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Battle of Drepanum

(249 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ancient ships
Ancient ships

Battle of Drepanum (249 BCE) was a battle at sea between Carthage and Rome in the First Punic War. It was the only case of a Roman pogrom at sea during the Punic Wars.

Historical background

The First Punic War is a breakthrough in the Roman art of war. The Republic of the Tiber has decided to wage a war at sea on a large scale for the first time. Senators spared no effort and resources in order to build a powerful navy capable of facing the excellent Carthaginian squadrons. Faithful to the principle of learning from enemies, the Romans won their own squadrons under Mylae and Eknomos. However, not all Roman admirals were lucky. This was the case in 249 BCE at Drepana, where the flotilla of consul Claudius Pulcher suffered a crushing defeat against the experienced Punic admiral Adherbal. It was the only case of a Roman pogrom at sea during the Punic Wars.

The Romans, after the initial failures at sea, skilfully copied the model of the construction of the Punic ships, building their first navy on its basis. They improved the construction of the ships with their own invention – a pier that was dropped on the enemy’s deck enabling boarding (corvus). Thanks to it, they skillfully fought battles, defeating the enemy crews with the numbers and strength of their unmatched infantry.

However, corvus, their main asset in combat, sometimes contributed to their defeat. He overloaded the warships, reducing their manoeuvrability and speed. Its weight also contributed to sea disasters during storms, when Roman ships went to the bottom with their crews. After several years of fighting at sea and on land, both sides bled a lot, and it was still a long way to go. The Carthaginians blocked the Romans’ sea routes, defending themselves in the perfectly fortified fortresses on the west coast of Sicily – in Lilybaion and Drepan. Attempts by the Romans to capture Lilybaion were unsuccessful, and their army suffered losses from the epidemic and in the battles at this fortress. The strong Punic fleet stationed in the nearby port of Drepana effectively hindered the supply of the besiegers.

The Carthaginian crew organized a daring excursion on the Romans, who were weakened by losses. Carthaginian mercenaries, mainly Greeks and Gauls, took advantage of the favourable wind to set fire to Roman siege equipment, putting many enemy soldiers dead. Many Roman sailors assigned to the siege work died in this clash. On the news of the defeat of the Romans at Lilybaion, the Senate sent 10,000 sailors across the Strait of Messina to help them, who were to go on foot to the Roman camp. The consul who led the siege of Lilybaion in 249 BCE – Claudius Pulcher – decided to turn the tide of the campaign with a daring plan to break the enemy’s blockade. He decided with his fleet to move against the Carthaginians in Drepana and defeat their Admiral Adherbal. The Romans, with their own fleet, would block Carthaginian ships moored in the narrow port. The consul was counting on Adherbal not expecting a bold manoeuvre by the Romans, unaware of the arrival of new reinforcements for them and taking into account the losses suffered by the Roman troops at Lilybaion. The destruction of the Carthaginian fleet and the capture of Drepana would deprive the defenders of Lilybaion of support and doom them to imminent defeat. Claudius’ idea found supporters among his subordinates, many of whom expressed readiness to take part in the expedition. As members of his “marines”. Claudius selected the best legionaries who were hoping for the spoils of this expedition. The haste was indispensable, as another fleet was formed in Carthage that could support the Punics in Drepan.

Battle of Drepana 249 BCE

The consul’s fleet consisted of 123 ships, most of them five-row (penthers). To surprise Adherbal, Claudius set off for Drepana at midnight, arriving there before dawn. The cruise of the Roman fleet, flowing in line formation along the west coast of Sicily, was difficult for its commander to control due to the nighttime. Claudius’ flagship sailed behind. When the Carthaginian commander noticed a mass of Roman ships approaching the port early in the morning, he was initially terrified. However, he did not lose his temper and decided to sneak out to the high seas before being blocked by the consul at the port. Drepana itself was situated on a headland facing north, south of which there was a port in a narrow bay. Adherbal’s ships, which sailed around the islets of Lazaretto and Columbaia and headed south along the coast, managed to escape from it. In the successful execution of this manoeuvre, they were helped by the partly disordered formation of Claudius’ ships.

Drepanum Battle Plan.
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license

Meanwhile, Roman ships began to enter the port. The consul sailed behind on the last ship and could not react quickly to the situation at the entrance to the port. When he saw the Carthaginians sailing on the open sea, he gave orders to all ships to put their order in order and to turn to the enemy ships. However, the consul’s order did not reach all units sailing in the vanguard of the Roman formation. Some of them, entering the port, collided with Roman penters trying to leave it, causing great confusion and breaking oars. Some time passed before all of Claudius’ ships lined the shore side by side in battle line-up facing the enemy. The Carthaginian commander with 5 fastest ships moved beyond his right-wing to close the retreat of the Romans. As the two flotillas drew closer, Adherbal and Claudius gave the signal for the battle to begin. Initially, neither side could gain an advantage, as selected soldiers fought on the decks of both fleets. However, it was the Romans who were at a disadvantage from the very beginning. Their manoeuvrability was minimal, as they had a shoreline behind them that made it impossible to retreat, and the service of Roman ships was partially inexperienced sailors who had just arrived at the consul’s camp. Moreover, the decks lacked the famous boarding piers, which prevented the Romans from using their advantage in hand-to-hand combat. The situation of the Punic fleet, numbering 100-130 ships, was quite different. Its ships, set on the high seas and manned by experienced sailors, made bold manoeuvres without any problems. In the event of an attack, they freely retreated and then approached their attackers, attacking them, ramming them, thereby sinking many Roman ships. If any Punic ship found itself trapped, its companions could easily come to their aid by sailing from the rear of the battle line to the endangered sections. The Romans were not able to break through the line of enemy ships, attacking them from the side or the rear. Many Roman ships were sunk, others under attack ran aground, some of the crews left their decks in panic. The advantage of Adherbal’s fleet became more and more apparent. The consul himself, seeing the approaching defeat, escaped from the battlefield with 30 penteres. The remaining Roman ships went down or were captured by the Punics.

In the Battle of Drepanum, the famous decks were missing from the Roman decks, which made it impossible for the Romans use the advantage in hand-to-hand combat.

The aftermath of the battle

The result of the clash was predictable due to the poor training of Roman sailors, the lack of boarding docks on their ships and the lack of space for manoeuvre. The consul should attack Drepana at the beginning of the campaign, and then try to capture the Lilybaion Fortress, without outside help. The plan for the Battle of Drepana prepared by Claudius was good, but the execution itself failed. The Senate, shocked by the pogrom of the Roman fleet, dismissed Claudius and ordered him to appoint the dictator. According to tradition, the arrogant consul would spite patres appoint a man of low status. The outraged senators, however, forced the newly appointed dictator to step down. Claudius himself was accused of treason by the people’s tribunes and sentenced to a fine of 120,000 aces. Fate so wished that at the same time the sister of the unfortunate consul was also brought to trial, accused of arrogant statements about the poor capital, which was the recruitment base for the Roman fleet. While travelling through the streets of the Eternal City, the procession of her litter was stopped by the crowd. At that time, the arrogant aristocrat was to express regret at the inability of her brother to lose another battle and thus get rid of more of the poorer inhabitants of the city.

The Carthaginians, however, were too exhausted to take advantage of the success at Drepana. The Romans took the initiative, finally building a fleet of 200 ships, which decided the fate of the war by defeating in 241 BCE. near the Aegadian Islands the Punic squadron.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Goldsworthy A., The Fall of Carthage. The Punic Wars 265-146 BC, London 2006
  • Kęciek K., Drepana 249 p.n.e. Zagłada floty Rzymu, "Mówią Wieki", 7/2010

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