There is much uncertainty regarding quinqueremes. They were probably invented under the patronage of Dionysius the Elder, the tyrant of Syracuse more than a century before the First Punic War. By the time of this war, there had been developments in creating even larger ships such as hexaremes, octeres, deceres, and polyremes known as “fourteens,” “sixteens,” “eighteens,” and so on. Even twenties, thirties, and a forty existed (though they were probably more for status and show as they didn’t fight in any real battles.) But these larger warships stayed in the east and the humble “five,” or quinquereme, was the mainstay in the western Mediterranean.
The oaring pattern of the quinquereme is not certain. The number of the ships title does not refer to how many banks of oars a ship had, but how many men manned the oars top to bottom in a single column. Three banks of oars were the most that ships of this time could boast (perhaps apart from the juggernauts of “twenties” and higher), meaning that quinqueremes could be oared in a pattern of two rowers on top, two in the middle, and one on the bottom for three banks or there could be a single bank of oars per side with five men rowing on each oar. There could also be two banks of oars with three rowers on top and two on the bottom, but I haven’t read any good arguments or evidence for this setup yet, though possible. Either way, in regards to triremes, these ships were generally bigger, required more men to row (somewhere on the order of about 50% more than that of a trireme), and could carry more fighting men on deck.
Still, despite its larger size, the quinquereme was tactically used similarly as the trireme in combat. The ram that was placed on the bow of the ship could be used to strike other enemy ships as a method of fighting, while running alongside another ship and somehow boarding it to engage in melee combat was the other. The Carthaginians, as a longstanding seafaring culture, was inclined to use maneuverability and ramming as its means of naval combat and the Romans, so far lacking any real naval skill or prowess, preferred the boarding style. The quinquereme made the Roman method much more feasible as a trireme could only manage to hold a handful of marines at a time but a quinqureme sailed standard with a compliment of forty fighting men that could be augmented to 120 if needed.
As we read from Polybius in the previous post that the Romans built their quinqueremes on a Carthaginian model, I think that this replication was loosely based. This is because the Carthaginian quinqueremes likely rowed with a two, two, one rowing pattern for speed and maneuverability while the Romans’ first fleets were perhaps oared by a single bank of oars with five men per oar. This would create stability by making a wider ship (which also allowed for a larger deck for more marines on board) and may account for the ships apparently being slower when compared to those of the Carthaginians. However, it is still rather plausible that the Romans simply did not have quite the skill or aptitude yet to match the Carthaginian sailors even if the ships on both sides were of the same design and setup.
Manning the Fleet
In any case, no matter what oaring arrangement was used, establishing a substantial naval force would cause a considerable drain of manpower to row the fleet. By using Polybius’ figures at 1.26.7, we can roughly guess that it took 300 men to power a quinquereme (probably 270 or so rowers and 30 officers and specially tasked positions). So even a modest fleet of 100 quinqueremes, not to mention the triremes or any other ships, with a regular compliment of marines would require somewhere on the order of 34,000 men.
Where did Rome obtain this quantity of rowers at this time? It seems logical that Rome’s allies that had more of a seafaring tradition provided a substantial portion of the manpower required. This would have included the southern Italian Greek cities as well as other coastal towns. However, Rome could not afford to strain many of these locales too much (Tarentum, the most important southern Italian Greek city had only just been brought under Roman control in 272.) Because of this, other sources of manpower were tapped including the Samnites (who were not too pleased about it), Roman colonies along the coast, and perhaps even some Roman citizens if they were either freedmen or belonged to the lowest socio-economic class known as the proletariat. The evidence for these sources of manpower will be discussed more in depth as the time arises when problems occur due to the strain on manpower. The proletariat also was most likely used as the main source for the forty legionnaires on board each quinqureme. If the melee force was supplemented, the extra eighty men usually came from the regular legions.
Now that we know that the Romans had a fleet to compete with against Carthage’s and have some semblance of knowing what a quinquereme was and how Rome manned her ships, we can go on to see the first incident that Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio led this first real fleet into.