At the start of the First Punic War (264-241 BCE), Carthage had a pronounced naval advantage over Rome. Yet, in 260 BCE, the Romans utilized their wealth and engineering brilliance to quickly constructed a fleet of warships that could challenge Carthage. The Carthaginians, however, still arguably had better ships and more talented sailors. In response, the Romans devised clever tactics and contraptions to give themselves an advantage over the Carthaginians, such as hooked platforms that could allow Roman marines to attack the crews of Carthaginian ships as if it was a land battle.
Rome’s new fleet and naval tactics quickly proved effective. In 260 BCE, they defeated Carthage in a sea battle at Mylae. This victory allowed them to ferry troops to seize the island of Corsica in 259 BCE. After that, the fleet was confident enough to even sail to the Carthaginian homeland in North Africa, where Rome won two major sea battles, in 256 BCE and 255 BCE respectively, which took place off the coast of Tunisia. When the Roman army, which had followed the fleet to Tunisia, suffered a costly defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians in 255 BCE, the Roman fleet was able to ferry the survivors to safety.
Even though the invasion of Africa had not gone well, Rome’s campaigns in Sicily were coming along smoothly. By 250 BCE, Rome had won a devastating victory over the Carthaginian army in Sicily and besieged the Carthaginian strongholds of Lilybaeum (modern Marsala) and Drepanum (modern Trapani). The Roman navy assisted in these sieges by blockading the regions from the coast and launching raids against vulnerable targets.
Now, having mentioned some of the overwhelming successes of the Roman Navy thus far in the First Punic War, it is time to cue the unfortunate admiral, Publius Claudius Pulcher. He was a Roman consul who was in charge of the fleet in 249 BCE. At the time, the ships under his command allegedly numbered 123 vessels, in total. With this fleet, Claudius Pulcher cornered the Carthaginian navy in the harbor of Drepanum. With the enemy in his clutches, the admiral was faced with the choice between cautiously maintaining a blockade or launching a sudden attack on the Carthaginian ships.
As people from the ancient world often did, Claudius Pulcher watched for omens, or signs of the gods’ will. The biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), wrote about Claudius Pulcher’s pre-battle attempt at divination in his brief history of the Claudii family in the section on Emperor Tiberius, from The Twelve Caesars. According to Suetonius’ account, Claudius Pulcher conveniently had some sacred chickens on his ship, and the behavior of these chickens was thought to reflect the pleasure or displeasure of the gods. Therefore, when the sacred chickens refused to eat their feed, it was interpreted as a bad omen for the battle. By this point, however, Claudius Pulcher, was apparently irreversibly eager to go forward with his assault on the harbor of Drepanum, despite the wise counsel of his sage chickens.
According to Suetonius’ likely-embellished account, Claudius Pulcher expressed his distaste for the sacred chickens’ verdict by allegedly shouting, “If they will not eat, let them drink!” and then impiously had the chickens tossed overboard (The Twelve Caesars, Tiberius, sec. 2). With that, the admiral signaled his ill-fated attack against the harbor of Drepanum. The battle turned out to be just as horrible as the sacred chickens had warned. Of the 123 ships under Publius Claudius’ command, only 30 survived the disastrous battle, including the admiral’s own ship. When Publius Claudius returned to Rome, he was promptly slapped with a huge fine and was even accused of treason. Fortunately, he is known to have lived for a few more years after the notorious incident.
As an interesting side note, Suetonius also wrote about another scandalous incident involving Claudius Pulcher’s sister. According to the tale, the disgraced admiral’s sister was traveling in a carriage through the streets of Rome, when she became thoroughly annoyed at the slow traffic in the city. In a fit of ancient road rage, she allegedly shouted, “If only my brother were alive to lose another fleet! That would thin out the population a little” (The Twelve Caesars, Tiberius, sec. 2). Suetonius claimed that Claudius Pulcher’s sister was consequently tried for treason because of her comments, though he neglected to record how the trial ultimately ended.
Publius Claudius’ blunder at Drepanum caused Rome to lose all of its momentum in the First Punic War. Following the destruction of their navy, the Romans had to scale back their assault on Lilybaeum and Drepanum. In 242 BCE, however, the Romans built a new fleet of a reported 200 ships, with which they were able to assert their naval superiority over Carthage and finally end the First Punic War in 241 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansely.
Picture Attribution: (1882 illustration of Publius Claudius Pulcher consulting the sacred chickens during the Punic War, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.