The Battle of Drepana – 249 BCE
The Lead Up
Sacred chickens and unfavorable omens aside, Publius Claudius Pulcher decided to go on ahead with the Battle of Drepana. Pulcher clearly wanted to force an engagement while he had something of an element of surprise on his side, which he initially did. It was likely dawn when Drepana was in sight and the chickens were thrown overboard since they had sailed the short distance from Lilybaeum in the night. Pulcher ordered his ships to advance, though Adherbal had begun to muster Drepana’s defenses.
As we have seen earlier, Adherbal was caught off guard but he did not panic. He mustered his rowers and mercenaries on the shore and quickly got them on ships to sally out and meet the Romans. Adherbal knew the situation in Lilybaeum and knew that a lengthy siege would not be in Carthage’s favor. This action seems contrary to what Pulcher had hoped for as he “had expected that the enemy would give way and would be intimidated by his attack.” (Polybius 1.50)1
This led to problems as Pulcher may have had the intentions of trapping the Carthaginian fleet in Drepana’s harbor without them attempting a naval battle. This conclusion is based off what Polybius says of where the Roman ships were positioning themselves. By the time Pulcher realized that the Carthaginian fleet was preparing to fight them, his own fleet “was partly inside the harbour, partly at the very mouth, and partly still sailing up to enter.” (Polybius 1.50)2 It may be that the Carthaginians used some sort of cover via an alternate route to exit the harbor. This allowed their movement to be largely concealed from the Romans until it was somewhat too late.
With this clever movement Adherbal had been able to gain the seaward side of the battle while the Romans remained somewhat closer to the shore. From Polybius’ description, Pulcher was near the back of the fleet as it moved northwards up the coast and it may have been his limited view and ability to quickly relay orders from this position that may have caused some the problem about to occur. When he ordered the fleet to turn towards the ocean, part of the fleet, as we read, the Roman ships in and around the harbor became too bunched up. In these close quarters, as they tried to form a line abreast formation, some of the ships began bumping and striking each other. While these slow collisions may not have done any actual damage to the ships, many oars were broken in the process and it certainly wouldn’t bolster the Romans’ morale. Clearly, the 10,000 rowers that were rushed to Lilybaeum earlier were still quite green on the water.
The Battle of Drepana
Eventually, all of Pulcher’s ships eventually were able to form up in a line. Facing these Roman ships was Adherbal’s Carthaginian fleet which was also forming up in a line. As we discussed in an earlier post, regarding the sizes of the two fleets, we are going with about 123 ships for Rome and about 130 ships for Carthage. This also fits in nicely with the description that the two lines seem about equal with Adherbal able to have five ships beyond the Roman left wing (which would be where Pulcher was located in the Roman battle line.)
Once Adherbal’s fleet was in position, he gave a signal and the Carthaginian fleet advanced against the Roman fleet. The Romans had the sterns of their ships facing the shoreline and this proximity to shallow water probably also hampered their movements considerably. Polybius describes the beginning of the contest fairly balanced because the marines on both sides were of good quality. However, the Carthaginians were soon able to take the edge with their naval advantages. Because the Carthaginians had their backs to the open sea, they could always withdraw behind their own lines if any ship was feeling to much pressure. The Romans could not really fall back anywhere since they were so close to the shore. Their only option was instead to simply hold their ground (perhaps hold their water?) Also, any Carthaginian ships that retreated temporarily could also quickly wheel about and then try to strike again at a Roman ships with a good rowing charge. It is also noted, like usual, the Carthaginian crews were superior at handling their ships and the ships themselves were of great quality.
What previously had been giving the Romans a solid counter to these Carthaginian tactics, the corvus, appears to have been discontinued. It has been suggested that its awkwardness may have led to the catastrophic results of the storms we have discussed. Without corvi, the Roman ships were much more vulnerable to superior naval tactics of the Carthaginians ramming their flanks. This was compounded in the Battle of Drepana since the Roman ships were not very mobile due to their pre-battle positioning.
As the Battle of Drepana continued on, the Romans soon began getting the worst of it. Some Roman ships ended up “grounding on the shallows while others ran ashore.” (Polybius 1.51)3 As these ships were taken out of the battle without any Carthaginian vessels being sunk, it soon became apparent that the battle was lost. Pulcher, along with about thirty ships, fled south down the coast. “The remainder, ninety-three in number, were captured by the Carthaginians, including their crews, with the exception of those men who ran their ships ashore and made off.” (Polybius 1.51)4 This was a crushing defeat, amplified by the fact that Carthage’s losses were minimal if any at all. “Not only was no one killed but even the wounded were few.” (Diodorus Siculus 24.1)5
Publius Claudius Pulcher was lucky to escape at all. Perhaps his position on the far left of the Roman line of battle (which had caused many of the problems in the first place) is what allowed him to make his escape when he realized the Battle of Drepana was lost. By being on the far left, he was already on the edge of the battle and likely had to avoid only a few Carthaginian ships. Another account of his escape from the Battle of Drepana has also come down to us, though it seems appallingly absurd. I’ll let Frontinus relate the story as he tells it from his chapter on retreating in his book on stratagems.
Publius Claudius, defeated by the Carthaginians in a naval engagement and thinking it necessary to break through the forces of the enemy, ordered his twenty remaining vessels to be dressed out as though victorious. The Carthaginians, therefore, thought our men had proved themselves superior in the encounter, so that Claudius became an object of fear to the enemy and thus made his escape. (Frontinus 2.13.9)6
This story makes absolutely no sense and I can’t even imagine how this was supposed to actually play out in the middle of a battle. It may be that some sort of story was passed down, even if made up, to somehow explain how Pulcher and his few ships did make it out of the battle at all. Seeing as over three quarters of the entire Roman fleet were either sunk or captured it may have been assumed that it was sort of remarkable feat that allowed his escape. Or he could have just been on the far left and had an easy avenue of escape.
In any case, Publius Claudius Pulcher did make an escape with a small remnant of his fleet back to Lilybaeum. The Battle of Drepana had been a complete disaster for the Romans, losing ninety-three ships in the worst Roman defeat of the war. It was also the most complete defeat of the war since the Romans lost the highest percentage of ships sunk or captured that they put out on the water for battle. (The number of ships lost are comparable to Carthage’s losses at Ecnomus for comparison, though the fleets were much larger for that battle.)
When we return, we will look at what occurred in the wake of the Battle of Drepana regarding the future of Pulcher and at the events of his consular colleague Lucius Junius Pullus.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
- Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.
- Frontinus. The Strategemata. Translated by Charles Bennett. 1925.