War Galley

Battle of the Aegates Islands, 242 BC

After the First Punic War had been dragging on for some years (since 263 BC in fact), the Romans realized that they could never finally defeat Carthage without ending their control of the sea. So via private funding efforts, they managed to raise a fleet of 200 quinquiremes which was placed in command of Gaius Lutatius. He appeared off the coast of Sicily in the summer and the surprised Punic fleet was forced to sail home, allowing the Romans to take the harbor at Drepana, where he installed siege-works and blockaded the city, and the roadsteads near Lilybaeum. Meanwhile he drilled in naval maneuvers every day.

Carthage, seeing that they would have to provision their besieged city, loaded their ships with grain and sought to relieve Eryx. The fleet was commanded by Hanno whose plan it was to sneak into Eryx, unload the corn to lighten the ships and take on the mercenary troops of Hamilcar Barca and then seek out the Roman fleet. This failed. Lutatius got word of the arrival, embarked his best troops and sailed to the island of Aegusa near Lilybaeum to intercept.

At daybreak he saw that the strong breeze favored Carthage and that the seas were rough. He was unsure whether to engage but in the end decided that this would be preferable to fighting the same force later after it could be strengthened by Carthage. So upon seeing the enemy at full sail, he put to sea at once, quickly maneuvering his fleet into a single line facing the enemy.

Seeing this, the Carthaginians lowered their masts and closed. The Romans benefited from removal of all heavy equipment from their vessels and their training now paid off whereas the laden Carthaginian galleys were difficult to maneuver and their marines merely raw recruits. The result was that the Carthaginian ships experienced defeat after defeat. Fifty of their galleys were sunk outright and seventy captured. The remainder raised their masts and ran before the wind, which had veered around, and made their way back. The Romans had taken nearly 100,000 prisoners of war and Carthage was forced to sue for peace shortly thereafter.

To read more, see Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, Book I, 61-63.

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August 20, 2005