In the middle of the 3rd century BCE, Rome and Carthage, two superpowers of the ancient Mediterranean, began their fateful Punic Wars, which would decide which country and culture would come to dominate the classical world. At the onset of the wars, Carthage was the undisputed naval power of the Mediterranean. Rome, in contrast, was a battle-hardened infantry power, with almost no experience in naval warfare, except small campaigns against piracy. Nevertheless, Rome would win a great victory over a larger Carthaginian navy at the battle of Mylae in 260 BCE. They were able to win by using their renowned engineering capabilities, and a simple strategy—turn the naval battle into an infantry charge.
The first step for Rome was to build a fleet. To do this, Roman engineers studied a captured quinquereme (a ship with five stories of rowers) and quickly mass-produced over one hundred of their own quinqueremes, which would serve as the core of their Punic War navy. With their fleet mass-produced, Rome still had to nullify Carthage’s superiority in naval skill.
Ancient naval warfare was often a battle of opposing crews on their ships rowing up momentum and ramming their armored bows against enemy ships. In an orthodox naval battle, Carthage’s sailing skill would give them greater mobility and maneuverability over Rome’s fledgling navy. To counteract the skill of Carthage, Rome installed a device called a corvus on their ships, which was basically a ramp attached securely to the bow of the ship. The ramp made the Roman ships unstable, but it ultimately tipped the balance of power in Rome’s favor. With the corvus, the Roman marines could row up to the Carthaginian ships, drop their ramps, and bring their formidable infantry might to the seas.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- See our article on the Punic Wars, HERE.