Navy of Carthage

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CARTHAGE Showing naval port.

Carthaginian Tetrere: The Marsala ship

Reconstruction by Michael Leek

Punic hepter. The dimensions of the holds of the military port of Carthage permitted only vessels of 4.80 m wide, the size of a trire, in the islet of the Admiralty with the exception of two holds of 7 Meters wide. The heavy units of Carthage seem to have been very rare, it is quite possible that there never was any deer in service in its fleet. The Hepter above, extrapolated directly from the Penteres of the fleet, did not exceed six meters in width, while embarking 420 rowers and 80 soldiers: It was the flagship of the fleet.

While the army of Carthage (more of which later) was generally of a mercenary character, its navy was very much a citizen affair, as was to be expected from such a maritime power. Unlike the army, which tended to be raised for any temporary crisis and disbanded when it was over, the navy of Carthage had a more permanent status with a pool of trained sailors to fight in its naval wars. The Carthaginian navy that reigned supreme in the western Mediterranean, therefore, was a highly skilled and professional force rich in knowledge of navigation and fighting at sea, which, by the time of the struggle with Rome, was built around the quinquireme as the standard fighting ship of the day.

Ancient warships, which needed to move rapidly in any direction regardless of wind, depended mainly on muscle power. The quinquereme was so named not because it was propelled by five banks of oars but probably because the ratio of its oar-power to that of the classical trireme (which certainly did have three banks of oars) was 5:3. How many banks of oars a quinquereme had, and how many oarsmen manned each oar, is not known for certain. It is known from excavations of ship sheds at Carthage that a Carthaginian quinquereme was not much larger than an Athenian trireme, the practicable ultimate in the fast, ram-armed, oared warship (around 45m in overall length and less than 6m at the beam compared with around 37m in overall length and less than 4m at the beam) and thus similarly built for speed, long and narrow. It is therefore postulated that the quinquereme developed directly from the trireme. Its crew, however, was much larger than that of a trireme (300 to 200) and it could carry many more marines: up to 120 crammed on a Roman quinquereme when fully manned for battle, and apparently 40 as a standard complement. One suggestion is that there were three banks of oars like the trireme, but with two oarsmen to an oar at two of the three levels (i.e. arranged 2:2:1). Since a trireme had a crew of 200 of which 170 were oarsmen, we would expect 270 of the 300 crew members of a quinquereme to be oarsmen. Thus, with an oar crew of 270 the quinquereme would have 81 oars a side.

Such vessels were formidable in a sea fight, designed essentially to be highly manoeuvrable and capable of being driven by oars at high speeds for short spurts in battle, with the result that their sea-keeping qualities were not good. Lack of space in the hull for food and water, low freeboard, low cruising speed under oars, and limited sailing qualities lowered their range of operations. Hence naval engagements customarily took place near the coast, where ships could be handled in relatively calm water and there was some hope for the shipwrecked. Sails were used for fleets in transit, but when approaching the battle area the masts would be lowered and the ships rowed. There were only two methods of fighting, which placed contradictory demands on warship design. The first was manoeuvre and ramming. Theoretically, this called for the smallest possible ship built around the largest number of oarsmen. The Carthaginian navy with its minimum number of marines followed this naval doctrine. The other was boarding and battle. This called for a heavier ship able to carry the maximum number of marines, the naval doctrine adopted, as we shall presently see, by the unfledged Roman navy, which very much favoured an aquatic version of a land battle.

Whether boarding or ramming, oar-powered warships had to collide, and this tended to limit their tactical capabilities. However, a numerically inferior fleet manned by good seamen should have had endless opportunities for the sort of hit-and-run tactics ably demonstrated by the legendary Carthaginian captain, Hannibal ‘the Rhodian’, during the First Punic War, of which more elsewhere. For their class, Carthaginian quinqueremes tended to be light, swift and manoeuvrable, just as had been the triremes of the Athenians in the heyday of their naval skill, and Carthaginian oarsmen, like the Athenian oarsmen in the balmy days of their empire, were well practised in the intricate battle manoeuvres designed for ramming attacks on vulnerable sides and sterns, the diekplous and the periplous. It is distinctly possible, as was the case in democratic Athens, that many of the poorer citizens of Carthage derived their livelihood from service as rowers in the large, busy imperial fleet. If this was so, then it may well have contributed to the city’s political stability.

The famous naval installations at Carthage, namely the vast inner harbour as round as a cup, provided covered slipways, or ship sheds for around 220 warships and all the facilities for their maintenance. This military facility was a restricted area, walled off from the landward side, and its only seaward approach was through the outer mercantile harbour, whose narrow entrance could be quickly closed off by heavy iron chains if danger threatened. In actual fact, both harbours were landlocked, artificially excavated basins. Modern, full-scale excavations at the naval harbour date its final form to the second century BC, during the years between the Second and Third Punic wars and before the destruction of the city by the Romans, although the evidence is not certain and it is possible that this was a period of rebuilding. Yet after the second war, Carthaginian naval strength was finally broken and Carthage was forbidden by a clause in the peace treaty with Rome to have a navy. Technically, therefore, the city had no need of a costly harbour to house and to furbish 200-plus ships of war. Nonetheless, the sheer scale of the naval installations is a clear reflection of the wealth of Carthage, and economically the Carthaginians do not seem to have suffered in the long run as a result of their territorial losses and war indemnities.

In the centre of the naval harbour was a round artificial island, the Ilôt de l’ Admirauté, on which stood the admiral’s headquarters, rising high above the surrounding facilities and fortifications and enabling him to keep a weather eye on the far horizon. Below the headquarters were thirty stone-built ship sheds. The archaeological evidence also reveals the slipways, mostly 5.9m wide and with a gradient of 1:10, built with rammed earth. In them socket holes placed at roughly 60cm intervals have been found, and these once held the upright timber staves that shipwrights employed to support the hulls of ships under construction or repair. A fighting ship was antiquity’s most complicated piece of machinery, and artefacts recovered in the associated debris include copper nails for use in shipbuilding and terracotta moulds used in metal casting.

Warships of this period were not ‘Hearts of Oak’. For lightness and flexibility combined with strength, ship timber was mostly of softwoods such as pine and fir. Theophrastos, Aristotle’s equally multi-talented successor, lists the three principal timbers for building ships as fir (elatê), pine (peukê), and cedar (kedros), the last having become more readily available from Syria as a result of Alexander’s conquests.23 Beforehand, in his trademark clinical tone, he had compared the fir and the pine:

The latter is fleshier and has few fibres, while the former has many fibres and is not fleshy. That is why the pine is heavy and the fir light. Long ships [i.e. warships] are made of fir for the sake of lightness, whereas round ships [i.e. merchantmen] are made of pine because it resists decay.

Elsewhere he says pine is second-best timber for warships because it is heavier. The emphasis on lightness for ship timber is obviously a prime consideration in the overall design of a plank-built warship. However, one result of using softwoods was that its hull tended to soak up water like a sponge. Consequently, all warships, great and small, were manhandled out of the water as often as possible so as to dry and clean the hulls.

The hulls would not only become waterlogged and leaky, but they would also suffer from that scourge of wooden ships, the naval borer or shipworm, the maritime equivalent of a woodworm or deathwatch beetle. Ancient shipwrights avoided using certain woods for the hull planking because they were thought to be susceptible to it, the larch particularly so according to the elder Pliny. The hulls of stubbier, rounder merchantmen were as a rule protected by a drastic and expensive, but effective remedy, first by applying a layer of linen cloth soaked in pitch and then covering this with lead sheathing. However, the additional weight of metal made lead sheathing highly undesirable for warships. Theophrastos remarks that the harm done to a ship’s hull by the naval borer is impossible to repair. Once hauled up in a ship shed, however, the caulking of worm-holes during the process of maintenance, and an application of pitch as a sealant, would have gone some way to remedying the effect of the naval borer provided the hull planks were not too much worm-eaten. Theophrastos explains the methods used to obtain pitch from fir, pine and cedar, and Pliny speaks too of pitch being produced from various trees and extracted by heat from pitch pine (taeda) for the protection of warships.

Before we take our leave of the warship, a brief mention should be made of the diekplous and the periplous.

The diekplous was a battle manoeuvre involving single ships in line abeam, the standard battle formation, in which each helmsman would steer for a gap in the enemy line. He would then turn suddenly either to port or to starboard to ram an enemy ship in the side or row clean through the line, swing round and smash into the stern of an enemy ship. The top-deck would be lined with marines and missile-men at the ready, but their main role was mainly defensive. The primary weapon was the attacking ship’s ram. Polybios, in his lively account of the sea battle off Drepana, describes it as such: ‘To sail through the enemy’s line and to appear from behind, while they were already fighting others [in front], which is a most effective naval manoeuvre’. The Carthaginian quinqueremes executing this ‘most effective naval manoeuvre’ were well constructed, had experienced oarsmen and, even more important, the best helmsmen.

The periplous was either a variation involving outflanking the enemy line when there was plenty of sea room, or the final stage of the diekplous, when the manoeuvring vessel, having cut through the line, swung round to press home a ramming attack from the stern. Once the enemy formation had broken up, the periplous would have become the most important tactical option available to the helmsman. And so the periplous was a tactical manoeuvre that a single, skilfully handled vessel performed to make a ramming attack that did not involve a prow-to-prow contact. Even so, it required room for its execution, and timing was of the essence. It also called for high speed and, what is more important, smart-as-a-whip steering promptly supported by adept oarsmanship. It is interesting to note that Polybios finishes by saying that Roman quinqueremes were unable to perform these manoeuvres ‘owing to weight of the vessels and their crews’ lack of skill’.


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