Rome’s Woe on the Waves : Rome’s Navy Falls Short Repeatedly

Map of the Roman fleets and major naval bases during the Principate

Rome’s Woe on the Waves : Rome’s Navy Falls Short Repeatedly Following his decisive victory over the Roman fleet at the Battle Drepana, the Carthaginian commander Adherbal dispatched his adjutant Carthalo with 100 ships to relieve their main base on Sicily. The fortified city of Lilybaeum, governed by Himilco, was one of Carthage’s last strongholds on the island, and was thus besieged by the legions determined to annex the rest of Sicily and end the First Punic War.

Following the defeat of their Sicilian army at the Battle of Panormus, Carthage now depended on supplying Lilybaeum by sea, and blockade runners using their expert crews and knowledge of the area to keep the garrison supplied. Adherbal also sent ships to raid the Sicilian and Italian coasts, and the supply situation for the legions besieging Lilybaeum was severe, with them eating rotting meat and relying on grain from Hiero II of Syracuse to sustain them.

Carthage managed to supply Lilybaeum thanks to the exploits of the commander Hannibal, son of Hamilcar, who sailed through the blockade. He left the city with cavalry horses at night and sailed to Drepapa, repeating this process to supply the garrison. Hannibal the Rhodian then defied the Roman fleet by sailing around to spy on the town and report back to Carthage, his bold action provoking Pulcher to set sail and suffer the disastrous defeat at Drepana.

Following the battle, Adherbal sent Roman prisoners and captured ships to Carthage, then sailed to Panormus and captured the 30 Roman ships and transports there being used to supply the besieging army. Carthalo’s expedition to Lilybaeum saw him burn some Roman ships and capture others, with a sortie from Himilco preventing the legions from assisting the navy.

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Carthalo heard that another Roman fleet had sailed from Syracuse to Lilybaeum, and persuaded his war council to engage them at sea. He sailed with around 120 ships for Heraclea Minoa to intercept the Roman convoy, while Adherbal kept the main fleet at Drepana to guard against any further Roman threat. In Rome, the Consul Lucius Junius Pullus was in Italy when Pulcher’s fleet had been sunk at Drepana, though given the slow dissemination of news in the ancient world, he may well have been unaware of this reverse when he set sail himself in the summer of 249 BC with 60 warships. He was joined by a further fleet at Messina, now commanding some 120 quinqueremes to protect 800 transports, which were loaded with supplies for the legions besieging Lilybaeum.

Rome had already lost a supply fleet at Panormus, and with the legions undertaking the siege resorting to eating rotting meat, the passage of this one was crucial. Junius likely learnt of Pulcher’s defeat after arriving in Sicily, and thus chose not to sail along to north coast, thus avoiding the Carthaginian fleet, instead sailing along the south coast of the island. 

Junius sailed to Syracuse, which had a huge harbour to accommodate his fleet. Hiero II supplied them with corn and other provisions, which Junius then loaded onto the transport and sent half, under the command of his quaestors, to Lilybaeum while he remained in Syracuse to provision the rest of the fleet while rounding up the stragglers and survivors of Drepana. Carthalo had anchored at Heraclea Minoa, with lookouts searching for the Roman fleet. He was soon alerted of their approach, and sailed out to engage them.

Learning of the approach of an unexpected Carthaginian fleet – the Romans had thought they were all on the north coast – the quaestors sailed east to take sanctuary at the town on Phintias. With no harbour, they lined the ships up against the shore and requisitioned catapults to use for defence against the Carthaginian attack.

Carthalo approached, expecting a panicked flight, but then saw the fortified Roman position. He captured a few of the outlying ships and then, deciding not to endanger his own fleet against strong defences, hid in the mouth of a nearby river as he waited for the Roman fleet to depart. What followed was an unusual waiting game – Carthalo had the faster ships, though only had what supplied he could capture from the Romans, while the Romans had ample supplies, though had slower ships, and were aware that the legions besieging Lilybaeum were in desperate need of the supplies. 

Carthalo’s wait was interrupted when he received news of Junius approaching with the rest of the ships from Syracuse. In this he had an advantage over the Roman fleet at Phintias, which did not have scout ships patrolling the waters. Carthalo snuck away to intercept this new fleet, leaving those at Phintias unaware of his movements, and thus making no effort to sail out to the relief of Junius – something difficult to coordinate in a time lack modern communications.

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Had both fleets known, they could have used their overwhelming numbers to surround Carthalo, whose fleet was now between them, to compensate for their slower speeds owing to the transports. Junius also anchored on the shore when he saw the approaching Carthaginian fleet, declining battle. There was now the situation of two Roman fleets anchored off shore with the Carthaginian fleet between them – though neither of the Roman fleets knew of this positional advantage.

Carthalo had to act quickly before the Romans could learn of their situation and act, though his planning was interrupted by news from his local scouts. Familiar with the Sicilian weather patterns, he was alerted to an incoming storm. Carthalo thus sailed east, away from both Roman fleets, rounding Cape Pachynon to ride out the storm. The Roman fleet was slow to resume its westward journey, its cumbersome warships slowed down further by the huge transports they were towing. The Battle Phintias had cost Rome very little, despite being a strategic defeat, though as with previously, their navy’s worst enemy would prove to be Mother Nature.

Approaching Camarina, the Roman fleet was struck by the full force of the approaching storm. The fleet was again wrecked by the weather, with only two ships surviving. Among them were Junius, who resumed his voyage to Lilybaeum, though now without the needed supplies, and having seen tens of thousands more Romans and allies perish beneath the waves of the Mediterranean. 

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Junius set about assuming command of the Lilybaeum siege, arranging for supplies to be brought overland. He occupied the city of Eryx, fortified Akellos, and during his work on the island was caught by Carthalo. He was freed in 247 BC during a prisoner exchange, returned to Rome and committed suicide to avoid standing trial. His co-Consul Pulcher had returned after his disaster at Drepana and, following the death of Junius, arrogantly nominated a freedman as dictator, and was forced to resign by the Senate before a Master of Horse could be nominated. This scandal hastened Pulcher’s own downfall, and he was convicted of sacrilege and exiled.

The situation in Sicily was now desperate, and Rome’s reverses at sea, coupled with disastrous storms, had seen its naval superiority annihilated.

Aulus Atilius Calatinus was appointed dictator and dispatched to Sicily. Having already rebuilt fleets after the storm of 255 BC sunk 600, and the storm of 253 BC sunk a further 150, it would be seven more years before Rome built a new fleet. For now, Carthage ruled the waves again.

Despite that, Carthage was not a martial nation, and showed little inclination to press home its advantage and bring the First Punic War to an end. Carthalo would raid the west coast of Italy, to limited effect, and the Carthaginians still did not feel confident to build up a fresh land army in Sicily. Hence the war devolved into stalemate, Rome continuing to besiege Drepana and Lilybaeum, though lacking the ability to storm either city and now lacking the navy to prevent them from being continually resupplied by sea. Rome controlled most of the land of Sicily, though Carthage could not be dislodged.

Instead of investing in its military to conclude the war, Carthage sought to wind down its expenditure.

Fleets were decommissioned, as operating hundreds of quinqueremes was a huge drain on finances, manpower and resources. Rather than now maintaining, crewing and provisioning its huge amount of ships, then using them to blockade Rome and launch a serious campaign into Italy, Carthage removed its ships to save money.

One seemingly minor action taken by Carthage would have huge consequences for the future, for in 274 BC they sent a new commander to lead what little of their forces remained in Sicily – Hamilcar Barca. 

Written by Jack Tappin

Rome’s Woe on the Waves : Rome’s Navy Falls Short Repeatedly