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Mary Macgregor

The Romans Build a Fleet

The Romans had conquered Pyrrhus with the help of the Carthaginians. Now that they no longer needed the help of their new allies, the Romans would have been glad had the Carthaginians sailed away to their home in Africa. But this they did not seem to think of doing.

In Sicily they took possession of many Greek towns, and this made Rome jealous. Their fleet, too, was often seen sailing along the coasts of Italy.

Like the Vikings of the North, the Carthaginians would suddenly swoop down upon some undefended coast town and plunder it and the surrounding district. Farm-houses were burned, plantations destroyed, and men and women dragged away to be sold as slaves, long before the Romans had been able to gather an army and march to the spot to punish the offenders.

But such insolence Rome could not brook, and she declared war against the bold intruders. This was the beginning of the first Punic war, which was the name given to the struggle between the Romans and Pœni or Carthaginians for the empire of the world.

On land the Romans quickly showed that they were more powerful than their former allies, and in about three years the Carthaginians had been forced to sail away to the shores of Africa, while those who stayed behind held only a few sea-coast towns in Sicily.

But the Carthaginian fleet was as powerful as ever, and the Romans saw that they would never get rid of their enemy, until they, too, had a fleet, and could cope with them on sea as well as on land. So, although they knew little about ships and none of them were sailors, the Romans determined to build a fleet.

The Carthaginian warships were large vessels with five benches, built one above the other. The five benches were provided for five sets of rowers.

These large five-decked boats were called quinqueremes, quinque being the Latin word for five, and remus for an oar.

One day, one of these Punic vessels was stranded on the Italian coast. Here was the very model the Romans needed. They seized it, and sent it to Rome as a copy for the ships that were to form the new fleet.

When the quinquereme reached Rome the shipwrights at once set to work. Forests were hewn down, timber was sawn, and in two short months the Romans had built and launched one hundred ships, large and solid as those of the Carthaginians.

And what was perhaps even more wonderful was that there were sailors ready to man the fleet. For while the ships were being built, the men chosen to form the crew had been placed on benches on dry land. These benches were arranged in the position they would have on board.

Here the landsmen, who had still to be changed into sailors, had practised the movements of the oars, and had learned to keep time as they would have to do when actually at sea. A musical accompaniment had helped them to pull the oars together.

But these hastily trained sailors could not hope to handle their vessels as skilfully as the well-trained mariners of Carthage. So the Romans added to each ship a solid wooden bridge, with a spike at the end. When the enemy's ship drew near, the Romans meant to drop the bridge, which was attached to the masts, on to the deck of their foe. The spike, sinking into the deck by the force of the fall, would hold the ship, while the Romans would rush across this rough drawbridge and fight with their enemy at close quarters, as though they were on land.

In 260 b.c. the new fleet put to sea under the command of the Consul Duilius, and before long it met the enemy on the northern coast of Sicily.

The Carthaginians had no fear of the newly built ships and quickly trained sailors. Their captain even thought the usual manoeuvres unnecessary, and sailed toward the Roman fleet in a careless way, thinking to charge prow to prow. To his surprise he found his vessels suddenly gripped by the ships of the enemy, and unable to move.

The bridges, of which I told you, could be wheeled round the masts and dropped just where they were needed, and the Romans, aided by the careless attack of the Carthaginians, had dropped their bridges at the right moment and secured the enemy's ships.

Before the Carthaginians had recovered from their surprise, the Romans had rushed on board, sword in hand, and ere long had captured many of the crew and taken possession of, or destroyed, fifty of the Punic vessels.

Even the flagship, a huge vessel of seven rows of oars, which the Carthaginians had once taken from Pyrrhus, was abandoned to the victors.

This, the first great victory at sea, caused much joy in Rome, and Duilius was awarded a triumph.

It is said that to the end of his life, the Consul was accompanied by a flute-player and a torchbearer as he returned home from banquets, in memory of this glorious victory.

Three years later another great battle was fought at sea, both sides claiming the victory.

But the Romans were ambitious and inspired by their success, they determined to sail to Africa and attack the Carthaginians in their own country.

So they began to build a larger fleet of three hundred and thirty ships. When it was ready they sent on board two armies, of about 40,000 men, under the command of the two Consuls, Regulus and Manlius.

As the Roman fleet sailed along the south coast of Sicily, it was met at Ecnomus by an even larger Carthaginian fleet, under the command of Hamilcar and Hanno.

The Punic generals had been sent to scatter or destroy the Roman fleet before it reached Africa.