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Battle of Cape Ecnomus
The battle of Cape Ecnomus (offshore Cape Ecnomus , southern coast of Sicily, 256 BC) was a naval battle between the fleets of Carthage and the Roman Republic, fought during the First Punic War. Due to the amount of ships and crews involved (about 100 rowers and 150 combat troops per ship), this battle was the largest naval battle of the ancient world, and by some definitions the largest naval battle in history.
Following the conquest of Agrigentum, the Roman Republic decided to build a fleet and threaten Carthage's supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea. Rome's initial disadvantage in experience was compensated by the use of corvus in the ship's prows. The resulting series of Roman victories in naval battles such as Mylae, inspired an attempt of invasion of Carthaginian lands in Africa.
Such an operation demanded an enormous amount of ships to transport the legions and their gear to Africa. To complicate the logistical problem, Carthage's fleet was patrolling the coasts of Sicily, forcing the transport to be done in military vessels like triremes and quinqueremes, with little storage space. Therefore Rome built a large fleet, of about 200 ships, to make the crossing of the Mediterranean with safety, and the two consuls of the year, Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso, were named to command it. But the Carthaginians were not going to let this threat to pass undisturbed and launched an equally sized fleet, commanded by Hanno and Hamilcar, to intercept the Romans.
By then, Roman naval tactics were already improved. The fleet advanced through the Sicilian coast in full battle formation, with the military ships deployed in three squadrons (see figure). I and II, commanded by the consuls, led the way arrayed in wedge. The bulk of the transport ships was right behind them and the third squadron covered the rear, adding protection. The Carthaginians expected them and the two fleets met in the southern coast of Sicily, offshore Mount Ecnomus. Carthage initial battle disposition was the traditional long line, with the centre commanded by Hamilcar, and the two flanks, the right one commanded by the Hanno defeated in Agrigentum, slightly advanced.
Facing the foe, the two Roman front squadrons advanced to the Carthaginian centre. Admiral Hamilcar then faked a retreat to allow the creation of a gap between the Roman vanguard and the transport ships that were the main purpose of the military encounter. Following this manoeuvre, both Carthaginian flanks advanced on the column left behind, attacking from the sides to avoid the effect of the corvus boarding mechanism. The transports were forced against the Sicilian coast and the reinforcements forced to enter the battle to face Hanno's attack.
The Carthaginian centre was defeated after a long fight and escaped the battle scene. Then the two front Roman squadrons made a turn to relieve the situation in the rear. Consul Vulso's first squadron pursued the Carthaginian left who was pushing the transports to disaster and Regulus' ships, with the third squadron, launched an attack against Hanno. Without the support of the rest of their fleet, the Carthaginians were heavily defeated. In consequence of the battle, about half of Carthage's fleet were captured or sunk.
Following the battle, the Romans landed in Sicily for repairs and to rest the crews. The prows of the captured Carthaginian ships were sent to Rome to adorn the rostra of the Forum, according to the tradition initiated at Mylae. Not long afterwards, the Roman army landed in Africa and began its punitive expedition against Carthage, to be led by Atilius Regulus. The following battles of the First Punic War were, therefore, fought on Carthaginian soil, with victories to be ascribed to both parts.
- Polybius, I.25-29
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage (Cassel)
- W. L. Rodgers , Greek and Roman Naval Warfare (Naval Institute Press , 1937) pp. 278-291
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