In the popular imagination, the epic showdown between the rival superpowers of the rising Roman Republic and the maritime empire of Carthage evokes images of elephants crossing the icebound Alps led by Hannibal, or of Cato the Elder demanding that “Carthage must be destroyed,” whose eventual fulfillment saw the ancient Phoenician city sacked and razed, its fields (supposedly) sown with salt. These events belong to the Second (218-201 BCE) and Third (149-148) Punic Wars. But the first period of open hostilities, which smoldered from 264 to 241 BCE, was no less spectacular. The First Punic War saw the two powers clash for the first time, largely over their spheres of influence conflicting over the agriculturally rich island of Sicily. The war was characterized overall by a pattern remarkably similar to the Peloponnesian War between the Spartans and Athenians two centuries prior: Rome had their conquest of the Italian peninsula to show their proficiency with land-based infantry, while Carthage dominated the sea and trade routes with their skill at sailing and naval warfare. While what really decided this war of attrition in Rome’s favor was her superior manpower and resources over Carthage’s largely mercenary armies, a major factor was also how the land-sea dichotomy was resolved. As Sparta beat Athens by learning the art of sea battle over the course of the war, so Rome put men on warships for the first time (which they modeled on captured Carthaginian ships) and learned to beat their enemy at their own game.
The first Roman naval victory over Carthage was at Mylae in 260 BCE, taking place off the northeastern coast of Sicily. Led by the general Gaius Duillius, the Romans knew well that this early in the war they had little chance of defeating the Carthaginians with conventional naval tactics, the various coordinated maneuvers designed to make the enemy ships vulnerable to ramming. Instead, they invented a handy device to convert ram-to-ram into hand-to-hand combat. This was the corvus, a sort of gangway with a spike on one end that was lowered onto an enemy ship when the two came into close quarters. Roman legionaries on board simply ran across and engaged the enemy face-to-face with a gladius instead of blindly with the stroke of an oar. It is recorded that, after a battle in which roughly 100 ships on either side fought, the Carthaginians lost 44 ships and 10,000 men before retreating. Despite this surprising result, the war would drag on for nearly 20 more years, with naval victories and defeats on both sides before the Romans finally came out on top, depriving Carthage of its claims to Sicily and Sardinia. At the time, a young Hannibal was made by his father to swear eternal enmity toward Rome, and years later he would come close to getting cold revenge.
The French blackened death metal band Deos celebrate the Romans’ first naval victory in this track from their 2014 album In Nomine Romae (“In the Name of Rome”). The song combines standard metal instrumentation and songwriting with the sounds of the ocean waves, the beating of war-drums and grunts of a human metronome keeping time for the Roman oarsmen, and the fanfare of war trumpets signaling battle maneuvers. Like much of the First Punic War, this track complicates the glamour of war with its brutal reality, its tempo mid-paced to reflect the grinding pace of the war itself. Deos give the Battle of Mylae the attention it deserves in not only Roman, but maritime history at large.