At the height of its power, Rome ruled over a vast Empire. In its very center was the inner sea — the Mediterranean — known to the Romans as the Mare Nostrum or “Our Sea.” The coastline was dotted with wealthy cities, centers of culture, trade, and commerce, many of them pre-dating the Romans. Fertile agricultural lands fed the large populace, including the famed imperial armies, that constantly pushed the imperial borders and guaranteed the Empire’s dominance over the known world. A powerful navy policed the Roman lake, allowing for unhindered traffic of men and goods.
Yet, to achieve supremacy over the Mare Nostrum, Rome had to fight, on land and sea. Rome had to eliminate its main rival, the naval power of Carthage, and the Roman navy would need to tackle the scourge of piracy. Here are the four major Roman naval battles that laid the foundation for Rome’s dominance over the Mediterranean.
1. The Roman Naval Battle of Mylae (260 BCE) – Dawn of Roman Naval Power
After achieving control over the Apennine peninsula in the mid-third century BCE, Rome looked southwards towards the island of Sicily. Its fertile lands and strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean made Sicily a tempting target. When in 264 BCE a civil war flared up on the island, both Rome and Carthage decided to join in. A bloody struggle, known as the First Punic War, disrupted the power balance in the region and led to the creation of the mighty Roman navy.
In the early stages of the war, the Roman army achieved several victories on the island of Sicily, but the Carthaginians dominated the seas. Therefore, Rome had to build a navy and do it fast. According to historian Polybius, using a wrecked Carthaginian warship as a model, the Romans built their own navy, consisting of 100 quinqueremes (“five-oared”) and 20 triremes (“three oared”). However, the Roman fleet was no match for the experienced Carthaginians, leading to several defeats, including the shameful surrender at the Battle of Lipari in 260 BCE.
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Nonetheless, The Romans were determined to win. Later the same year, a Roman naval battle engaged the Carthaginians at Mylae, off the north coast of Sicily. Carthaginian navy outnumbered the Romans, 130 ships against 100. To make up for their naval inexperience, the Romans used a new invention — a boarding device known as a corvus.
Instead of fighting a traditional naval battle, each time a Carthaginian galley closed in on a Roman warship, the corvus dropped, linking the two ships. This allowed the Roman soldiers to use their infantry advantage, turning the battle into land combat and overwhelming the inferior Carthaginian troops. The result was a shock defeat for the Carthaginians and the first major Roman naval victory. Of 44 ships lost by Carthage, 30 were captured by the Romans. The major triumph, commemorated in Rome by the erection of the first rostral column, turned the tide of war and marked the dawn of the Roman maritime power.
2. Battle of Cape Ecnomus (256 BCE) – The Gigantic Showdown at Sea
If Mylae was a major Roman victory, the Battle of Cape Ecnomus was an undisputed naval triumph. What started as an attempt to attack the Carthaginian homeland turned into one of the largest Roman naval battles in history. By 256 BCE, the First Punic War had reached a stalemate. Despite the significant Roman gains on the island of Sicily, the Carthaginian navy kept control of the Mediterranean Sea. Yet the defeats at Mylae in 260 BCE and Sulci in 257 BCE warned the Carthaginian leadership of the growing Roman naval power. Romans, too, became aware of the shifting fortunes of war and were preparing to deal the final blow. In the late Spring of 256 BCE, the Romans decided to launch a naval invasion of Africa, with Carthage as the prize.
Both sides commanded a large number of ships: 350 Carthaginian warships against the Roman fleet of 330 vessels. The core of both fleets were the quinqueremes — five-oared galleys — the mainstay of Mediterranean navies. In addition, the Roman fleet consisted of a large number of transport ships filled to the brim with soldiers, siege weapons, and supplies. As the ancient ships avoided sailing the open sea, the Roman fleet decided to follow the Sicilian coast and cross the Strait of Sicily at its narrowest point. The Carthaginians correctly anticipated such a decision and moved to intercept. At this famous Roman naval battle, the two massive fleets met at the Cape Ecnomus, not far from modern-day Licata.
With both sides possessing the same number of ships (crewed by more than 300, 000 men in total), the battle was decided by superior tactics. The Romans were organized in four squadrons arranged in a wedge shape, while the Carthaginian fleet was stretched out in line off the coast. The Carthaginian plan was to draw the Roman front squadrons away from the rear two and destroy them in a pincer movement, thus leaving the transports undefended.
However, poor communications and the lack of maneuverability of the giant vessels resulted in a Carthaginian attack on the Roman rear, which left the Carthaginian center exposed. The resulting confusion and the employment of corvi resulted in a major defeat for the Carthaginians. Carthage lost over 100 ships to a mere 24 Roman losses. The victorious Romans sent the prows of the captured Carthaginian ships to Rome to adorn the speaker’s platform at the Forum (rostra) to celebrate the naval triumph.
3. Battle of Aegates (241 BCE) – Winning the War
By 241 BCE, the First Punic War had lasted more than twenty years. Despite their best efforts, neither side could not achieve a decisive victory. The Romans triumphed at Ecnomus but in a cruel twist of fate, the expedition to Africa met with catastrophe. To make matters worse, the large fleet sent to evacuate the Roman troops was wrecked by the storm, claiming around 100, 000 lives. The Roman attempt to clear the last Carthaginian strongholds on Sicily failed after the total annihilation of their fleet at the Roman naval battle of Drepana in 249 BCE. Apparently, the decision of the Roman commander to throw the sacred chickens overboard did not sit well with the gods.
The Carthaginian situation, however, was precarious. Carthage still held control over the westernmost part of the island, but the besieged garrisons ran out of supplies. Protracted warfare financially and demographically ruined Carthage, forcing it to ask (unsuccessfully) for help from Ptolemaic Egypt. Rome, too, was close to bankruptcy and was scraping the bottom of the barrel in search of soldiers. The Roman Senate, determined to win the war, approved the creation of a new fleet. Unable to finance the warships, the state turned to wealthy aristocrats for help. The result was a semi-private navy, consisting of 200 quinqueremes, built, crewed, and equipped without government expenses. Carthage also invested its last resources to ready 250 warships, sending them to escort the transports carrying supplies to the beleaguered Sicilian garrisons.
The last Roman naval battle of the war took place around the Aegadian Islands off the western coast of Sicily. Despite unfavorable winds, the Roman commander decided to engage the enemy. It was the right decision. The Carthaginian fleet, burdened by supplies for the Sicilian garrisons, could not counter the more maneuverable Roman warships. Moreover, the inexperienced Carthaginian crews could hardly match the veteran Roman sailors. Thus, the Roman fleet achieved a victory without employing the corvi.
A large number of bronze warship rams discovered off the coast of Sicily testifies to severe losses on both sides. Unable to supply its garrisons, Carthage had no choice but to relinquish control over Sicily — bringing the First Punic War to a close. Rome became the leading military power in the western Mediterranean and eventually the entire Mediterranean region.
4. Battle of Actium (32 BCE) — The Famous Roman Naval Battle
The last stage of Rome’s takeover of the Mediterranean took place in 32 BCE, near Actium off the western coast of Greece. The Roman naval battle of Actium was the final stage of the last civil war of the Roman Republic, in which the forces of Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, faced Mark Antony and his ally, the queen of Ptolemaic Egypt, Cleopatra. Initially, Antony commanded a larger fleet than his rival, consisting of around 500 ships against Octavian’s 300. Yet, the harsh winter conditions and an epidemic outbreak ravaged Antony’s camp, decreasing the number of able soldiers and, more crucially, sailors. To make matters worse, Octavian’s admiral Marcus Agrippa took control of key coastal bases, cutting off the supply route for Antony’s army.
To avoid an impending blockade and annihilation, Antony had no choice but to abandon Greece. After sending his army northwards to Macedonia, Antony and Cleopatra decided to attempt a breakout at sea. Having arrived in Greece with more ships, Antony joined the Battle of Actium outnumbered. His fleet of large and heavy quinqueremes could become easy prey to Agrippa’s smaller and more maneuverable warships. Antony’s fleet also had several octeres, some of the largest warships of the Hellenistic era (which incidentally saw their last use at Actium).
As the wind rose around noon, Antony decided to make a move as his navy was under sail, while Agrippa’s had stowed their sails on shore, standard practice in ancient naval warfare. Agrippa, however, was in possession of the escape plan and he ambushed the enemy fleet as soon as they left the safety of the bay.
After hours of heavy fighting, Antony’s larger warships managed to punch a gap in the center of the enemy line, allowing Cleopatra’s squadron to escape into the open sea. Antony quickly followed suit, abandoning his massive flagship for a smaller and faster vessel. Sixty ships would reach Alexandria, while the rest were destroyed or captured. Soon after, Antony’s army, now leaderless, defected to Octavian. Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide when Octavian invaded Egypt the following year.
The defeat of Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet at the Roman naval Battle of Actium and their subsequent deaths effectively ended the civil war, leaving Octavian the sole ruler of the Roman world. Three years after the triumph at Actium, Octavian abolished the Roman Republic with Agrippa’s help, becoming the first Roman Emperor — Augustus. And so the Mediterranean finally became a Roman lake — Mare Nostrum — “Our Sea.”