To the Romans, it was Mare Magnum, to the Phoenicians, HaYam HaGadol. Two tongues, one name: “Great Sea”—the Mediterranean, nurturing mother of the cultures of antiquity. But great though it may have been, for the Roman Republic and the Phoenician civilization of Carthage, by the 3rd century BC, the Mediterranean simply was not big enough for the both of them.
And so ensued the most epic naval conflict of the ancient world—the First Punic War (264–241 BC), which saw the hitherto more land-centric Romans build fleets, improve ship skills, gain tactics and operational acumen, and ultimately overcome the naval-dominant Carthaginians to emerge as the apex sea power on the Mare Magnum.
The flashpoint of the 23-year war was a particularly prized piece of Mediterranean real estate: Sicily, perched on the cusp of the Romans’ and Carthaginians’ spheres of control. By 256 BC, eight years into the war, the upstart Latin navalists were ready to cross over to North Africa and take on Carthage on its native shores. Carthage, well aware of the massive Roman armada being assembled and prepared, was determined to stop the invasion at all cost. And the resulting clash—the Battle of Cape Ecnomus—would rank, in terms of number of combatants, among the largest naval battles in history.*
As the rival fleets—hundreds of ships each, bristling with thousands upon thousands of fighters—faced off below the Sicilian coast, all must have sensed the terrible scale of the struggle about to unfold. “The Carthaginian commanders briefly addressed their forces,” the historian Polybius records. “They pointed out to them that in the event of victory in the battle, they would be fighting afterwards for Sicily—but that if defeated, they would have to fight for their own country and their homes, and bade them take this to heart. . . . When all readily did as they were ordered . . . they set to sea in a confident and menacing spirit.”
Its squadrons arrayed alongside one another, the Carthaginian fleet formed a wall through which the Romans would have to break. The squadrons of the Roman fleet described a triangle—like an arrow pointed at the Carthaginian wall. And as fighting commenced, the point of that arrow plunged straight into the enemy center—which is just what the Carthaginians had hoped it would do. As the Roman quinqueremes pierced the battle line, the two Carthaginian center columns deliberately fell back, drawing the Romans into the trap as the flanking Carthaginian columns began an encirclement.
Taking advantage of the gap that now yawned between the attacking Romans and their ships still aft, the Carthaginian flanks did an end run and engaged the rearward Roman squadrons. Meanwhile, the Carthaginian center abandoned its fake retreat and turned to crush the Romans’ separated forward squadrons. It was three battles in one now, two on the rear flanks and the original, essential brawl at the center—and it was there the Romans proved their emergent naval mettle.
They employed the corvus—a devilishly inventive boarding platform whose disadvantages (it created instability on the ship that wielded it, especially in storms) were outweighed by its advantages at Ecnomus: As fighting vessels drew near, the corvus was lowered by a cable, and the wicked metal spike on its underside stabbed into the enemy deck, locking the hulls as the martially superior Roman legionaries flooded across the makeshift bridge and delivered hell to the foe. Numerous Carthaginian ships were captured, the Carthaginian center collapsed, and the vanguard Roman squadrons were now freed up to turn and come to the rescue of their beleaguered confreres under attack on the flanks.
The Roman victory was utter and resounding. While the attenuated antagonism between Rome and Carthage would continue until 146 BC, after Ecnomus, never again would Carthage be the undisputed ruler of the Great Sea. And as the Roman Republic eventually metamorphosed into the Roman Empire, Rome began to refer to the Mediterranean by a different name. No longer would they call it Mare Magnum, “Great Sea,” but rather Mare Nostrum—“Our Sea.”
Polybius, The Histories, Book I, William Roger Paton, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press/Loeb Classical Library, 1922), 69–88.
VADM William Ledyard Rodgers, USN (Ret.), Greek and Roman Naval Warfare: A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis (480 B.C.) to Actium (31 B.C.) (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1937), 278–91.
W. W. Tarn, “The Fleets of the First Punic War,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 27 (1907): 48–60.
G. K. Tipps, “The Battle of Ecnomus,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 34, no. 4 (Fall 1985): 432–65.
* Polybius, the primary source for the battle, gave the numbers as 330 Roman ships and 350 Carthaginian ships, with the combined number of men at 290,000. Late 19th- and early 20th-century historians disputed his figures as too high, but more recent scholarship sides with Polybius. See Tarn and Tipps for the rival theories.