What was the biggest military disaster of the Roman Empire? Rome’s Disaster At Sea
“The subsequent tragedy was regarded as due to natural causes rather than to bad seamanship.”
Following the legions’ defeat at the Battle of Bagradas River, the Romans sent a fleet to evacuate the survivors from their failed African expedition. Some 350 quinqueremes were sent with more than 300 transports, aiming to relieve the survivors who were now besieged in Aspis. Both Consuls for 255 BC, Servius Fulvius Paetinus Nobilior and Marcus Aemilius Paullus, set sail with the vast fleet, capturing the island of Cossyra on the way.
The Carthaginians, flush from victory, mobilised their fleet on quinqueremes – largely the survivors from the Battle of Cape Ecnomus – to block the Roman retreat.
They intercepted the Romans off Cape Hermaeum (modern Cape Bon), just north of Aspis.
The forty Roman ships which had remained in Africa to support the legions over the winter made a sortie to join the main fleet.
Despite their land success, the Carthaginians again floundered at sea.
Concerned that they would be encircled by the behemoth Roman fleet, the Carthaginians sailed close to the coast. Despite this, they were outmaneuvered and pinned against the beach, allowing many of them to be boarded with the corvus, forcing them to stand and fight or jump off and make for shore.
Around 114 of the remaining Carthaginian ships were captured, along with their crews, and sixteen sunk. Roman losses were minimal, if any. The lack of soldiers serving as marines on the Carthaginian fleet, who instead relied on their rowers to manoeuvre instead of trying to board, played a decisive role in settling the battle in Rome’s favour.
The Roman fleet docked as Aspis where the garrison, now reinforced by the marines, swiftly dispersed their besiegers and gathered food from the surrounding countryside.
The whole fleet then embarked, sailing for Sicily and landing on the southwest corner.
They proceeded along the south coast but in mid-July, between the city of Kamarina and Cape Passaro in south east Sicily, a sudden summer storm erupted. This devastated the Roman fleet. Out of the 464 warships, 384 were sunk, as were 300 transports.
The death toll was catastrophic, with 100,000 being a conservative estimate.
Many of the casualties will have been the newly captured Carthaginian rowers, and many more Rome’s Italian allies. The corvus, which was proved so decisive in Rome’s battles against Carthage, actually had the adverse effect of making the ships unseaworthy. It would never be used again after this disaster.
It is easy to forget just how vulnerable ships in this era were, and how easily fleets could be decimated by storms. Ships sat low in the water, particularly when heavily loaded, with openings for the oars just a few feet from the waterline.
Even slightly wavy conditions could begin to see the hull fill with water, which would need to be swiftly removed – later made easier by the invention of the Archimedes Screw. Roman ships were designed for the calm waters of the Mediterranean, had a lot of men aboard each, and would usually be put to shore each night – minimizing the amount of water and supplies needed for such a large number of men. With ships often sailing closely together too, storms could often dash them against each other.
The huge number of men aboard each ship only exacerbated the death toll, as did the fact that many of them could not swim, and soldiers were often wearing armour that was awkward to remove and would thus condemn them to a watery grave. Polybius criticised the poor judgement and seamanship prior to the storm, though both Consuls, who survived, were awarded a triumph in 254 BC for the victory at Cape Hermaeum. Scullard points out that this shows that “the subsequent tragedy was regarded as due to natural causes rather than to bad seamanship.”
Paullus would build a column at his own expense on the Capitoline Hill to celebrate his victory, adoring it with the prows of captured Carthaginian ships. This was destroyed by lightning in 172 BC. Despite the recent victory, the First Punic War was far from over. Roman fleets would again suffer from a storm, while Carthage would rediscover its maritime success. The victory that had looked closed following the landing of the African expedition now looked a long way off indeed.