At 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 Heracleia Minoa.
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 inevitable.
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 squadron.
- 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 D10.
- 6 Heavy fives equipped with corvus. Boarding skill: Veteran. Other skill: Trained.
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 their line.
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 D10.
- 12 Light fives. Boarding skill: Seasoned. Other skill: Trained.
On the 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 beyond it.”
- Squadron die D10.
- 6 Light fives. Boarding skill: Seasoned. Other skill: Trained.
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….
When 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 enemy…..
The outcome of these engagements was much as might have been expected….
Those who had first joined battle were also the first to break off, for Hamilcar’s squadron was finally driven back and took flight…..
Regulus, when 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 and Regulus…….
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’.
Hanno’s squadron 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.