The First Storm

Back to Sicily

     The Roman fleet sent to rescue what was left of Regulus‘ army had successfully defeated a Carthaginian fleet and reached Africa. After some brief skirmishing, the previously stranded garrison now embarked on the fleet likely numbering somewhere around 364 ships. Rome was doing a good job at salvaging what was left from the African campaign. However, her woes for the year were not over yet.

     The consuls Servius Fulvius Paetinus Nobilior and Marcus Aemilius Paullus commanded the fleet and seem to have wanted to perform a show of force. Carthage had largely been able to keep many Sicilian coastal settlements under her sway by way of naval power. (Just as the Roman land army was able to keep control of mush of the interior settlements of Sicily.) With Carthage’s fleet quite crippled, the consuls may have thought that this would be a good chance to convince these coastal towns to rethink or reinforce their allegiances. In doing so, the consuls directed their fleet across the southern shore of Sicily.

The storm occurred near the town of Camarina, off the southeastern coast of Sicily.

The Camarina Storm

     While this demonstration may have had the potential to yield some minor political victories, it was not the best course of action for the fleet. Apparently, “the captains had repeatedly urged them not to sail along the outer coast of Sicily.” (Polybius 1.37)1 This was because this coast was quite rocky and had scarce harbors to weigh anchor, likely especially true with such a large fleet. The captains also pointed out that this part of the sea could be hazardous during this time of the year. (Polybius states that the captains mentioned it was the period between the rising of Orion and Sirius. In my copy of Polybius there is a footnote that states this was likely between July 4 and July 28.)2 Despite these warnings the fleet continued on its course.

     Near the town of Camarina, despite good sailing beforehand, a storm set upon the Roman fleet.

     They had crossed the strait in safety and were off the territory of Camarina when they were overtaken by so fierce a storm and so terrible a disaster that it is difficult adequately to describe it owing to its surpassing magnitude. For of their three hundred and sixty-four ships only eighty were saved ; the rest either foundered or were dashed by the waves against the rocks and headlands and broken to pieces, covering the shore with corpses and wreckage. History tells of no greater catastrophe at sea taking place at one time. (Polybius 1.37)3

     In contrast to the problems of determining the number of ships in the fleet, all our sources seem to agree that only eighty ships of the fleet survived the storm. Polybius’ comment on how this was the worst catastrophe at sea in history is not hyperbole. It almost certainly was the worst naval disaster (including battles) ever to occur up to this time in history. Very few naval events afterwards, including the modern era, even come close to such a calamity on the high seas. Even if we take the lower figure of 364 ships in the fleet, that is still 284 ships lost. This is a casualty rate just shy of 80%! If each ship had just a compliment of forty marines, this would mean that the storm also claimed somewhere on the order of 96,000 lives. This storm alone claimed far, far more Roman lives than everything that had yet happened in nine years of war.



     The Romans don’t seem to blame the consuls for this disaster since they still held their triumph (for the Cossyra incident and the Battle of Cape Hermaeum) later in Rome. Polybius, however, explicitly blames them instead of Fortune for what happened since they did not heed wise council. Polybius then goes on an insightful tangent on how the Romans rely on determination and force in all their endeavors. He notes that this has often worked for them against man, but against nature this trait shows its weaknesses. He closes by stating bluntly that the Romans need to correct the error of their ways “which makes them think they can sail and travel where they will at no matter what season.” (1.37)4

     The disaster may have been amplified by another Roman design: the corvus. The evidence for this is not very clear cut, but the design of corvus almost certainly made a quinquereme much more unsteady on the water. This may have not been very noticeable over calm water, but, in a violent storm, it could have made a ship too unwieldy too manage. The problem is that it is not stated whether corvi were present on the fleet or not. In fact, the last time the corvi are mentioned is at the Battle of Ecnomus. However, it may be that the Romans stopped using them after this storm because of the extra problems they caused. This may be why they are not mentioned again. Still, this may be probable, but it is not certain.

The Survivors

     Perhaps the only silver lining that can be found in the aftermath of the storm was that the survivors were near Syracuse. It’s likely that many of the eighty ships that didn’t sink were not seaworthy and the men had to disembark. Carthaginian land forces were not able to take advantage of the situation since it was near Syracuse and deep in Roman controlled territory. King Hiero of Syracuse once again proved to be a noble ally of the Romans. “Hiero received the survivors hospitably, and having refreshed them with clothing, food, and other essentials, brought them safely to Messana.” (Diodorus Siculus 23.18)5 

     Next time, we will examine how both Rome and Carthage responded to the storm off Camarina.

  1. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  2. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. 2010.
  3. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Diodorus Siculus. Library of History. Translated by Francis Walton. 1957.