order to defeat Carthage, they would have to challenge her on her own terms. (Gascoigne, 2001). Thus, they would attack her at sea.

However, there was a fatal flaw in this plan. Rome was, as discussed above, far less experienced at sea than the Carthaginians and so they were in fact going into a battle that they were perhaps destined to lose. Bradley (1990: 102) informs us that the Romans “...found it virtually impossible to equal the proficiency of their rowers, the skill of their tactics and their experience in navigation.” This, as Polybius (I: 20) tells us “...shows us better than anything else how spirited and daring the Romans are when they are determined to do a thing”. Clearly Rome’s decision to undertake a naval attack on Carthage showed their exceptional bravery and spirit.

The way in which the Romans sustained their navy over the period of the First Punic War also illustrates how tenacious and on some occasions, stubborn, the Romans could be. This characteristic both aided and hindered the Romans in maintaining their fleet. An example where it adversely affected their navy was when the relief fleet of three hundred and fifty ships sent to Africa in 255 BC was destroyed by a storm. All but eighty ships were lost after crossing the straights to Sicily on their way back from Africa. Polybius (I: 37) tells us that “There is no record in all history of a greater catastrophe having taken place at sea on any one occasion.” Bradley (1990) claims that this devastation was not due to bad luck, but rather the obstinacy of the ships’ commanders. Apparently they had been warned repeatedly not to sail along that part of the coastline, particularly at that time. This incident clearly illustrates how stubborn the Romans could be.

This setback did nothing to hinder the Roman spirit, but actually encouraged them to demonstrate their determination to defeat the Carthaginians. This can be seen when they eventually rebuilt their fleet for the second time. They had rebuilt their fleet the first time after it was all but destroyed in 255 BC on return from Africa. They then lost another one hundred and fifty ships off Cape Palinarus when they took the small island, Panormos, just east of Greece. Although they waited five years to rebuild for the second time, “and for a third time risk their fortunes upon the sea” (Polybius I: 59) it can be seen how tenacious and determined they were as they used all their resources to break the stalemate with Hamilcar. They called on their wealthy families to provide money to fund the fleet and put in all their efforts to end the war once and for all.

Although it can be said that the Romans’ naval successes were due mostly to their cunning ability, daring and tenacity, they were also fortunate. An example of this was at the battle of Mylae in 260 BC when Rome won its first naval victory. Althoughthe Romans had prepared well, a large part of their success was due to the Carthaginians underestimating them.

No sooner had the Carthaginians sighted him than they eagerly put to sea with their fleet of one hundred and thirty sail; their spirits were high, for at this stage they felt nothing but contempt for the inexperience of the Romans. They steered straight for the enemy and thought they could risk an attack without keeping any formation, as though they were seizing a prize which was already theirs for the taking. (Polybius I: 23).

Following this disaster, the Carthaginians fled, losing fifty ships in all. (Bradley 1990: 105) Clearly, the Romans were aided by a fortuitous underestimation by the Carthaginians in their naval struggle against them.

In their attack against Carthage, the Romans were also aided by their unwavering patriotism and loyalty to their country. They would not have been able to fight as fiercely in battle or succeed in their conquest had they not possessed these traits. From an early age the Romans were taught to respect and honour their country. They also started training for the army at a very young ageand were never given the chance to even contemplate or accept defeat. It was for this reason that they fought so fiercely in the Aegates Islands in the final battle in 241 BC. Bradley (1990) tells us that a major reason that the Romans won was because they were patriotic and had experienced long years in warfare. According to Polybius the Roman victory was decisive. They had abandoned the corvus because it was too top heavy and they fought until victory was achieved and Hamilcar surrendered. The Romans won because they were prepared to sacrifice their lives for their country.

During the First Punic War the Romans built and fought with a naval fleet for the first time. Despite many struggles and drawbacks, such as storms and poor navigational skills, the Romans defeated the Carthaginians who, for a long time, had enjoyed naval supremacy in the Mediterranean. They achieved this through their cunning ability to turn their weaknesses into strengths. They also showed extreme bravery and spirit when they attacked the Carthaginians, knowing full well that they had far less experience. Through their tremendous persistence, they overcame all their difficulties and successfully fought with their first naval fleet. Lastly, the Romans demonstrated a loyalty to their country which allowed them to ultimately defeat the Carthaginians. Clearly, studying the development and advance of the Roman’s first naval fleet gives much insight into their characteristics.

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Annotated Bibliography



Bradley, P. 1990, Ancient Rome using evidence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
In this chapter Bradley provides an in depth account of the First Punic War and its reper-cussions. It contains all of the major events in intricate detail which helped me to gain an overall understanding of the war. Bradley is a reliable source as she uses many trustworthy sources herself, such as Polybius, which strengthens the overall credibility of the book.

Gascoigne, B,. The Punic Wars: The first Roman navy 260-255 BC, viewed 8 April 2011 at
http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ac53
An informative account of the Punic Wars in regards to Rome. It contains a factual account of the wars and information on the Roman navy and how it came about. It provides a good sense of the major events in the wars and how each happened in detail. It is relevant to this essay as it showed the major occurrences in the First Punic War and gave me a good description of the navy and how and when it was build.

Lazenby, J. F. 1996, The First Punic War. UCL Press Limited, London.
Concentrates on the lead up to the first battle in the First Punic War and the reasoning and tactics in building the fleet. It provides an in depth account of how they built and manned the fleet and the training they used to prepare for the war.

Moe, C. J. 1959, An Outline of Ancient History: Rome, Angus and Robertson
This gives a brief outline of the stages of the First Punic War. It provides a straightforward approach which gives a clear picture of the major events of the war.

Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, (Loeb Classical Library Edition), accessed on 12 April 2011 at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Polybius/1*.html
These extracts give information on the beginnings of the First Punic War and the end. They present consistent accounts of the war and are generally reliable as they are based on eye-witness accounts, official Roman documents and Carthaginian sources.

'The Fleet' viewed 20 March 2011 at http://www.roman-empire.net/army/leg-fleet.html
A useful account of the building of the Roman fleet and an analysis of its problems and strengths. It offers the reasons for Rome’s successes and failures at sea and several of the battles where the navy was involved. It was particularly helpful in providing information for this essay in how the Romans built their navy and the ideas that were behind it.

Fagan, G. (2011), 'History of Ancient Rome - Lecture 12 - Carthage and the First Punic War, Part 1’, The Teaching Company, 20th February 2011. Accessed on 22 March 2011 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ub7rbwRV0og
This lecture concentrates on the First Punic War and its main events. Fagan provides an accurate account and analysis of the war and is a trustworthy source as he is an Associate Professor of Ancient Mediterranean studies.

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