Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny. — Thomas Jefferson

Peeps at Ancient Rome - Jamse Baikie

Rome's Battle-Fleet

We have spent so much time over the Roman army because, after all, it was the army which was the chief weapon of the great city in her conquest of the world. but we must not forget that Rome owed a great deal to her fleet as well, and that in the long wars during which she was fighting for her very life against Carthage, it was the fleet that turned the scale in her favour at last. All the same, the Roman never was a sailor. He was always a soldier, who sometimes had to fight, very unwillingly, at sea. When a Roman felt that he had to do a thing, he did it thoroughly, and generally with success; and this was true of his sea-fighting as well as of other things. He took to the sea because he was obliged to; he made a fleet because he could not help himself; he used it with astonishing success; but he never used it as a seaman.

His naval victories were not sea-battles at all; they were land-battles fought at sea; and they were won, not by seamanship, but by the same methods of fighting which made the legions victorious on land. Roman seamanship was the kind of thing that allowed the Carthaginian Admiral, with his whole fleet and ten thousand men, to break the blockade of Lilybaeum without the loss of a ship or a man, while the Roman fleet looked on, afraid to lift anchor in the wild gale which swept the Carthaginians safely into port. During the First Punic War, Rome lost, by sheer bad handling and neglect of seamanlike precautions, three entire fleets, with 700 ships of the line and 70,000 men.

All the same, Rome became a great naval power, and I have now to tell you how she did this. Early in her first great war with Carthage, she found that she must needs have a fleet—not the trifling little squadron of small vessels that she had kept up for a long time, but a real fleet, able to meet the Carthaginians on the open sea. For the war was being fought out in Sicily, and the army there had to be reinforced and supplied, while the Italian coasts had to be protected against Carthaginian raids. So the Romans set to work to make a fleet just as they would have set to work to raise a new army.


Now you must know that in those days there were two chief kinds of warship. The Greeks, who were real sailors, had gradually developed a fast, smart, and handy middle-sized ship, called a trireme, because it had three rows of oars, one above the other. It had sails too, and when it was cruising, or making a passage, the trireme used its sails, and gave the rowers a rest; but when it was going into battle, masts and sails were struck, and, if possible, sent ashore, for the ship was handiest under oars alone.

Rome had already some triremes. But the trireme was getting out of date, because a bigger ship had been introduced. She had five banks of oars, and so was called a "pentereme," or "quinquereme." She was not nearly such a smart ship as the trireme, but, as a sea-castle, she was irresistible. A trireme had no more chance against a quinquereme in the kind of fighting that the Romans meant to go in for than a modern light cruiser would have against a super-Dreadnought. So quinqueremes, and plenty of them, had to be built, and the Roman dockyards were busy.

Fortunately, a Carthaginian quinquereme had been driven ashore on the Italian coast two or three years before, and had been salved. Now she served as a model, and the shipbuilding feat that followed might make our Admiralty green with envy, if the tale of it is true. In sixty days, so the Romans said, they built a fleet of a hundred five-bankers and twenty triremes, and you may believe them if you feel so inclined. I have my doubts.

Meanwhile, the crews were being trained. Thirty thousand land-lubbers had to be taught to keep time and length, to pull and back water, to spurt or to go easy, all like one man; and you can imagine the heart breaking kind of task it was. The story says that great five-tiered stages were erected on the shore, and that the oarsmen were trained on these to swing, and pull, and manoeuvre to the sound of the trainer's pipe. It sounds like a fairy tale, but perhaps it is true. One way or another the fleet was manned, and it cleared from port, bound for Sicily, almost as soon as the last vessel was in the water.

So now, if you please, we are going to go on board the flagship of the new Consul Gaius Duilius, and we shall see how the new fleet and the new crews behave. Let us take a look at our ship and get a general idea of her build and equipment. She is a big ship for the time, though she would look small enough beside a modern battleship. The noticeable thing about her is her length, for the warships are of quite a different build from the bluff-bowed merchantmen. Along the water-line she measures 168 feet; her breadth is only 18, and her depth from the deck to the keel, 26. She draws 11 to 12 feet of water, and her tonnage is 534.

Her long sharp bow projects just at the water-line, and bears three short, stout rams tipped with bronze. This is because the Carthaginian boats will have rams too, and one never knows but it may be necessary to use ours; but the Admiral doesn't mean to ram if he can help it. He has other things in his mind, as we shall see. On either side of the bow a great eye is painted, looking forward; for the ship must be able to see her way. Two anchors hang at the catheads, one of the usual shape, another shaped almost like a mushroom.

Now look along her deck. Down the centre line runs a long, narrow gangway, spreading out at bow and stern into a forecastle and a quarter-deck. On either side of the gangway the benches of the topmost bank of oarsmen run across to the side of the ship. There are 35 on each side, making 70 rowers for this deck. The deck below will have 66, the next 62, the fourth 58, and the lowest 54, so that we have 310 oarsmen in all. As you can imagine, they are packed pretty close, and are none too comfortable. The oars range in length from the twenty-foot sweeps of the upper deck to the eight-foot paddles of the lowermost row. If the thalamite, as the Greeks called the rower of the lowest bench, has to pull the shortest oar, he makes up for it by having the poorest chance if anything goes wrong. Preserve me from being a thalamite when the enemy's ram comes crashing through the planking, and the water rushes in at the gaping hole, and the stricken ship heels and settles down!

Amidships rises the mainmast. When we get to sea it will bear a square sail, adorned with a picture of the Roman twins and their she-wolf nurse, to show that we carry the Admiral. Fore and aft are steps for two lighter masts which bear lateen sails to help us in head winds or in casting the ship's head round; with a fair wind we don't need them, and they are unstepped and the big square sail used alone. But near the bow we have an extra mast, the ugliest thing you can imagine. It is short and thick, and carries neither yard nor sail. Instead, a long gangway of stout timber is fastened to it by a hinge and collar at the foot of the mast, and drawn up nearly to the masthead at its upper end by a block and tackle. At the upper end there projects from the gangway a long, thick iron spike with a sharp point. It looks for all the world like a raven's beak, and our men call it the Corvus, the Raven. Every ship in the fleet is disfigured with this same monstrosity, and we have all been drilled in the use of it, and are full of curiosity as to how it will work in actual battle.

Now we are under way, and we had best draw a veil over the first two or three days at sea, with raw crews, and a lot of soldier-men on board who never saw the sea in their lives before. There is just one comfort, and that is that the long quinqueremes do not roll nearly so badly as you would have expected. The five banks of oars on either side steady them wonderfully. Nevertheless, the Consul and the soldiers are all very unheroically sick, and the oarsmen are to be pitied most of all, for, sickness or no sickness, the oars must not stop. If the Carthaginians had caught us on our first or second day out, there would have been a sad story to tell of our new fleet. But luck has been with us, and we have seen no enemy sail; and now we have got our sea-legs, and feel that we may make a fight of it after all.

Now we are off Cape Mylae, on the north coast of Sicily, and we can see the smoke of the burning villages where the Carthaginian army is plundering on shore. And here comes their fleet, in very different trim from ours. Masts and sails are stowed, and 130 quinqueremes, cleared for action, come sweeping along with a very different stroke from that of our half-trained rowers. We know perfectly well what they will try to do. They are far faster and handier than we are, and their oarsmen can get a ship about before we should be half through with the job. So each galley will try to get on the flank of one of ours, and drive its beak home, in which case it means a galley lost for us. Or else their galleys will dodge our bows as we come on, and drive slantwise alongside us, drawing their own oars in at the last moment, and so smash right along our tiers, from bow to stern, breaking our oars and pitching our oarsmen in heaps upon one another. Then they can finish off the crippled ship at their leisure. It is very clever and seamanlike, but we are not seamen, and we do not mean to fight in that way at all.

Our enemies have thirty ships more than we have, and they have detached that number of picked quinqueremes to make the first attack. A fine sight they make, as they come sweeping along, the foam flying from their crimson bows and from the hundreds of oar-blades. We lumber along straight ahead; but the men are stationed at the tackle of the Raven, and close behind that ungainly contrivance all our soldiers, on each galley, are gathered in order. Now the galley opposite us is within bowshot, and a few arrows fly from both ships; but this business is going to be settled by other weapons than arrows.

Now she sweeps obliquely past our bows. You can hear the hiss of the water from her ram, and the sobbing breath of her labouring rowers. Her starboard bow is almost touching our starboard bow, and our bow oars are gone forever with thundering cracks; but the Consul raises his hand, a shrill blast comes from the trumpeter beside him, and the big gangway comes crashing down by the run, the long iron beak of it driving deep into our enemy's deck. They will not get the Raven to lose his prey in a hurry. Now the soldiers pour across the gangway, their centurion at their head. They are on the deck of the Carthaginian, and we have got what we wanted—a land fight at sea. Indeed, it is scarcely a fight, for the Carthaginian quinquereme has only her eighteen or twenty marines to meet five times the number of our legionaries.

The first rush clears her deck of all her fighting men, who are either cut down or thrown into the sea. A strong guard over the seamen and the rowers will keep them quiet, and they will be as willing to handle the ship for us as for their late masters. So the Raven's beak is levered out of the deck, and the gangway hauled up again, and the captured galley obediently makes her way, under the gentle persuasion of our prize crew, to the rear of the fleet.

Meanwhile, the same thing has been happening all round, to the intense surprise and disgust of our enemies. It is, of course, a most unseamanlike business, but we are capturing the ships, and they are losing them. By-and-by, when they have lost fifty, while we have not lost a single ship, they conclude that it is better to live to fight another day, when they shall have had time to consider and meet this strange new way of fighting that we have invented. Their eighty surviving ships make off for Mylae, greatly crestfallen, but at a speed which makes pursuit hopeless; and we anchor, to make rough repairs, and to attend to our wounded and dispose of our dead.

Such was Rome's first great sea-victory. With a raw fleet, and with crews as unseasoned as the wood of which the galleys were built, she had met and vanquished the greatest naval power of the world on its own element. Nothing was good enough for Admiral Duilius. A pillar, called the Columna Rostrata, because it was adorned with the "Rostra," or brazen beaks, of the captured vessels, was erected in his honour in the Forum. Moreover, stranger privileges, and more questionable, were conferred on him. It was decreed that when he went forth or returned home at night he should always be accompanied by the music of flutes, and by torch-bearers. To our minds this might seem to be a most refined and ingenious method of torture, and one is tempted to wonder whether the Patrician Senate might not be jealous of the Plebeian Consul who had won so great a triumph, and found this cruel way of avenging their order upon the plain soldier who had deserved well of the Republic. But Duilius was a brave man, and perhaps not even the din of his eternal flute-players could shake the nerves of an ancient Roman.