Thoughts on the Battle of Ecnomus
It does seem strange that Rome was able to defeat Carthage in several naval battles near the beginning of the First Punic War, culminating in victory at the Battle of Ecnomus. (Click these links for the preparations, the Battle of Ecnomus proper, and its aftermath.) Before the First Punic War, Carthage held supremacy of the sea in the western Mediterranean for many generations allowing her commercial interests to grow rapidly and largely uncontested. Rome on the other hand may have had a handful of old ships, but really just sort of relied on allies that had more experience on water. Why then was Rome able to gain the upper hand at sea and defeat Carthage at Ecnomus?
The Battle Plans at Ecnomus
Carthage’s plan seemed decent enough to begin with. Essentially it was bringing the Roman ships it more open waters and spread them out so that there would be more room to maneuver and ram individual ships in the flank or stern. This is why Hamilcar’s center withdrew, but then wheeled about on cue. It is unclear what the overall Roman plan was. The original formation was “effective and practical, while also difficult to break up” (Polybius 1.26),1 but this formation fell apart as soon as Rome advanced with the center. The third and fourth squadrons that were left behind didn’t seem to have a part in any further plans than to wait for the enemy.
As the Battle of Ecnomus began to take its course, perhaps Carthage shouldn’t have focused too much on the horse-transports that were being towed by the third squadron. First the left wing, then the right under Hanno, advanced on that area of the battle. First, even though the transports would have been easier targets, neutralizing other ships may have been more productive. Since these transports couldn’t do much but drift, a victorious Carthage could have captured them at will post-battle.
Secondly, and more importantly, these wings could have been used to flank and overwhelm the two advancing Roman squadrons as they kept chasing the Carthaginian center. It seems that the two Carthaginian wings were waiting on the sides as the Romans separated their forces. “[Hanno’s right wing] which had held its distance in the first attack, sailed across the open sea and fell upon the ships of the triarii…” (Polybius 1.28)2 If the Carthaginian ships were much faster than the Roman ones, as they were claimed to be, it seems that they could have exploited this very large gap in the Roman forces to encircle and outnumber the Roman consular squadrons in their rear. Even, if the Roman third and fourth squadrons advanced, it would take some time and the Carthaginian ships could withdraw or even engage the oncoming ships before they were themselves flanked.
One more thing while we are discussing battle plans. I have read in several places about how the Carthaginian tactics/plan here at Ecnomus likely influenced Hannibal’s tactics at Cannae in the Second Punic War. This seems rather far-fetched to me. Even if on the off chance that Hannibal actually did study Ecnomus and planned on using similar tactics, the two battles played out quite differently and only share some vague resemblances to each other. It seems that the only similar aspect of the two battles is that the Carthaginian center fell back deliberately and that’s about it. Too much has been made about this and, in all reality, for no convincing reason.
The Reality of Naval Warfare in the Ancient World
Even if this were to have happened, naval warfare in this time was largely a chaotic mess. When boarding tactics were also used, as Rome notably favored, the mayhem was substantially increased. Although Carthage had lured much of the Roman fleet further out to sea, this part of the battle quickly became crowded when 300+ quinqueremes tried to duke it out. It was simply to congested for Carthaginian maneuverability to be of much use as there was bound to be a Roman ship in the way no matter which flank you tried to approach.
In the less packed sectors of the Battle of Ecnomus, the Carthaginian ships seemed to fare much better and were actually having their way against their Roman counterparts. Hanno’s right wing immediately creating “great embarrassment and distress” (Polybius 1.28)3 for the triarii squadron. Hanno only retreated when he noticed that the rest of the Roman fleet was going to descend upon him.
The left wing of the Carthaginian battle line, despite taking the most losses for the Carthaginian squadrons, initially had the Roman third squadron on the ropes. They had corralled the Romans against the shoreline where they couldn’t move without running aground and this would have essentially been defeat for most ships in their situation. It was only when the rest of the victorious Roman squadrons attacked that the Carthaginian squadron had fifty ships completely captured.
The Real Carthaginian Problem
What seems to be happening in the Battle of Ecnomus and the earlier naval engagements between Rome and Carthage was not Rome’s superior seamanship or naval tactics. Instead, it appears to be an utter lack of a counter on Carthage’s part to the Roman corvus. In small skirmishes or at the individual tactical level, a Carthaginian could outmaneuver a Roman ship with a corvus and land a decisive ram. However, ancient naval battles, especially between enormous fleets, did not involve ships circling and wheeling about like modern dog-fighting aircraft. In the mayhem that was an ancient naval battle, the corvus was the perfect weapon for the Romans. Just as in horseshoes and grenades, “close” would count good enough for Romans using corvus boarding tactics without the need of advanced naval expertise and technique, just a close proximity to the enemy.
It would be unlikely that Carthage could win an evenly matched large-scale naval battle without finding or developing some method to neutralize the corvus. However, the corvus was not perfect and did have some drawbacks. The Romans would certainly learn this the hard way down the road. For now, let’s return back to the Roman expedition that landed at Aspis after the Battle of Ecnomus.
- Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 1922.