Under such circumstances, and when we take into account, as is but fair, on the one hand the comparatively low state of shipbuilding at that time, and on the other hand the energy of the Romans, there is nothing incredible in the statement that the Romans solved within a year the problem--which baffled Napoleon--of converting a continental into a maritime power, and actually launched their fleet of 120 sail in the spring of 494. It is true, that it was by no means a match for the Carthaginian fleet in numbers and efficiency at sea; and these were points of the greater importance, as the naval tactics of the period consisted mainly in manoeuvring. In the maritime warfare of that period hoplites and archers no doubt fought from the deck, and projectile machines were also plied from it; but the ordinary and really decisive mode of action consisted in running foul of the enemy's vessels, for which purpose the prows were furnished with heavy iron beaks: the vessels engaged were in the habit of sailing round each other till one or the other succeeded in giving the thrust, which usually proved decisive. Accordingly the crew of an ordinary Greek trireme, consisting of about 200 men, contained only about 10 soldiers, but on the other hand 170 rowers, from 50 to 60 on each deck; that of a quinquereme numbered about 300 rowers, and soldiers in proportion.

The happy idea occurred to the Romans that they might make up for what their vessels, with their unpractised officers and crews, necessarily lacked in ability of manoeuvring, by again assigning a more considerable part in naval warfare to the soldiers. They stationed at the prow of each vessel a flying bridge, which could be lowered in front or on either side; it was furnished on both sides with parapets, and had space for two men in front. When the enemy's vessel was sailing up to strike the Roman one, or was lying alongside of it after the thrust had been evaded, the bridge on deck was suddenly lowered and fastened to its opponent by means of a grappling- iron: this not only prevented the running down, but enabled the Roman marines to pass along the bridge to the enemy's deck and to carry it by assault as in a conflict on land. No distinct body of marines was formed, but land troops were employed, when required, for this maritime service. In one instance as many as 120 legionaries fought in each ship on occasion of a great naval battle; in that case however the Roman fleet had at the same time a landing-army on board.

In this way the Romans created a fleet which was a match for the Carthaginians. Those err, who represent this building of a Roman fleet as a fairy tale, and besides they miss their aim; the feat must be understood in order to be admired. The construction of a fleet by the Romans was in very truth a noble national work--a work through which, by their clear perception of what was needful and possible, by ingenuity in invention, and by energy in resolution and in execution, they rescued their country from a position which was worse than at first it seemed.

Naval Victory At Mylae

The outset, nevertheless, was not favourable to the Romans. The Roman admiral, the consul Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, who had sailed for Messana with the first seventeen vessels ready for sea (494), fancied, when on the voyage, that he should be able to capture Lipara by a coup de main. But a division of the Carthaginian fleet stationed at Panormus blockaded the harbour of the island where the Roman vessels rode at anchor, and captured the whole squadron along with the consul without a struggle. This, however, did not deter the main fleet from likewise sailing, as soon as its preparations were completed, for Messana. On its voyage along the Italian coast it fell in with a Carthaginian reconnoitring squadron of less strength, on which it had the good fortune to inflict a loss more than counterbalancing the first loss of the Romans; and thus successful and victorious it entered the port of Messana, where the second consul Gaius Duilius took the command in room of his captured colleague. At the promontory of Mylae, to the north-west of Messana, the Carthaginian fleet, that advanced from Panormus under the command of Hannibal, encountered the Roman, which here underwent its first trial on a great scale. The Carthaginians, seeing in the ill-sailing and unwieldy vessels of the Romans an easy prey, fell upon them in irregular order; but the newly invented boarding-bridges proved their thorough efficiency. The Roman vessels hooked and stormed those of the enemy as they came up one by one; they could not be approached either in front or on the sides without the dangerous bridge descending on the enemy's deck. When the battle was over, about fifty Carthaginian vessels, almost the half of the fleet, were sunk or captured by the Romans; among the latter was the ship of the admiral Hannibal, formerly belonging to king Pyrrhus. The gain was great; still greater the moral effect of the victory. Rome had suddenly become a naval power, and held in her hand the means of energetically terminating a war which threatened to be endlessly prolonged and to involve the commerce of Italy in ruin.

The War On The Coasts Of Sicily And Sardinia

Two plans were open to the Romans. They might attack Carthage on the Italian islands and deprive her of the coast fortresses of Sicily and Sardinia one after another--a scheme which was perhaps practicable through well-combined operations by land and sea; and, in the event of its being accomplished, peace might either be concluded with Carthage on the basis of the cession of these islands, or, should such terms not be accepted or prove unsatisfactory, the second stage of the war might be transferred to Africa. Or they might neglect the islands and throw themselves at once with all their strength on Africa, not, in the adventurous style of Agathocles, burning their vessels behind them and staking all on the victory of a desperate band, but covering with a strong fleet the communications between the African invading army and Italy; and in that case a peace on moderate terms might be expected from the consternation of the enemy after the first successes, or, if the Romans chose, they might by pushing matters to an extremity compel the enemy to entire surrender.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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