Rome Seizes the Trident – The Defeat of Carthaginian Seapower and the Forging of the Roman Empire – Review

After reading Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World by Owen Rees recently, it only seemed natural to pick up the story by looking at Rome and Carthage. Carthage was famous for its seafaring having been originally a Phoenician colony, the same Phoenicians who participated (we must assume unwillingly) in the ill-fated Persian invasions of Greece. Rome certainly was not famous for its seafaring.

Where the naval battles were mostly fought in  the Ancient Greek World by triremes and to a lesser extent, penteconters, when Rome and Carthage faced off against each other the vessels had become heavier, consisting to quadriremes and more importantly, the peak of the ancient Mediterranean galleys, quinqueremes.

Pen & Sword Books published Rome Seizes the Trident – The Defeat of Carthaginian Seapower and the Forging of the Roman Empire by Marc G DeSantis. The book is 272 pages long (ISBN: 9781473826984) and was originally published on 16 May 2016. It is available in hardback, Kindle and ePub versions with the electronic versions somewhat cheaper than the printed copy.

Owen Rees noted that in the Battle of Catane, part of the Hegemony period, in the the battle between Syracuse and Carthage it appears that this is where the Carthaginians were first exposed to quadriremes and quinqueremes, noting:

Leptines had already shown himself a capable commander, having been in charge of the fleet since the siege of Motya, at the latest. Within his fleet he is said to have had thirty superior ships, a crack force of the same number which had confronted the Carthaginian armada at the beginning of their expedition. It seems extremely probably that these thirty ships, or at least a proportion of them, were of the new designs: quadriremes and quinqueremes.

When Carthage and Rome finally faced off in the Punic Wars, the standard warships at the stage were the quadriremes and quinqueremes Carthage may have been exposed to in Syracuse.

Marc G DeSantis commences his book by a look at the sources, and for this period , the preeminent source is Polybius. Also important of course were Livy although a much later author and concentrating on the Second Punic War and Plutarch, later still with his Parallel lives. Appian is the main source for the final Punic War and the destruction of Carthage. The Byzantine, John Zonaras was an author from the 12th Century but his value here is the summaries in Epitome Historiarum where he recounts information from the now fragmentary Dio with some naval aspects from the First Punic War that Polybius did not mention.

In Part I of his work, DeSantis breaks that section up into the following chapters:

Part I: Breaking Carthage

Chapter 1 – Sources
Chapter 2 – The Contestants
Chapter 3 – Sicily: Theatre of War, History and Blood
Chapter 4 – War at Sea in the Age of the War Galley
Chapter 5 – Breaking Athens: A Case Study

Chapters 4 and 5 are where DeSantis really gets swinging. The early chapters really set the scene, discussing Rome and Carthage and Sicily, for much of the naval aspects of the Punic Wars, the battleground. In Chapter 4 however he talks about the ways galleys fought, and for once he does not draw a straight dichotomy between ramming and boarding tactics, rather noting that both were used by all sides, depending on situation. He does draw a clear distinction, however, between the skilled seafarers who seemed to prefer ramming over boarding, such as the Athenians, the Phocaeans, the Rhodians and the Carthaginians. However he does point out that “ramming and boarding would have been carried out as the opportunities presented themselves”.

He notes the use of lemboi as a means of transferring signals across a fleet by standing off a little and repeating the signals, much like the frigates of the Napoleonic Wars at sea.

Chapter 5 is a review of the breaking of Athens through the negation of naval superiority in the Peloponnesian Wars. He also recounts a Corinthian tactic where the Corinthians at the Battle of Erineus in 413 BCE, slightly outnumbered by the 33 Athenian vessels, had made changes to their rams and adopted the tactic of a headlong charge at the Athenian fleet, looking to ram their vessels straight on and not giving the Athenians a chance to use their superior seamanship.  While no vessels were sunk from either side so technically a draw, the Corinthians looked on it as a victory and the Athenians saw it as a defeat.

After this survey of early naval tactics, DeSantis starts on the meat of his work – the Punic Wars.

Part II – The First Punic War

Chapter 6 – Trouble at the Toe of Italy
Chapter 7 – Opening Moves
Chapter 8 – Mylae, 260 BC: Rome’s Fleet Sails in Harm’s Way
Chapter 9 – After Mylae
Chapter 10 – Ecnomus, 256 BC
Chapter 11 – The Battle of Cape Hermaeum, 255 BC
Chapter 12 – Rome Tries Again
Chapter 13 – Drepna, 249 BC
Chapter 14 – The Debut of Hamilcar Barca
Chapter 15 – Endgame: The Battle of the Aegates Islands, 241 BC
Chapter 16 – Peace
Chapter 17 – Was Seapower Worth the Cost?

DeSantis starts with the trouble at Messana and Rhegium and the effect of the perceived threat from Pyrrhus. Mercenaries and garrisons revolting and taking over, enter Hiero of Syracuse who placed the city of Messana under siege after defeating the Mamertimes at the Battle of Longanus River in 264 BC. The Mamertimes appealed to both Rome and Carthage for assistance. Rome really stepped in to prevent Carthage developing a toehold in Sicily, fearing that the Carthaginians would use that as a springboard to an invasion of Italy.

From this point in and narrative DeSantis examines the moves and counter moves of the protagonists. The Romans built a fleet, copying a Carthaginian galley that had grounded itself on the coast back in 264 when it was trying to oppose the Roman landings in Sicily. The Roman vessels however were not of the same quality as Carthaginian or Greek vessels. DeSantis the follows the course of the war, the defeats and then victories of the Romans, stopping briefly to discuss the Corvus and its origins. The necessity for the corvus was probably because of the poor quality of the Roman vessels and seamanship. The suggestion for the corvus appears to have come from an unnamed Sicilian Greek. The suggestion may have come from within Messana although there are a number of compelling suggestion that it may have come from Syracuse, given the Syracusans being an enthusiastic practitioner of the Corinthian style headlong rush into the enemy. Grappling from that position was a natural extension of that tactic and building a boarding bride, the next logical step.

DeSantis also examines the negative answer to this version of the corvus mounting as well and provides a good counter argument. His discussion of the corvus and the Roman quinquereme versus the Carthaginian quinquereme is a far argument of both sides of the tale. I will admit that his discussion has me reexamining some of my thoughts and perceptions of naval warfare in those times.

He then discusses the more famous battles, Mylae; Ecnomus; Cape Hermaeum; Drepna; and Aegates Islands. To conclude the section on the First Punic War DeSantis looks at the question, “was the seapower worth the cost?”

Part III: Conflicts Between the Wars

Chapter 18 – Illyria and Gaul
Chapter 19 – The Mercenary Revolt 240-238 BC

The two chapters here deal with Rome’s intervention in Illyria in 229 and the overseas deployment, this time across the Adriatic, of the Roman army. The start of this intervention paralleled that of the start of the First Punic War but in this case it was a bunch of Gallic mercenaries seized control of the city of Phoenice in Epirus. The people of the city asked the Romans for assistance and that coupled with the Illyrian pirates attacking Italian shipping the situation became one that Rome could ignore. Polybius even records that previously the Senate in Rome always ignored complaints about the Illyrians. Rome sent a couple of commissioners to Queen Teuta’s court but she dismissed them and apparently had one murdered while he was returning to Rome.

Naval operations got underway with the Illyrians attacking Epidamnus and Corcyra. The Corcyraeans appealed for assistance to the Achaeans and Aetolians for assistance and 10 Achaean ships were sent (quadriremes it seems). Acarnanians allied themselves to the Illyrians and sent seven galleys. A small inconclusive battle was fought off the Paxi Islands. The Illyrians used lighter galleys than the Achaeans but developed an interesting tactic when they faced the Achaeans. The Illyrians lasd their vessels together in groups of four. This was a tempting broadside target for the Achaeans who dutifully increased the stroke rate to ram speed and hit the Illyrians vessels only then to become entangled with the four lashed vessels and as their crews were well outnumbered (about 4 to 1), the Illyrians stormed the Achaean vessels and four Achaean quadriremes were either lost or captured.

The Roman army and fleet became engaged in the area now and the result was around 20 Illyrian galleys and most of the coastal cities captured by the fleet while the army moved inland and took control of cities there.

Part IV: Strangling Carthage

Chapter 20 – The Second Punic War, 218-202 BC
Chapter 21 – A Second War with Carthage
Chapter 22 – Hannibal in Italy
Chapter 23 – Holding the Line in the Adriatic: The War with Macedonia
Chapter 24 – Sicily and Sardinia
Chapter 25 – Carthage’s Spanish Ulcer
Chapter 26 – Africa
Chapter 27 – Seapower and the Second Punic War

The Second Punic War is one that modern readers mostly associate with Hannibal (with or without his elephants); Scipio Africanus; battles such as Cannae, Trebia, Trasimene and Zama; and a small largely mercenary army spending 16 years in enemy territory undefeated. This is not to ignore the contribution of Scipio, especially with the battles he fought in Spain but mostly the Second Punic War is remembered for land actions.

DeSantis makes a good survey of naval action as well as other theatres over this period. The details of the treaty Hannibal struck with Philip V of Macedon, for example, where the Macedonians would assemble a fleet of 200 ships and harry the west coast of Italy as well as operations on land. Once the Romans had been defeated, Macedon would be given control of the Illyrian coast and Hannibal would assist Philip to defeat his Greek enemies.

Over the period of the Second Punic War there were a number of naval expeditions, mostly in and around Sicily. Bomilcar in 212 with 130 war galleys and 700 transport ships sailing to Sicily to rescue Syracuse from the Romans was one such expedition.  Over this period, Rome maintained some measure of control over the sea between Africa and Sicily but there were many other  areas where control of the sea was not so complete.

DeSantis also notes that the Carthaginians may have been reluctant to try their hand against Rome at sea as the First Punic War and the naval defeats there were only a generation previously.

Part V: Destroying Carthage

Chapter 28 – Roman Naval Operation in the East
Chapter 29 – A Third War with Carthage

Interestingly, DeSantis notes as well about this period, “the First Macedonian War (215-205), fought as part of the larger Second Punic War, had sputtered along once the Romans lost interest in it.” In chapter 28 he surveys the Roman naval operations in and around Greece, especially with regards to the Second Macedonian War and makes mention of the monster galley building of the Hellenistic monarchs (for further detail on those monster galleys, I can suggest Giant Hellenistic warships with more than 7000 crew members).

To conclude his work, DeSantis notes a number of changes in Roman Society as a result of the Punic Wars. He contends that the huge influx on slaves after the First Punic War changed the state from one of yeoman farmers into a state with great inequality among the citizenry. The appearance of the patron-client relationship over this period as well would cause issues for the later Republic. This relationship first appeared in the Second Punic War. As more provinces were added to the Roman Empire, the equites or knights became more and more wealthy as the class that were the tax collectors. This stymied any future attempts of the aristocrats to return Italian peasant farmers to the land as well as causing provincial populations to hate the state as a result of the deprivations of the tax collectors.

The Romans also simplified their ship building (as did the Carthaginians for that matter), preparing premade parts and stockpiling them, building the ship as a large kit. Rome settled on two ship designs over the period, the being based on the Carthaginian war galley that had run aground in 264 and the second on the vessel of Hannibal the Rhodian, captured in 250.

DeSantis’ book is a good survey of Rome’s efforts at sea and the effects of the strategy and tactics involved in the period covered. He discusses the effects of battles and political manoeuvring, including its effects on the struggles underway on land. This is a great read, and one I have been waiting to read since I read A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War – Ships, Men and Money in the War at Sea, 431-404 BC – Marc G DeSantis last year (yes, I know, read them in the wrong order). I am happy to recommend this book to anyone interested in ancient history, military history, naval history, classic naval warfare. I will admit to having learnt a few new things here, especially about Queen Teuta and her conflict with Rome.

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3 thoughts on “Rome Seizes the Trident – The Defeat of Carthaginian Seapower and the Forging of the Roman Empire – Review

    • Thomo the Lost 2 August 2019 / 8:36 pm

      I’ve not actually read Steinby but yes, her hypothesis concerning the “Romans’ seafaring tradition and their skill” does not seem to sit all that well with the evidence. I’ve added it to my increasingly long list of reading that is waiting on me getting more than a spare hour here and there.

      Thanks for the comment and the interesting link.

      Like

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