the outset of the First Punic War the Romans had not been at home at sea and
barely had a navy to speak of. As the
war progressed, the Romans realised that a victory on land would be
insufficient to win the war. The Carthaginians could always counter land
victories with actions by her superior navy. In a huge change in Roman strategy
Rome began to build fleets of ships with which to challenge Punic naval
supremacy. The First Punic War became a war at sea. Both Rome and Carthage
threw huge resources into the construction and manning of war galleys. At first
the Roman effort met with a series of disasters. But, as the war progressed,
and the Romans learnt the art of naval warfare and innovated it with the
invention of the corvus [literally ‘raven’ - a long boarding ramp, with large iron
spike, or beak, at its free end, that was mounted forward and that could be
dropped to bridge the gap between two ships], the two sides gradually achieved something
like parity in battle.
In 256 BC Rome decided to escalate the war. Rome built
and manned a huge fleet of 330 warships, mainly fives, to transport an army to
Africa. It would be an expedition to end the war. The mission was so important
to Rome that both consuls for the year would lead it. This fleet moved down the
Italian coast, across the Straits of Messana, past Syracuse and round the Cape
Pachynus, to link up at Ecnomus with the veteran legions which had been
successfully prosecuting the war in Sicily.
The Roman plans were not made in
secret. Realising that their home territory was vulnerable to the planned
invasion, the Carthaginians amassed a fleet to oppose it before it reached
their ill defended shores. The Carthaginian fleet, 350 ships under the command
of Hamilcar, sailed to Lilybaeum and proceeded south east until it came to
The scene was set for one of the most important clashes of the
war. With one side determined to sail an army of invasion to Africa; with one
side determined to stop it; with both fleet in close proximity; the battle was
Roman Fleet Notes
The Romans, not knowing precisely how the
Carthaginians would react, deployed their fleet in an unusual but compact body
that was capable of sailing to Africa or fighting a major battle. The fleet was
divided into four squadrons.
The first two were led by the consuls, Marcus
Atilius Regulus on the right and Lucius Manilius Vulso on the left. Each
deployed in a single file echeloned back so that together their squadrons
formed a wedge. The consuls, in sixes, commanded the lead ship in each
- Each: Squadron die D10.
- 1 Six (flagship). Boarding skill: Veteran.
Other skill: Trained.
- 5 Heavy fives equipped with corvus. Boarding skill:
Veteran. Other skill: Trained.
Immediately behind these was the third and
smallest squadron in the fleet. This squadron formed the base of the wedge. It
was comprised of war galleys each towing a horse-transport that was incapable
of moving under its own power.
- Squadron die D10.
- 4 Heavy fives. Boarding skill:
Seasoned. Other skill: Trained.
- 4 Transports (fives without rowers and marines).
Boarding skill: Abysmal. Other skill: Abysmal. Transports are incapable of
movement under their own power and count as disabled if cast adrift.
Behind these, in line abreast formation, was yet another squadron of
galleys. Within the fleet this squadron was called the ‘triarii’ and formed the fleet's reserve.
- Squadron die
- 6 Heavy fives equipped with corvus. Boarding skill: Veteran. Other skill:
Carthaginian Fleet Notes
The Carthaginian fleet comprised three
squadrons of unequal size. Initially they had advanced in line abreast
formation but once they saw the Roman formation they quickly made a kink in
In the centre, the bulk of the Carthaginian fleet was arrayed
facing the Romans in line abreast with wide spaces between the vessels. This
made, to Roman eyes, the centre of the line look weak. These ships were
commanded by Hamilcar who took position in the middle of the line.
- Squadron die
- 12 Light fives. Boarding skill: Seasoned. Other skill: Trained.
right of the line the Carthainians placed the best and fastest galleys in the
fleet. This compact squadron was commanded by Hanno.
- Squadron die D12.
- 6 Light fives.
Boarding skill: Seasoned. Other skill: Seasoned.
On the left, a quarter of the
fleet was set at an angle to the coast: “…posted so as to form a left wing
which pointed towards the shore, at an angle to the main body and extending
- Squadron die D10.
- 6 Light fives. Boarding skill: Seasoned. Other
For a description of the battle I will quote the translation in Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire. Penguin Classics:
“The action began when the Romans, seeing that the Carthaginian line was only
thinly held because of its great length, launched an attack on the centre. The
ships in this sector had orders to give ground immediately in the hope of
breaking up the Roman formation, and so they retired at a brisk speed hotly
pursued by the Romans. The result was that while the first and second Roman
squadrons chased after the retreating enemy, the third and fourth became separated….
the Carthaginians judged that they had lured the first and second squadrons far
enough away from the rest, a signal was hoisted on Hamilcar’s flagship and the
whole Carthaginian force swung round at once and engaged their pursuers. The
battle that followed was fiercely fought. The Carthaginians’ superior speed
allowed them to sail around the enemy’s flank as well as to approach easily of
beat a rapid retreat. But for their part the Romans were equally confident of
victory; as soon as the vessels came to close quarters the contest became one
of sheer strength, since their ‘ravens’ [corvus] grappled every ship the moment
it arrived within striking distance….
Meanwhile Hanno, in command of the right
wing, which had kept its distance when the Romans first attacked the centre, sailed
across the open sea, attacked the squadron of the triarii and caused them much
distress. At the same time the Carthaginian left, which had been posted near
the shore, abandoned their original formation, deployed into line with their
bows facing the enemy, and attacked the Roman squadron which was towing the
horse-transports, whereupon these ships cast off their tow ropes and engaged
The outcome of these engagements was much as might have been
Those who had first joined battle were also the first to break off,
for Hamilcar’s squadron was finally driven back and took flight…..
he saw the struggle in which the triarii and horse-transports were engaged,
hurried to the rescue with all the ships of the second squadron that were still
able to fight….
It was then the Carthaginian’s turn to find themselves
hard-pressed. They were attacked both from the front and the rear and
discovered to their surprise that they were being encircled by the relieving
force, and so finally gave way and retired towards the open sea. Meanwhile
Manilus, who was now on his way back to the battle, saw that the third Roman
squadron had been hemmed in by the Carthaginians close to the shore. Both he
made all speed to relieve the pressure on their comrades who were
in great danger. They were surrounded as effectively as if they were besieged…..
So the two consuls came up rapidly, surrounded the Carthaginians in their turn
and captured fifty ships….
The general outcome of the battle was in favour of
the Romans. Twenty-four of their ships were sunk, but more than thirty of the Carthaginians.
Not a single Roman ship was captured with its crew, but sixty-four Carthaginian
vessels suffered this fate.”
Scenario Designer Notes:
Both fleets were mainly
fives but there must have been many smaller ships in any fleets of this size. Because
there is no record of how many smaller ships, or their deployment, I have
chosen to ignore this fact and except for the Roman flagships (Polybius
specifically states they were sixes) all ships are fives.
This was a
battle between two fleets that carried more marines than was generally the case;
the Roman fives were carrying an army; the Carthaginians had manned their ships
with every available man. Consequently, I have partly rated the boarding skills
of vessels for the relative numbers of marines.
I have assumed that the fives
of the towing squadron would have a normal complement of marines (they are
classed as seasoned accordingly) and no corvus. The extra weight would be a
significant factor in the performance of their towing duty. The horse transports
themselves would be carrying just enough crew to maintain the ship for the
voyage and have been significantly down-rated to ‘abysmal’ to reflect this. Towing
and towed ships count as crippled. If cast adrift horse-transports are
disabled. I have chosen to use merchant ships to represent the horse-transports
so that they are easily identifiable.
Polybius says that, even though the
marines were fairly equal in numbers, the Carthaginian ships were faster. The
simplest way to represent this is to class the Carthaginian ships, despite the
high number of marines, as light fives.
The manning of these fleets was a huge
effort and it would undoubtedly lead to a diminished level of training in most
ships – especially the rowers. Because of this most ships have had their ramming,
raking and seamanship skill down-rated from ‘seasoned’ to ‘trained’.
has a D12 squadron die because Polybius picks out its ships as being somewhat superior
to the rest of the fleet. All other squadrons have a D10 squadron die because
they were unremarkable.
The Carthaginian plan to lure the Romans into attacking
the centre must be built into the scenario if the game is to have any
resemblance to the battle. Three special events cards should be added to the
Carthaginian deck. On the appearance of each, the Carthaginian ships in Hamilcar's squadron have the option to withdraw at full rate with their bows facing the enemy,
and the Roman ships in the squadrons of both consuls must advance towards them
at full rate, turning, if need be, towards the nearest ship in Hamilcar's squadron. If a special event card is not acted on the following special events cards are void. Special events cards are discarded after use. This information should be known to both sides – if the Roman player knows his
ships will be drawn forward, regardless of his wishes, he might as well go with
the flow and press his attack vigorously.
We will use Fleet of Battle rules as
published in Wargames Illustrated issue 278, December 2010.