images or on the links below the images to enlarge them.
Greek and Punic positions in the Mediterranean -- getting
ready to fight.
Basic early Greek warship reconstructed and crewed by Greek
In the Punic Wars the main battle vessels of both the Roman and
Carthaginian navies were quinqueremes ("five oars' or "five
oarsmen"). Roman quinqueremes carried a total crew of
420, 300 of whom were rowers, and the rest marines.
Leaving aside a deck crew of c. 20
men, and accepting the
2𣇻 pattern of oarsmen, the quinquereme would have 90 oars in
each side, and 30-strong files of oarsmen. The fully decked
quinquereme could also carry a marine detachment of 70 to 120,
giving a total complement of about 400. A "five" would be c.
long, displace around 100 tonnes, be some 5 m
wide at water level, and have its deck standing c.
above the sea.
When the Roman Republic
, which untill then had
lacked a significant navy, became embroiled in the First Punic War
with Carthage, the Roman Senate
set out to construct a fleet of 100
quinqueremes and 20 triremes. According to Polybius
the Romans seized a shipwrecked Carthaginian quinquereme and used
it as a blueprint for their own ships, but it is stated that the
Roman copies were heavier than the Carthaginian vessels, which
were better built.
The most important facts about the Roman navy were that the Roman
Republic always had the resources (money and timber and
shipbuilders and oarsmen/crewmen) to make and man as many ships as
were needed and that they were always ready and willing to expend
those resources. The Carthaginian navy was always up against
materiel and manpower limits and wasn't always able to get
appropriations from the money-men back home.
The Carthaginian reluctance to loosen military purse-strings also
limited the effectiveness of Carthaginian land forces in the First
and Second Punic Wars.
The domain of infant Rome: thatched huts on the Palatine
hill and surrounded by Etruscans. This is the time of the
Roman "Monarchy" (actually a gang of outlaws with a "king" who was
a gang leader.) The last four kings (of the total seven)
were Etruscans, it it was they who brought Rome into the "modern"
Map said to have been made by Herodotus around 450 BC. (Really a
12th century copy with lord knows how many intermediate copies,
mis-copies, additions and subtractions.)
A detail of the Herodotus map. By the time Herodotus
made his map, Rome and Carthage had been in a treaty relationship
for 50 years. In Early days, the treaty just said that Rome
had a right to trade in Carthage and the western Mediterranean
islands and to hold territory on the Italian mainland. Later
revisions of the treaty put more restrictions on Roman trade, but
still allowed trade at Carthage. Clearly, the Carthaginians
were the major power dealing with an upstart. The treaty
relationship lasted about 250 years -- until Rome broke it with an
unprovoked attack on Messana, Sicily in 264 BC.
By 380 BC, Rome had a small part of central Italy.
Carthage had spread out on the North African coast and had a
foothold on Sicily and had control of the southern half of
Things had changed dramatically by 270 BC. Carthage had
Sardinia and Corsica and the Western half of Sicily -- and looking
greedily at the eastern half where feuding Greek city-states had
hired Campanian mercenaries to fight amongst themselves.
Rome, meanwhile, had taken over all of the Italian Peninsula south
of the Rubicon (it didn't take Cis-Alpine Gaul in the North until
Julius Caesar conquered it. All those Campanian mercenaries
in the Greek side of Sicily were now Roman or at least from Roman
The Greek city states in eastern Sicily were all that
separated the expanding militaristic Roman republic (they had
thrown out the last Etruscan king years before) from the
Carthaginians. This is the Greek Temple of Apollo in
downtown Siracusa, Sicily (ancient Syracuse)
Carthage had developed a solid agricultural economy and
combined wealth from its traditional Mediterranean trade with new
money from agricultural exports. A "war party" in the
popular assembly and among the leadership thought that some of
that money should be invested in expansion of Carthaginian
territory in Sicily.
Greek and Carthaginian towns had always been mostly on the coast
of Sicily. The indigenes had gone to the hills (where they
remain to this day.) Support from Greece for the Greek
colonies on the island had withered away -- the cities that had
sent out colonists were too embroiled in their own local wars to
continue to support their colonists. The Greek towns in
Sicily also wasted their resources fighting among
themselves. Syracuse, in particular, was a local power with
Acragas (later Agrigentum) was a Greek town in the middle of
Sicily's southern coast. Syracuse (in the center of the
eastern coast) in alliance with Acragas hoped to take over all the
Greek towns of southeast Sicily.
At the same time, King Pyrrhos from Epiros (back in Greece) tried
to make inroads in both southern Italy and in Sicily. He was
king of the Greek tribe of Molossians, of the royal Aeacid house
(from ca. 297 BC), and later he became King of Epirus (306-302,
297-272 BC) and Macedon (288-284, 273-272 BC). He was one of the
strongest opponents of early Rome. He won some battles, but
they were the proverbial "Pyrrhic victories" -- he used up his
resources and went back home. The image is of a Greek temple
near modern Agrigento.
The excuse for war. Campanian mercenaries, who called
themselves Mamertines (i.e., servants of the Oscan Mars), had
taken over Messana (now Messina) after being discharged when
Agathocles of Syracuse died in 289 BC. They used Messana as
a base for raiding other towns and for piracy at sea, and they had
an informal alliance with Carthage. King Pyrrhus had
defeated the Mamertines outside their town in 278 (at the request
of Syracuse) but instead of taking Messana and eliminating the
Mamertine thorn in the side of Syracuse, Pyrrhus attacked
Lilybaeum, a town on the far western tip of Sicily which belonged
to Carthage. Eventually Pyrrhus left the area leaving the
Mamertines to resume their raiding and piracy.
In 275 BC, a separate group of Campanians, who were mostly
deserters from the Roman army, took Rhegium (now Reggio di
Calabria) on the Italian mainland, opposite Messana. A Roman
legion took back Rhegium and stayed in the area -- about two miles
In 265, Hiero II of Syracuse tried to rid eastern Sicily of the
Mamertine bandits. The Mamertines asked both Carthage and
Rome for help against Hiero. Carthage reacted first to
aid their informal allies -- and also to expand into eastern
Sicily and to keep Hiero from becoming too powerful. They
sent a military force to Messana. The Mamertines quickly
realized they had made a mistake -- the Carthaginians had chased
off Hiero, but they they wouldn't go back home. After some
fast negotiations with Rome, a deal was made, and a Roman force
arrived under the command of Apius Claudius Caudex (the last part
of whose name meant either "tree-trunk" or "Blockhead") to save
the "Roman" Mamertines from the Carthaginian menace.
This broke and ended permanently the 250 year old alliance between
Rome and Carthage. (If this sounds similar to the
beginning of the Mexican War after the founding of the Republic of
Texas, it's because it is similar.)
Carthage then rapidly formed an (un-natural) alliance with Hiero,
and, as they say, the rest is history.
The Roman force that crossed the narrow straits into Sicily easily
took the port of Messana. But the Carthaginians under one of
their many commanders named Hanno and the Syracusans
besieged the town. Apius Claudius sent them an
ultimatum: stop the siege or go to war. The
Carthaginians wouldn't lift the siege, so Apius declared
war. The First Punic War would last 23 years.
Another Greek remnant. A theater, still in use, in
Taormarina near Messina. Roman theaters were free-standing
and Greek theaters were built into hillsides. This one has a
a "Romanized" stage area.
The First Punic War was all about Sicily. Neither side
really needed any resources from Sicily, but each side feared the
strategic advantage the other side would have by controlling the
island. Most of the major battles of this first war were
fought on or around the island, and (as was also the case in
the Second War) Rome was willing and able to commit more resources
to the effort. Rome was always able to come up with more men
and, most importantly, more ships after inexperienced Roman naval
commanders lost fleet after fleet -- mostly to storms and faulty
navigation. By the last years of the First Punic War,
Carthage was leaving Hamilcar Barca un-reinforced on the
Island. Toward the end of the 23 year war, Carthage
just failed to keep up the pace that Rome set. Although
history has concentrated on the Second Punic War, this first war
war the one that made the difference and that made the Second War
impossible for the Carthaginian side to win.
[Why does the Second Punic War win out in historical coverage and
continuing public interest? Two reasons: first, there
were great leaders on both sides, Hannibal and Scipio Africanus,
with the latter pulling out a victory after long years of
Carthaginian dominance. Second, Polybius, the first and
greatest historian of the Punic Wars, was actually present for the
Second Punic War but was writing from other sources about the
first. In his multi-volume History,
he writes one book about the first war
and three about the second. We simply know have more
information about the personalities and the battles of the second
When the First Punic War started, the Carthaginians had
quinqueremes and the Romans had smaller ships. By good
fortune (according to legend) the Romans acquired a wrecked
Carthaginian quinquereme and quickly reverse-engineered it.
Roman shipyards, almost certainly manned by experienced
shipwrights from the former Magna
started churning out quinqueremes at a much
faster rate than the Carthaginians could match.
Despite heavy losses to storms and mischance -- several hundred
ships, more than were lost in all the battles against the
carthaginians -- the Romans always were able to float
replacements, and sometimes in very short periods of time.
Modern historians long doubted that Roman shipyards could really
build 200 ships over a two month period, but builders marks on
timbers of ancient ships recovered in the 1970s showed that
it was common to build fleets of standardized prefabricated
parts -- "weapons of mass production". In addition, the
Romans probably built ships in ports of former Magna Graecia
towns all along
the southern coasts of Italy.
Finally, there was the vast Roman supply of good shipbuilding
wood, which the Carthaginians couldn't match. Their best
supply was actually in Sardinia, and the relatively small Roman
naval victory at Sulci Island off the southwest Sardinian coast
cut Carthaginian supply from Sardinia early in the war (258
BC). By the end of the War, Rome had more and bigger
ships. The theory that Carthage went back to smaller models
because they were more maneuverable doesn't hold up. They
just didn't have the wood and wouldn't/couldn't spend the money to
The corvus, Rome's "secret weapon" was no real secret -- just a
new idea. It's hard to keep secret an 8 to 10 meter ramp
with a huge spike on the end, especially when it has just crashed
down on the deck of your ship and there are hundreds of Roman
marine infantry pouring over it. After... no, during the
battle of the Lipari Islands, the first naval battle of the war
(260 BC), the Romans realized that they were no match for Punic
naval skills (yet). At the second battle (Mylae, same year),
they deployed the Corvus and won decisively, capturing 30
Carthaginian ships. And the operative word is
"capture" -- those ships were soon back in other battles on the
Roman side. The Carthaginians did learn one lesson:
station have infantry on any ship that might encounter
Romans. This somewhat limited Roman success in later
battles, but the Romans, from here on, had the advantage at sea --
if they had a competent admiral, which was not always the case.
The Romans also had to learn a lesson about the corvus.
It made already top-heavy ships even more unstable.
Veering (coming about with the wind astern) could be harrowing,
and moving through a storm without capsizing could be well nigh
impossible. As usual, Roman engineers had an answer.
The fleet abandoned the corvus and mounted instead large
catapults, which shot heavy barbed darts into enemy ships.
A chain that flew out behind the dart was attached to a shorter
mast (forward, where the corvus mast had stood), and the enemy
could be reeled in for boarding by those same
marines. The object of the Roman game was always to
turn a sea battle into an infantry charge. The Romans kept
their advantage but no longer destabilized their ships.
The stern of a Punic warship was protected for more than two
millennia by the mud off the shore of Lilybaeum (modern Marsala)
on the western end of Sicily). The ship is thought to be a
casualty of the Battle of Lilybaeum, the last naval battle of the
war. Only a small part of the wreck was recovered, the rest
having been destroyed long ago by wave and tide, but the part that
was brought up showed two things: the Carthaginians, by this
time, were also using prefabricated parts (Punic inscriptions were
found giving instructions -- "tab A in slot B" -- and Punic ships
were being launched prematurely, i.e., before the caulking putty
had time to set.
The rostrum (plural = rostra), the bronze ram at the front of
Mediterranean warships, was the most expensive part of the
vessel. Captured rostra were war booty and were reused or
put on display, mounted on the front of speakers' platforms.
During the Punic wars, bronze was still a metal of coinage in
If you needed to attack a fortified port, you might build or buy
these. Rome routinely contracted shipbuilding out to former
shipyards. As Rome took over territories in the Italian
Peninsula, she inherited both their shipbuilding facilities and
their owners, who were integrated into the Roman plutocracy.
War was big business.
Mediterranean warships just kept growing. The Roman deceris
was like a quinquereme on steroids. Height at the gunwale
was a major consideration -- it was important to have a height
advantage when approaching your enemies so that you could shoot
down at them while your marines were preparing to swarm onto their
decks. But these ships had no deep keel, and the more you
had above the waterline the more weight in ballast you needed to
keep your ship upright. Ship size increased over the
centuries, and Ptolemy of Egypt eventually had a (rather
impractical) "forty" -- forty rowers per position. It's
thought that it was twin-hulled (like the siege tower above ) with
two banks of oars and ten rowers per oar. Even after
classical times, rowing was, with sail, a standard means of moving
cargo and of fighting in the Mediterranean. Renaissance
galleys fought their last great sea battle at Lepanto in 1571.
for more info.) Galley builders found that the greatest practical
number of rowers per oar was eight.
In the naval Battle
of Cape Ecnomus
, off the southern coast of Sicily, the
Carthaginians tried to draw off the two leading Roman
squadrons. The plan was that the Carthaginian flanks would
the attack the third Roman squadron which was towing
transports. The Carthaginians hadn't reckoned with the Roman
capability of pursuit. When the Carthaginian center fell
back, the Romans did surge forward, but it quickly overtook and
heavily damaged the retreating Carthaginian center. The two
leading Roman squadrons then quickly came about and trapped the
Carthaginian flankers. The Carthaginian strategy was
essentially the same as the strategy used later on land by
Hannibal in the Second Punic War, but Hannibal had the hugely
dominant Numidian cavalry on his flanks, and they were not about
to be trapped even if the Roman infantry had been able to turn
about to engage the Carthaginian flanks. As we will see, at
the Zamma battle that ended the Second Punic War, Massanissa's
Numidians defected to the Romans, and that was the end of
Our now familiar satellite view of Carthage showing the location
of the Carthaginian ports. The outer rectangular port was
commercial. The inner circular naval port was also the
headquarters of the Carthaginian admiralty.
Carthage in Roman times. The image shows the location of the
The naval port was 330 meters in diameter and could hold about 220
ships, each in its own shed. The sheds appear to have had
sand bottoms and the ships were winched up onto the sand.
Artist's reconstruction of the naval port showing a cut-away view
of the admiralty island. Archeologists have partially
reconstructed one of the drydocks on the island.
Ostia was founded during the Roman monarchy period, long before
the Punic Wars. The town guarded the mouth of the Tiber
River, and the River itself was Rome's naval "port". Smaller
vessels could navigate the river up to the southern edge of Rome
(i.e., outside the Servian walls, but inside the present Aurelian
walls). Ostia is not explicitly mentioned in the history of
the First Punic War (southern naval facilities were probably
used), but it is mentioned in accounts of the second Punic War.
A map of the ruins of Ostia at the beginning of excavations in
A labeled satellite view of Ostia.
A breast plate, now on display in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, is
sometimes misidentified as Carthaginian. It was found in the
tomb of a Carthaginian warrior, but it probably was captured as a
trophy -- stripped from the body of a vanquished Campanian
"Subjugation" was a ritual passing of prisoners under a real or
symbolic yoke. From Latin sub = under + jugatus =
yoke. The painting, a detail of which is shown, memorializes
the defeat of one of Caesar's Roman armies by a Gallic
force. It has become a fixture of the Swiss national
mythology even though the actual defeat took place in what is now
France. The insert shows a textbook illustration of a
symbolic "yoke" of spears, under which barbarians are forced to
walk by victorious Roman troops (time and place indeterminate).
Samnites were from the mountainous area northeast of the
Campanian (around the Bay of Naples. Like the Campanians,
they spoke an "Oscan" language (as opposed to Latin or Etruscan)
and it's not at all certain that they were ethnically different
from the Campanians -- the divisions of Italic peoples are based
on perhaps fallacious distinctions that date back to the Romans
who seemed to have felt a need to categorize folks.
Canpanians and Samnites generally
fought on the Roman side of the Punic Wars. Notice this
Another Samnite, dressed differently. Auxiliaries didn't
wear uniforms -- in fact, at this period, the Roman army regulars
were also pretty much un-uniform.
A third Samnite.
The key to Carthaginian victory on land, when it occurred, was
the fierce Numidian mercenary cavalry. Their main weapon was
a throwing spear, and each always carried several into their
Mauritanian archers fought on the side of the Carthaginians.
Artists impression of Maharbal, who was Hannibal's cavalry
commander during the Second Punic War, gives us a view of what
Carthaginian officers wore. His name indicates that he was
Carthaginian, but he probably commanded mercenary cavalry.
Although the officer corps of the Carthaginian army was actually
composed of Carthaginians, all the troops were usually foreign
Forward edge of the Carthaginian army. Cavalry,
foreground, then phalanges (singular = phalanx) of infantry, then,
of in the distance, more cavalry. The image is somewhat
defective because it shows a uniformity of costume that was never
present in the Carthaginian armies.
Iberian Scutari were light infantry (phalanx infantrymen were
the heavies) and were so called because of the kind of large oval
shields they used. Carthaginian army.
Celtiberian mercenaries -- more Carthaginian light infantry.
Iberian mercenary. Carthaginian army.
Iberian Caetrati carried a Caetra shield and often used the
slashing falcata sword.
Another of the Iberian Caetrati.
Hamilcar, the father of Hannibal, led the land forces of
Carthage in Sicily -- by the end of the First Punic War it was a
ragtag guerilla band. According to Polybius, it was Hamilcar
who, in the period between the First and Second Punic Wars,
trained Hannibal in Spain and inculcated Hannibal with a profound
hatred of Rome.
A fanciful Carthaginian war elephant. Elephants were native
to northern Africa during this period. They were smaller
than the sub-Saharan breed, but still plenty scary when they ran
at you. Carthage did not originate the use of elephants in
Mediterranean warfare: they had been used for a long time in
areas further east. Their trainers were imported from
India. Hamilcar had elephants on Sicily. It's highly
unlikely that the Carthaginians ever put howdahs on the back of
thei elephants. The first use of elephants in battle in the
western Mediterranean was apparently by Pyrros, who used them
against both the Romans and the Carthaginians; they had, however,
already been used in the eastern Mediterranean before their use by
An elephant trainer and driver -- probably an Indian -- carried
his goad and spears.
Hamilcar "on his elephant" in Sicily. The elephant's head
covering was practical: prevented sunburn
Roman infantry knew how to bring down an elephant, but the
preferred defensive strategy was to goad them into turning around
and running back where they came from. This image shows both
the wrong kind of elephant, and the wrong kind of goad in the hand
of the mahout, and, of course, another of those probably
Celtiberian light infantry carrying a scutum shield and a Celtic
long sword. The Iberian short sword, which the Romans
adopted and called a gladius
was shorter and therefore more useful for close quarters fighting.
An individual member of a phalanx was something you would
never see on a battlefield. They bunched together in groups
of 256: 16 abreast and 16 deep. Each of these heavy
infantrymen carried a shield and a 18 to 20 foot long lance called
This phalangist is wearing a linothorax -- body armor made of
layers of linen glued together with animal glue.
A phalange member wearing chain mail. Carthaginian soldiers
soon learned to strip the mail from the bodies of slain Roman
infantrymen. Mail was much more efficient at turning a blade
than was the linothorax. Note also that his sarissa lance
has a bronze counterweight above the butt spike. This
allowed the member of the phalanx to carry his weapon with much
The standard infantry formation of Mediterranean armies of this
period was this 256 man phalanx. It theoretically could move
in any direction -- all the men would raise their spears, turn,
and put their spears down again to move in a new direction.
In practice, changing direction was extremely difficult, and
protecting your flanks was virtually impossible.
Commanders would pack their phalanges in side by side
and flank them with protecting cavalry. Armies would
face each other, and pointy shoving matches would ensue.
Only the first five ranks would point their spears downward toward
the enemies. This meant that between the front line of men
in the phalanx five spears would protrude. The next image
shows what you faced as a phalanx moved toward you.
The Phalanx was packed tighter than the opposing Roman
maniple. So individual Roman troopers (and they did fight as
individuals) might face ten advancing sarissae. Pretty tough
So why did the Romans win on Punic War battlefields? At the
beginning, they didn't. Usually it was the Numidian cavalry
that gave the victory to Carthage. But in Sicily and in
Italy (Second Punic War) Roman maniples could beat the phalanx
formations simply because they could maneuver and were able to
adapt to uneven ground, obstacles, and even to dead men and horses
on the field of battle. Any of those things could cause gaps
in the phalanges that the Roman infantry could penetrate.
Once inside, the Carthaginian sarissae were useless against the
deadly Roman short swords (gladii, singular =
gladius). That's what has happened in this image.
(Carthaginans, by the way, were never that "uniform".) And
once the Romans had learned how to panic and turn charging
elephants, things got really bad for the Carthaginian phalanx
formations. There was no way to get out of the phalanx
unless everyone dropped their lances and fled at the same
(In the Second Punic War, Hannibal began to adopt the Roman
formation and weapons, but by that time the Romans had again
changed tactics and were completely avoiding set-piece battles in
Italy. Instead, they left Hannibal to wander around in
southern Italy using up his ever more scarce supplies and men in
small skirmishes. Much more about that and about the big
set-piece battle that the Romans finally did fight, at Zamma, will
be in a later unit.)
The final score at the end of the First Punic War was Rome 1,
Carthage 0. Rome had beaten the much vaunted Carthaginian
fleet and the remaining Carthaginian coastal towns and ports,
unable to be resupplied, had to surrender. Hamilcar was
allowed to take his remaining land forces home. Unlike the
Carthaginian admirals who had failed and had therefore been
crucified by their own people, Hamilcar lived to fight another
day. Carthage agreed to terms, which included paying Rome an
Shortly after the First Punic War, Hamilcar was called back to
arms to put down a revolt of unpaid mercenaries -- his own former
troops. Then he went to Spain and started to plan the next
war against Rome.