Both Rome and Carthage had prepared themselves for a showdown on the sea with the result being the unprecedented Battle of Ecnomus. With the preparations ready, the fleets came into contact just a short distance from where the Romans had their extra marines embark upon the fleet near Cape Ecnomus. Probably aware of the planned invasion of Africa, Carthage likely intentionally intercepted the Romans before they could disappear out into the open water. The Romans had anticipated a contested crossing and likewise had set their minds to a battle.
Order of Battle
Polybius’ fairly detailed account of the Battle of Ecnomus has come down to us and it also includes the formation that each fleet organized itself into prior to the engagement. The Romans knew that they would likely not get a free ride to Africa so that they “tried by every means to range their fleet in an order which would render it secure and difficult to attack.” (Polybius 1.26)1 I especially like Robin Waterfield’s modern translation of this passage, where the Romans “racked their brains”2 in order to come up with a decent formation. The reason for such mental stress was because the usual formation for traversing large spans of open water was line ahead (i.e. one behind the other in a line), but this would be disastrous if they were indeed intercepted by Carthage. This is amplified by the fact that the Carthaginian vessels were faster and nimbler than the Roman ships as we are told multiple times.
What the Romans came up with was essentially a wedge formation. Well, actually, it more or less resembles a triangle as we will see. At the front tip were the two consuls for the year 256, Lucius Manlius Vulso and Marcus Atilius Regulus. The latter was brother to Gaius Atilius Regulus. They were each in a flagship hexareme, or “sixer,” which had six oars in some variation per column of rowers and were Rome’s largest ships at this time. The majority of other vessels on both sides would still be quinqueremes. Each consul commanded a squadron that formed up diagonally behind its respective consul in an echelon formation. These first two squadrons together formed a wedge, but there were also two other squadrons.
The third squadron formed up line abreast (i.e. ships side by side facing the same direction) behind the wedge, thus forming the base of a triangle. Attached to this third squadron (quite literally actually) were the horse transports. We’ll have more to say on those in a moment. A fourth squadron, nicknamed the “triarii” after the land units, was placed in a second line abreast some distance behind the third squadron.
Of course, there are those who doubt that the Romans could pull off such a formation and claim that the Romans were likely in just line abreast. This doesn’t seem to be the case as the consuls were placed in the middle of the formation. Usually, if they were indeed in line abreast, the commanders would have been in the position of honor – on the right. Probably the positions were not maintained perfectly, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable for a fleet to at least start in such a position. Also, I believe that the squadrons were of different sizes instead of being equal. The two consuls probably had more ships in their squadrons then the third and fourth. The third in particular, as it towed the horse transports, seems like it would be smaller as there could not have been many horse transports to begin with (only 500 cavalry were left in Africa.) The fourth squadron, acting as something of a reserve, also likely didn’t have as many ships as the the two consular squadrons.
The horse transports are also peculiar. Horse transports were usually old triremes essentially remodeled to fit about thirty horses on board.3 (Though perhaps the Romans at this time used quinqueremes since they were the model ship of the day.) The rowing capabilities were inherently reduced as only the thranites on the gunwales or uppermost rowing arrangement could be used. This may be why they were towed in the first place, as they could not keep pace with the rest of the ships. It is also strange that the horse transports were present for battle. It seems that the Romans were not actively looking for an engagement, but were hoping to avoid the Carthaginian fleet altogether. Otherwise the horse transports would have been left behind in the first place. But they were there now, and Rome would just have to deal with it.
On the Carthaginian side of things, it was a bit more straightforward. The commanders gave a small speech before they set out from Heraclea Minoa. It would only be a short distance before they reached Ecnomus and the Roman fleet. After seeing the Roman fleet formation Hamilcar decided upon his own formation. He placed three quarters of his fleet in a single line abeam towards the Romans and perpendicular to the shoreline. The other quarter of his ships were also line abeam and formed the left wing of the Carthaginians. This left wing connected with the main battle line but was angled towards the shore and must have been angled forwards in order to be facing the enemy fleet rather than the shore of Sicily. Hamilcar commanded the left of the main battle line (the center of the whole formation) and Hanno (from the relieving force at Agrigentum) commanded the far right. Hanno’s ships were also regarded as the “vessels for charging and also the swiftest quinqueremes.”
Opening Moves of the Battle of Ecnomus
With the two fleets in formation facing each other, little time was wasted in beginning the Battle of Ecnomus. The wedge portion of the Roman fleet surged forward towards Hamilcar and the center of the Carthaginian line. According to Polybius, “the battle was begun by the Romans who, noticing that the Carthaginian line was thin owing to its great extent, delivered an attack on the centre.” (1.27)4 This is kind of misleading in the fact that the Roman advancing line would also be just one rank deep. Though it was a wedge, the Roman wedge was hollow. Hamilcar had anticipated this action and had planned for the ships under his command to quickly fall back. Being more maneuverable, they were able to turn 180 degrees and have the Romans give chase.
The Romans continued to advance, but this left a large gap between the wedge and the third and fourth squadrons.
It was at this point that the Carthaginian left and right wings made their opening moves. The left force that was originally at an angle to the main line quickly moved against the Roman third squadron. Rome’s third squadron still had the horse transports connected by a towline. These lines were immediately cut and presumably the transports were left to just sort of drift about. Soon after, the Carthaginian forces engaged Rome’s third squadron. Meanwhile, Hanno’s forces sped across what was now open water ans smashed into the triarii squadron, which may have moved up some to protect the transport ships that were unable to defend themselves. As what happens in many large engagements, the conflict soon devolved into three smaller battles.
The Battle of Ecnomus Unfolds
The Battle of Ecnomus soon covered an enormous swath of the Mediterranean Sea. It must be remembered that each fleet fielded well over 300 ships and each part of the Battle of Ecnomus involved hundreds of ships and could easily be deemed a battle in its own right. Of course, as a general trait of naval battles, especially pre-modern ones, chaos ensued once the melee began proper and individual ships fought it out among each other. Let’s turn to each sector in turn.
The Roman consular squadrons continued to pursue Hamilcar’s ships until Hamilcar gave a prearranged signal. At this, the Carthaginians made a rapid about-face and engaged the Romans. While the Carthaginians were nimbler, the Romans still had corvi. Even though Carthaginian quinqueremes were faster, it does seem like it would be difficult to flank individual ships in the sides or rear and still avoid other enemy ships. There would have been several hundred ships milling about in what was likely general mayhem and pandemonium. In this sort of chaos, the corvi would have been useful as they were bound to hit something every now and then. The Carthaginians likely did not also have the room to out-turn individual Roman ships, even though they clearly had the capability of doing so. Slowly, Hamilcar’s forces began to be losing control of this part of the battle.
The battle between the Carthaginian left and the Roman third squadron turned out rather differently. The Roman third squadron apparently was being pressed hard by the Carthaginian ships and apparently became somewhat cornered with their backs near the shoreline. The corvi may have kept the enemy ships at bay, but apparently the Romans couldn’t move anywhere at all, probably for fear of being grounded on shoals or something similar. Polybius compares what was happening here to a “siege” and that the Roman third squadron was in “grave peril.” (Polybius 1.28)5
The last sector involved Hanno’s forces and the triarii squadron. Hanno wasted no time using his nimble ships over open water against the Romans, immediately “causing them great embarrassment and distress.” (Polybius 1.28)6 Here, the Carthaginians quickly gained the upper hand despite the Romans’ use of the corvi. Several factors should probably be taken in to account for this. As Hanno rowed towards them over open water it is likely that he was able to spread out much more than in Hamilcar’s situation and be able to fully utilize his ships superior speed and maneuverability. It was also out away from the shore unlike the the other section of the battle, which actually probably saved the Roman third squadron since Carthage could not sail around them. The transports may have also been a factor. They were essentially sitting ducks drifting around as the triarii may have tried to defend them. Lastly, this may hint at the triarii being a smaller squadron as well, seeing as they were immediately almost overrun. Fortunately for the triarii, they put up a fight just long enough for help to arrive.
The Romans Wrap up the Battle of Ecnomus
The largest sector of the Battle of Ecnomus, between the Roman first and second squadrons against Hamilcar’s center, was eventually won by the consuls. Likely, in the disorder between the two forces, Hamilcar could tell that Rome was slowly gaining the upper hand and eventually decided to withdraw. The Roman ships were unable to do much about it since they were not fast enough to pursue the enemy. After Hamilcar had cleanly disengaged from combat with his operational ships, the consul Lucius Manlius Vulso went about claiming and taking control over the captured enemy ships to tow ashore.
The other consul, Marcus Atilius Regulus, raced his squadron over to the conflict between the triarii and Hanno’s ships. The triarii, breathing a sigh of relief, “took heart, though they had had much the worst of it.” (Polybius 1.28)7 Hanno, realizing that he was going to be outflanked and surrounded, properly retreated back out to open sea and presumably met up with Hamilcar. Regulus then made towards the relief of the hemmed in Roman third squadron. At the same time, Vulso made towards the same target. Both consuls overwhelmed this Carthaginian force, which apparently did not see what was going on in the other sectors, was largely obliterated. Only a few ships of what was originally the Carthaginian left were able to make it past the Romans and escape to safety.
It was in this way that Rome won the Battle of Ecnomus, the largest battle of the war and perhaps the largest naval battle in all of history in terms of manpower. In the next post, we will look at the results and aftermath of the battle as well as some general thoughts on what transpired at Ecnomus.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. 2010.
- Casson, Lionel. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton University Press. 1971.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.