The New Fleets Before the Battle of Ecnomus

    It seems that, starting in 257, both Carthage and Rome began to undergo projects to improve their naval strength. Eight years of fighting in an around Sicily had brought almost no results. It was at this point that both sides started to really believe that having command of the sea would be of the utmost importance. With these new fleets they hoped a definite advantage over the enemy would be realized. As I mentioned in the last post, “The result of this battle [the Battle of Tyndaris] was that both sides thought that they had fought now on equal terms, and both threw themselves more thoroughly into the task of organizing naval forces and disputing the command of the sea.” (Polybius 1.25)1 As we will see, both sides took this seriously and their preparations would result in the showdown at Ecnomus in 256.

Carthage’s New Fleet

    Polybius tells that in 256 Carthage had 350 decked ships. (Polybius 1.25)2 The decked ship reference probably distinguishes warships from other kinds of vessels. Also, if you haven’t read the post on quinqueremes, it probably wouldn’t hurt to go back and read that first as nearly all the ships involved will be quinqueremes. I don’t fully agree with the number Polybius gives for the manpower of these 350 ships at “actually above one hundred and fifty thousand,” (Polybius 1.26)3 I do believe Carthage was capable of mustering 350 ships for a newly reformed fleet.
The fleet that fought at Tyndaris had a minimum of at least 62 ships (if we can believe Polyaenus at all.) There was also likely other squadrons around the various islands and perhaps the African coast as well. So it wouldn’t be constructing a new fleet from absolutely nothing. Also, Carthage was a commercial powerhouse and could afford such an endeavor if her mind was set to it. What would likely be more of a problem down the road would be providing the manpower for such extraordinary fleets.
    It seems that Carthage’s main aim with this fleet was to knock out Rome’s fleet first. According to Polybius, “The Carthaginians were chiefly or solely adapting their preparations to a maritime war.” (1.26)4 Once the Roman fleet was sent under the waves, Carthage didn’t seem to intend on invading Italy (as opposed to Rome’s planned invasion of Africa), but rather to land a new and fresh army in Sicily and lock it down for good. With a rendezvous at Lilybaeum, probably to collect the fleet, they set sail and anchored off Heraclea Minoa on the southern coast of Sicily.


Carthage's fleet sailed eastwards from Heraclea Minoa, just a short sail to Cape Ecnomus where the Romans were readying themselves.

Rome’s New Fleet

    The new fleet that Rome created before the Battle of Ecnomus is a matter of some controversy. Polybius put this fleet at a size of 330 ships, quite comparable to Carthage’s 350. Many scholars state that both fleet numbers are too high, but especially Rome’s. I don’t see much of a reason to doubt this number. Rome’s first fleet numbered 120 vessels. Even with nominal losses, including Scipio Asina’s incident, these were more than made up by ships that Rome had captured in other battles, especially Mylae. Also, ships may have been built throughout the years on both sides that aren’t specifically mentioned. When all this is totaled toether Rome may have already had something approaching 200 ships already. For those who argue on the lower side of Rome’s ship count at Ecnomus, hovering on or just above 200 ships, the statements about how Rome was applying more vigor and effort to taking command of the sea son’t really make sense. Making a few dozen ships wouldn’t have taken much more effort out of the ordinary. Making another set of 100+ ships, however, would take a great deal of effort and seems to be what is implied here. These new ships when combined with the previous fleet and captured vessels could definitely reach 330 ships.
    Now, onto how these ships were manned. To recap, a quinquereme normally used about 270 rowers, thirty or so officers and actual sailors, and a compliment of forty marines for hand-to-hand combat. This time, however, Polybius explicitly states that there were 120 marines on each ship this time. This was because a large portion of the Sicilian Army was picked up by the fleet on the southern shore of Sicily. These extra men were to be used as the landing force to invade Libya in Africa with. This would make a grand total of 138,600 men or so, very close to Polybius’ estimate of 140,000 men.5 What I disagree with Polybius some is his estimation of Carthage’s manpower, which he places at about 150,000. This would be an accurate assumption if Carthage, too, had put 120 marines on each of their 350 warships. That seems rather unlikely, though it is probable that they placed more marines that usual on each ship.
    The numbers of both ships and personnel of these two fleets is more than extraordinary. These fleets that would clash at Ecnomus would create the largest naval battle in the classical era and even enter dispute for the largest naval battle in all of human history. (It would be larger than any modern naval battle with Jutland and Leyte Gulf being the largest of WW1 and WW2 respectively. However, there are battles in both early imperial and medieval era China that claim to involve more men, though the source material for these battles is hard to gauge. These are the Battle of Red Cliffs and of Lake Poyang.) As Polybius states about the fleets of Rome and Carthage:

These are figures calculated to strike not only one present and with the forces under his eyes but even a hearer with amazement at the magnitude of the struggle and at that lavish outlay and vast power of the two states, if he estimates them from the number of men and ships. (1.26)6

The Resulting Situation

    The Carthaginian fleet began sailing east along the southern coast of Sicily while the Romans began weighing anchor off of Cape Ecnomus in just about the center of Sicily’s southern coast. Rome had left a minimal force in Sicily as more than half of the men were aboard the fleet. The force left may seem dangerously small, but it was not planned to be used offensively until some of the extra men on the ship returned back to Sicily (not all were planned to be used in the Libyan invasion.) Carthage likewise was probably somewhat informed of the size of Rome’s fleet and/or the planned invasion of Africa. Also, Carthage may have wanted to buff their marine forces as well in order to compete with Rome’s preferred style of boarding ships. Some of these marines probably came from the forces in Sicily, such as city garrisons of Hamilcar’s army. It would be to the navies that both states now rested their hope upon.
    With both sides realizing the inevitable battle on the high seas was coming they made their new fleets ready for what would become the Battle of Ecnomus.

  1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.