Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

For the Rule of the Sea

I am not going to tell the whole story of the Punic Wars. In each of them, however, there is something that belongs to my subject. In the First, with which I am now concerned, there is the extraordinary effort by which the Romans put themselves in a position to contend with Carthage for the dominion of the sea. There is nothing quite like it in history, and nothing, one might say, which more plainly showed the wonderful fitness of the nation for its great destiny of ruling the world. Polybius, one of the most thoughtful and judicious of ancient historians, becomes enthusiastic in his praise of this marvellous effort. He says: "There could be no more signal proof of their courage, or rather audacity. They had no resources at all for the enterprise; they had never even entertained the idea of a naval war—indeed it was the first time they had thought of it—but they engaged in the enterprise with such daring that, without so much as a preliminary trial, they took upon themselves to meet the Carthaginians at sea, on which they had held for generations an undisputed supremacy." The first thing, of course, was to build the ships. They had not even a model to copy, till one of the Carthaginian men-of-war happened to run aground, and so fell into their hands. And while the ships were being built the crews which were to man them were being exercised. Sets of rowers' benches were constructed on dry ground; the crews sat on them as they would have to sit in actual vessels. In the middle the fugleman, as we may call him, was stationed. As he gave the signal, they stretched their bodies and arms forwards, and drew them back again, all in time. By the time the ships were finished, the crews were as ready as this kind of teaching could make them. A little practice in actual rowing on the sea was given them, and then the new fleet entered upon its first naval campaign.

The first experience of the new force was not encouraging. A squadron of seventeen ships under one of the Consuls for the year, a Scipio, great-uncle of a famous man of whom I shall have to speak hereafter, was shut up in the harbour of Lipara, and had to surrender. The other Consul was put in command of the fleet and at once set about suiting it better to the actual conditions of warfare. He had the sagacity to see that there was more in seaman-ship than could be acquired by a landsman in a few weeks, and the object that he set before himself was that seamanship should not be allowed to count for more than could possibly be helped. To put the matter shortly, a battle on sea was to be made as like to a battle on land as could be managed. He adopted accordingly the suggestion of an ingenious inventor that the ships should be fitted with boarding-machines, or "crows" (corvi), as they afterwards came to be called. The actual "crow" was a gangway, four feet wide and thirty-six feet long, with a wooden railing on either side, about the height of a man's knee. This construction was fastened to a pole, some twenty-four feet high, that was placed near the bowsprit. It was fitted with pulleys and ropes so that it could be dropped at pleasure in any direction that might be convenient. When it was dropped to the deck of a hostile ship it acted as a grappling-iron, for it was fitted with a heavy spike which ran into the timber. If the two ships came together side by side the boarders could scramble over the bulwarks, and the chief use of the machine was for grappling. If they met prow to prow the gangway, which was broad enough for two men to pass over it abreast, became very useful.

When this equipment was complete, Duilius boldly put to sea, sailing for a spot on the north coast of Sicily where the Carthaginians were busy plundering. As soon as the Roman fleet came in sight the Carthaginian admiral—one of the many Hannibals who figure in these wars—manned his ships, and went out of harbour to meet it. He was superior in numbers, having 130 ships, while the Romans could have had but few over 100 (they had built 120 and had lost 17). But it was on his superiority in seamanship that he most relied. For the Romans as sailors he had, and not without reason, a profound contempt. So strong was this feeling of superiority that he did not take ordinary pains in keeping his ships in order. "He advanced," says Polybius, "as though he was about to seize an easy prey." He and his officers saw the "crows," and could not make out what they meant. That there was anything dangerous about them no one seems to have imagined, for the Carthaginian captains that led the van of the fleet charged straight at their antagonists. When they came to close quarters they made a very discomfiting discovery. Any ship that came into contact with a Roman vessel was immediately grappled; no sooner had it been grappled than it was boarded by a number of armed men, and became the scene of a conflict that was practically the same as if it were being fought on dry land. The Carthaginian crews were not prepared for this; it is not improbable that they were insufficiently armed, for they counted on ramming and sinking their antagonists. Thirty ships were captured in this way; the rest of the fleet sheered off when they saw what had happened to the van, and tried to manœuvre, taking the enemy, if possible, at a disadvantage. They were able, however, to affect little or nothing. If they were to do any damage to the enemy, they had, sooner or later, to come into contact with him. But this contact was very likely to be fatal. The "crow" was promptly dropped, and the dreaded Romans had to be encountered. Twenty more ships were thus lost, and the rest were glad enough to make their escape.

This victory was undoubtedly a great achievement, and Rome did not fail to appreciate it properly. The Consul Duilius became at once one of the most famous of Roman heroes. He did not perform, possibly had no opportunity of performing, any other service of much importance, but the victory of Mylæ established his reputation for ever. A story is told of the privileges accorded to him in his old age. He had a fancy for being attended by a couple of flute players when he was returning home from an entertainment, and though the practice was thought inconsistent with the simplicity of Roman manners, his fellow-citizens endured it with patience in consideration of the singular service which he had rendered to his country.

Nor was the victory at Mylæ a solitary success. Four years afterwards there was another great sea-fight at Heraclea, on the south coast of Sicily. The Romans had determined to adopt a policy which, as we have seen, had been previously followed with success, and to attack Carthage on her own territory. A very large fleet was collected or constructed to carry out this purpose. There were, according to Polybius, 330 ships, each carrying on an average 300 rowers and sailors and 120 soldiers or marines. This gives a total of nearly 140,000, a huge number which Polybius mentions with astonishment, but apparently without disbelief. The Carthaginian fleet, which numbered 350 men-of-war, prepared to dispute the passage.

The battle that followed was fiercely contested. The description that Polybius gives of it is not easy to understand, but the main features are clear enough. In manœuvring the Carthaginians more than held their own. Whatever success they won was due to the rapidity and skill with which they moved; but they could not contend on equal terms with their antagonists when they had to come to close quarters. "Over thirty" of their ships were sunk. Polybius does not give, doubtless because he could not ascertain, a more definite figure, while the Romans lost twenty-four. So far there was no great disparity. But, on the other hand, sixty-four Carthaginian men-of-war were captured, whereas not a single Roman ship was taken. Plainly, when the "crows" could be brought into use, and the struggle between ship and ship was decided by hand-to-hand fighting, the old Roman superiority declared itself.