The Battle of Mylae – 260 BC
The Opposing Fleets
Unfortunately, as with much of the First Punic War, most of the particular details are lost regarding the Battle of Mylae though we should be grateful that we have at least a strong outline. The consul and new admiral of the Roman fleet, Gaius Duilius, decided to go full sails ahead (full oars ahead would probably be more appropriate) to meet the Carthaginian fleet. Information had filtered to Duilius that Hannibal’s fleet had been in the waters between the Lipari Islands and that is where the two fleets met for battle off the coast of the town of Mylae. This would be the first major naval battle that Rome would be engaged in; the only other possibility could be the earlier skirmish (if it had taken place) when the two fleets accidentally smacked into each other.
The two fleets were of similar size and composition. The Carthaginians had we are told somewhere along the lines of 130 ships. Presumably these were mostly quinqueremes. Carthage also had a hepteres (a “sevener,” a ship with seven rowers per column of oars) that had originally belonged to King Pyrrhus as its flagship. On the Roman side, there was likely 103 ships. (120 originally minus the seventeen lost in Scipio Asina’s little adventure, though we don’t know if these seventeen were quinqueremes, triremes, or some combination of the two.) There could be a few more if the Greek allies were also forced to join the fleet, such as the ships that transported the legions across the Straights of Messana, although these would be smaller ships being triremes and/or penteconters. All in all, Carthage likely had a slight advantage in numbers and both navies were essentially made of quinqueremes.
The order of battle for either side is not known for the Battle of Mylae. It is unlikely that the Romans with their limited experience could do much of anything for technical maneuvers. All the sources and the Romans even agreed that they were slower than their Carthaginian counterparts. On the Carthaginian side, nothing is really known either. Generally, default battle array for ancient navies was line abeam, possibly of different depths. All this means was that the ships were lined up next to each other in a line facing the same direction, with extra lines behind being possible. What we do know is that the Carthaginians were the superior seamen and they preferred to fight naval battles through use of their ships maneuverability. This involved ramming enemy ships or shearing off their oars. The Romans, not being on the sea hardly at all, preferred the more straight forward approach of closing in with enemy ships and boarding them. In this case, the Romans proved exceptional with a new technological weapon in the corvus. The corvus, latin literally for “raven” or “crow,” was a boarding bridge set on the deck of a quinquereme that could fix itself onto an enemy ship and allow the Roman marines to cross over and board that ship.
The Battle of Mylae
With the fleets within sight of each other the Carthaginians were “nonplussed” regarding the corvi, but they soon shook off their bewilderment and “as they entirely gave the enemy up for lost, the front ships attacked daringly.” (Polybius 1.23)1 These first ships to engage the Roman quinqueremes were quickly held fast by the Roman corvi. When the boarding bridges were affixed to the enemy ships, the Romans were able to quickly run across and fight melee style against the Carthaginians. In this realm of fighting, the Roman marines were able to gain the upper hand. “[The Romans] attacked them hand to hand on deck, some of the Carthaginians were cut down and others surrendered from dismay at what was happening, the battle having become just like a fight on land.”2
These first thirty or so ships may have acted somewhat impetuously by rushing ahead, perhaps losing formation cohesion. Apparently, just about all of these ships were either destroyed or captured, not knowing how to approach or handle the machinations of the corvus. Even Hannibal on his flagship hepteres was caught in this first rush. “Hannibal conducted the fight from a boat of seven banks of oars, but when this became entangled with a trireme, fearing capture, he hastily left the seven-banked boat, and boarding another ship, effected his escape.” (Zonaras 11.11)3 In all likeliness, it wasn’t a trireme that stopped Pyrrhus’ old ship as a trireme likely would have great difficulty carrying a corvus on its deck. Still, it would be demoralizing for the rest of the Carthaginian ships to see the admiral’s giant ship succumb to capture.
After this first bout with the enemy, the Carthaginians took more caution. “The rest of the Carthaginian force was bearing up as if to charge the enemy, but seeing, as they approached, the fate of the advanced ships they turned aside and avoided the blows of the engines.” (Polybius 1.23)4 They tried to maneuver around the Roman ships, as they were nimbler, but continued to have little luck against the Romans with their corvi. After some more milling about, the Carthaginians decided to make the best of situation and cut their losses and disengaged. They withdrew westward and the Romans really had no capability to pursue them.
All in all, the corvus proved its worth (at least for the time being) and the Romans came away victorious in this first use of its own fleet. Polybius tells us that the Carthaginians lost around fifty ships due to either capture or loss (some other sources claim amounts in the thirties, perhaps recording just the first wave of Carthaginian attackers), so while a major defeat, it was not incapacitating for Carthage’s naval operations. The Roman losses were minimal. Gaius Duilius should be praised for foreseeing the possibility of the corvus as he probably had the final say on whether it would be used or not. For more information on the consul and admiral Gaius Duilius click here. It is not known who came up with the original idea of using the corvus on a ship. Without it, there is a great possibility that the outcome of the Battle of Mylae would indeed be quite different. I think it would be prudent to now take a look at this technological innovation that gave the Romans a fighting edge at sea.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
- Cassius Dio and Zonaras. Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 1914.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.