How, when, and for what reasons the Romans first took to the sea

Here we present selected excerpts from Polybius’ book ‘The Histories‘ (The Loeb Classical Library).


“…but as the Carthaginians maintained without any trouble the command of the sea, the fortunes of the war continued to hang in the balance. For in the (Note: 261 B.C.) period that followed, now that Agrigentum was in their hands, while many inland cities joined the Romans from dread of their land forces, still more seaboard cities deserted their cause in terror of the Carthaginian fleet. Hence when they saw that the balance of the war tended more and more to shift to this side or that for the above reasons, and that while Italy was frequently ravaged by naval forces, Libya remained entirely free from damage, they took urgent steps to get on the sea like the Carthaginians.


When they saw that the war was dragging on, they undertook for the first time to build ships, a hundred quinqueremes and twenty triremes. As their shipwrights were absolutely inexperienced in building quinqueremes, such ships never having been in use in Italy, the matter caused them much difficulty, and this fact shows us better than anything else how spirited and daring the Romans are when they are determined to do a thing. It was not that they had fairly good resources for it, but they had none whatever, nor had they ever given a thought to the sea; yet when they once had conceived the project, they took it in hand so boldly, that before gaining any experience in the matter they at once engaged the Carthaginians who had held for generations undisputed command of the sea. Evidence of the truth of what I am saying and of their incredible pluck is this. When they first undertook to send their forces across to Messene not only had they not any decked ships, but no long warships at all, not even a single boat, and borrowing fifty-oared boats and triremes from the Tarentines and Locrians, and also from the people of Elea and Naples they took their troops across in these at great hazard. On this occasion the Carthaginians put to sea to attack them as they were crossing the straits, and one of their decked ships advanced too far in its eagerness to overtake them and running aground fell into the hands of the Romans. This ship they now used as a model, and built their whole fleet on its pattern; so that it is evident that if this had not occurred they would have been entirely prevented from carrying out their design by lack of practical knowledge.


Now, however, those to whom the construction of the ships was committed were busy in getting them ready, and those who had collected the crews were teaching them to row on shore in the following fashion. Making the men sit on rowers’ benches on dry land, in the same order as on the benches of the ships themselves, and stationing the fugle-man in the middle, they accustomed them to fall back all at once bringing their hands up to them, and again to come forward pushing out their hands, and to begin and finish these movements at the word of command of the fugle-man. When the crews had been trained, they launched the ships as soon as they were completed, and having practised for a brief time actual rowing at sea, they sailed a along the coast of Italy as their commander had ordered.


As their ships were ill-built and slow in their movements, someone suggested to them as a help in fighting the engines which afterwards came to be called ” ravens.” They were constructed as follows: On the prow stood a round pole four fathoms in height and three palms in diameter. This pole had a pulley at the summit and round it was put a gangway made of cross planks attached by nails, four feet in width and six fathoms in length. In this gangway was an oblong hole*, and it went round the pole at a distance of two fathoms from its near end. The gangway also had a railing on each of its long sides as high as a man’s knee. At its extremity was fastened an iron object like a pestle pointed at one end and with a ring at the other end, so that the whole looked like the machine for pounding corn. To this ring was attached a rope with which, when the ship charged an enemy, they raised the ravens by means of the pulley on the pole and let them down on the enemy’s deck, sometimes from the prow and sometimes bringing them round when the ships collided broadsides. Once the ravens were fixed in the planks of the enemy’s deck and grappled the ships together, if they were broadside on, they boarded from all directions but if they charged with the prow, they attacked by passing over the gangway of the raven itself two abreast. The leading pair protected the front by holding up their shields, and those who followed secured the two flanks by resting the rims of their shields on the top of the railing.”


*The gang-way (36 feet long) was composed of two parts united by a joint, the near part (12 feet long), which always remained horizontal, and the far part (24 feet long) which could be drawn up at right angles to the near part, thus reaching the top of the pole (also 24 feet long) and remaining vertical until lowered. The whole could be moved round the pole which pierced it at the junction of the two parts.

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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