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Corvus – Roman method of fighting at sea

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Corvus - Roman boarding bridge
Corvus - Roman boarding bridge

The primary method of attacking the Roman fleet was by boarding. Rome developed its power through a land army, therefore naval combat was a problem for a long time, and lack of skill often led to defeats. The solution was the “raven” (corvus), a ramp equipped with two or one spike (resembling a bird’s beak; hence the name) for boarding. It allowed for the introduction of the tactic of quickly jumping to the enemy and using the infantry force at sea.

The ancient Romans had their first contact with sea combat – on a larger scale – during the First Punic War (264-241 BCE). Despite the construction of ships on the basis of a captured Carthaginian ship, still, the technique of building ships of the Romans and their allies was far from Carthaginian craftsmanship. Moreover, the skills of the rowers and the officers of Carthage and the hired mercenaries surpassed the rival.

The uninteresting situation in which the Roman sea fleet found itself and its initial defeats forced one to look for a new method of combat. We do not know the originator of the use of the boarding bridge. Adrian Goldsworthy suggests it may have been a Sicilian or a young Archimedes; however, the lack of information about the name of the inventor suggests that the Romans did not want to share the success.

The Latin name corvus does not appear in ancient sources and was later created probably based on the Greek name of Polybius – corax. Corvus was about 11 meters long and 1.2 wide. There was a knee-high railing on either side. The deck was attached to a column in the centre, more than 7 meters high. Ropes and pulleys were used to rotate the platform, which allowed the platform to be lowered to the left or right side and forward.

First, corvus was used in 260 BCE during the Battle of Cape Mylae. The Carthaginian commanders, trusting in their navigational skills, which the slow and inexperienced Roman fleet lacked, disregarded the mysterious structures rising on the enemy ships. But soon their confidence turned to horror as the piers descended, holding a total of thirty Phoenicians, and the dominant Roman naval forces turned the naval combat into a land battle. Carthage was defeated and, according to various sources, lost 30 to 50 ships.

Sources
  • Corvus, "Livius.org"
  • Goldsworthy Adrian, The Fall of Carthage, 2004
  • Goldsworthy Adrian, The Roman Army at War: 100 BC-AD 200
  • Polibiusz, Histories

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