History of Europe

The importance of naval supremacy, part 1: Rome and the Punic Wars

This is the first post in what hopefully will be an ongoing series of posts, aimed at recognizing and spreading the importance of naval supremacy.
When speaking about the history of Rome, one usually thinks about legions of soldiers, marching towards victory, conquering territory after territory. While this is true to an extent, this fascination with land forces leads people to forget about naval forces. The Romans are simply not treated with much respect regarding their ability to sail the seas. After all, were not the Carthaginians much their superiors? Weren’t the Greeks?
The Battle of Actium, which stood between the forces of Octavian and Marc Anthony (with his ally, Cleopatra) is perhaps one naval battle most people even remotely interested in Roman history knows about.
But what about the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, which helped bring the First Punic War to an end? Or the naval actions undertaken by Pompey Magnus in order to eradicate pirate activity in the Mediterranean?

The Battle of Actium

The Roman navy was extremely important to the success of the Romans, it was featured heavily in the Punic Wars, the Macedonian Wars, the various civil wars, and it saw extensive use both on the Rhine, along the coast of the British Isles, in Illyria and the Orient.
A work about this very topic was done a long time ago (back in 1915), by Frederick William Clark, called “The influence of sea-power on the history of the Roman Republic”, and he is one of my main gates of information. He noted, correctly, that even “in our day, when so much attention is given to the maintenance and expansion of naval strength, cases are not lacking which show that men have difficulty in recognizing the effect that sea-power may have even upon operations on land.” – p. 9

Clark, in turn, relied on the works of Mahan, possibly the greatest naval theorist and (naval) historian to ever live. Despite all his greatness, Mahan’s texts about Rome is lacking, which is understandable, as that was not a priority of his.

Now, sea-power can be exerted in two ways: directly and indirectly. An example can be found in the First World War, where the newly constructed German Hochseeflotte was meant to be used as a Fleet-in-being, i.e. the point of the Hochseeflotte was NOT to directly engage German foes and wrestle control of the oceans, but the Hochseeflotte was meant to indirectly keep the British out of the war. To put it simply, the very existence of the Hochseeflotte was supposed to ensure the British could not afford to risk their Royal Navy in any direct engagements with the Germans, in turn keeping Britain neutral. This didn’t come to pass however, since the British were well aware of the German plans, and took steps which allowed them to withdraw major parts of their fleets scattered across the world back to the Home Islands, so that when the war started the Royal Navy stood stronger than the Germans, nullifying the use of the Hochseeflotte, forcing them to directly use their navy.
Julian S. Corbett noted in his work “England in the Mediterranean” (published 1904) just how important naval supremacy is: “For centuries the destinies of the civilized world seemed to turn about the Mediterranean. Each power that had in its time dominated the main line of history had been a maritime power, and its fortunes had climbed or fallen with its force upon the waters where the three continents met. It was like the heart of the world; and even the barbarians, as they surged forward in their wandering, seemed ever to be pressing from the ends of the earth towards the same shining goal, as though their thirsting lips would find there the fountain of dominion. So too the mediaeval emperors, as they sat in the heart of Germany, knew they were no emperors till their feet were set on its brink.” p. 4 – 5

This meant that according to Corbett, the reason why everyone seemed to be drawn towards the shores of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and even the Baltic Sea, is that they, perhaps unconsciously, were drawn towards the sea. Not an unplausible theory of course, as water is essential to human life, but I have little knowledge in matters such as these, so I’ll leave it to my betters.

It is said that before the First Punic War, the Romans weren’t sailors, they didn’t have navies, they cared little about the sea. Depending on what one means, it could either be true or false. If one means that before the First Punic War, no large scale naval battles involving the Romans occurred, one would be correct. However, if one means that the Romans did not have any navies whatsoever, nor any interest at all in maritime pursuits, one would be wrong.
However, it is also true that, up until the First Punic War, Rome was occupied on land, subduing Italic and Gallic tribes up and down the peninsula. These wars were fought almost exclusively on land, which means that ancient records talk very little, at best, about naval tactics. But even so, Rome was surrounded by maritime states. To the north were the Etruscans, whose ships did not keep to their own shores but ventured to the Adriatic as well as the water beyond Sardinia and Corsica. Then there were, of course, the Carthaginians themselves. The Carthaginians and Romans had a long tradition of neutrality, trade, and even alliances with each other, shown especially during the invasion of Italy by Pyrrhos of Epirus.
This post could easily go on forever and ever, but I do not think that would be a good idea, so I am going to write a bit about the Second Punic War. And the answer to why that particular war is so important is simple.
Almost every question one has regarding the Second Punic War can be answered with this: Sea-power. Try it out yourself!
Why did Hannibal march from Iberia, through Gaul and crossed the Alps into Italy? Because Roman supremacy on the waves made it impossible for Carthage to cross the sea. The Treaty of Lutatius that ended the First Punic War forced Carthage to abandon Sicily, the Aegadian Islands, the Aeolian Islands and Ustica, Pantelleria, Linosa, Lampedusa, Lampione and Malta. This meant that Carthage was trapped in North Africa, the small navy they still had made it almost impossible for them to do anything, as the Roman islands created an almost impenetrable chain.
This is also the answer to the question “Why didn’t Carthage send more supplies and reinforcements to Italy?”, Carthage was unwilling, but they were also unable to do anything. They managed to slip through some reinforcements but it was far from enough. Before starting with the Second Punic War, let us focus on an event that happened in between the First and Second Punic Wars, that were possible thanks to the Roman navy.
That thing was the Roman capture of Sardinia and Corsica. We turn our attention to Clark, who describes here how the Romans justified seizing Carthaginian territory during times of peace: “The Romans, making a counter charge that Carthage on her part was doing damage to their shipping, despatched their fleet. Polybius gives us no details of the naval expedition but states that the Carthaginians, unable at the time to oppose the Romans, surrendered the island.”, later he writes “Corsica was soon added to her possessions”. – p. 26, implying it was little more than an afterthought.
These islands only helped further Roman control of the Western Mediterranean, now there was no non-Roman islands there, except for the Balearic Isles, which were small and insignificant and far away.
The Second Punic War officially started when Hannibal Barca laid siege to the Roman allied city, Saguntum. When news reached Rome that the city had fallen, they dispatched 220 quinqueremes and 20 light galleys. Most of these ships were sent to Sicily, where Rome started planning for an invasion of North Africa, and the other ships were sent to Spain to check Hannibal, but upon arrival, they soon realized that they had already missed Hannibal. Even so, the Romans were able to return to Italy before Hannibal, and were ready for him when he descended from the Alps. This did not help Rome, but it goes to show how important it is to control the ocean, it allows for rapid troop deployment and re-deployment. There were few naval battles, but one took place in 217 B.C. at the mouth of the Ebro river. The Romans won, capturing 25 vessels out of a fleet of 40. This loss crippled Carthaginian naval operations in Spain and gave Rome completely supremacy of all areas of the Western Mediterranean.

A Roman naval bireme depicted in a relief from the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia in Palastrina

When the war ended with a crushing Carthaginian defeat, the Romans forced Carthage to surrender all but 10 of her triremes, ensuring they could never again pose a threat to Rome. The Second Punic War is often remembered for its large, magnificent battles: the capture of New Carthage, the battles of Lake Trasimene, Cannae, and Zama. The lack of thunderous naval battles equalling these battles make it easy to forget the importance of navies and that sometimes, a navy can render its most important services when not occupied with battle.
Some point to the fact that Mago (Barca) managed to land a force of around 14 000 men in Liguria, capturing Genoa toward the close of the war, but this cannot be compared to what Hannibal went through. At the end of the war, Rome’s attention was focused elsewhere (on expelling Hannibal from Italy, subdue the city of Carthage in Africa, and expand in Iberia) so it was easier for Mago to sneak between Sicily and Sardinia-Corsica and reach Liguria safely. Hannibal would most likely have had such luck, especially since he would have to transport a much larger force across a much longer distance, at a time when Rome stood ready, awaiting Hannibal’s first move. Livy makes the significant statement that Scipio was given only 69 ships, simply because nobody believed that an invasion would come by sea, at it didn’t, as we now know.
Clark says: “Now, what advantage was it to Rome that Hannibal should be compelled to come by land? The advantages were two: Hannibal sacrificed valuable men and valuable time. Of the force of 46 000 men, which left the Rhone, only 26 000 descended the southern slopes of the Alps. This is again the estimate of Polybios”.
Continuing, he says “Scipio went from Pisae to Massilia, near the mouth of the Rhone, in five days; Laelius came by ship from Tarraco to Rome in thirty-four days. But Hannibal spent five months on his journey by land and fifteen days in crossing the Alps alone.” – p. 33 – 34

Part of of the Danube fleets during Trajan’s Dacian Wars

With that, we can easily conclude how important Roman naval supremacy was to the outcome of the Second Punic War, and with that, I end this post.


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