Thursday, May 14, 2009


The First Punic War began when both Rome and Carthage answered a call for assistance from different factions within the same Sicilian community. Throughout the resulting twentythree- year conflict the fighting was to focus overwhelmingly on Sicily as each side attacked the other's allies and strongholds on the island. Although there was much land fighting, this was overwhelmingly a naval war, and all the decisive moves occurred at sea. Rome's first military expedition outside the Italian peninsula was also to be her first large-scale experience of war at sea.

The great naval battles of Greek history had been fought principally by triremes, galleys with three banks of oars with a single rower to each oar. By the third century the trireme (a 'three') had been outclassed by the quinquereme (a 'five'), but the precise nature of this ship remains obscure. Clearly it had something, probably rowers, at a ratio of five to three compared to the trireme, but it is not clear how these were deployed. There were two basic tactical options for all sizes of ancient warships. Either they attempted to grapple with an enemy ship and board it, relying on the crew's numbers or fighting quality to capture the ship in melee, or they tried to ram the enemy and pierce his hull or shear off his oars. Although galleys were usually fitted with a mast and sail, the wind was too uncertain an agent of motion to allow them to fight when they did not possess missile weapons capable of inflicting serious harm on the enemy. Mobility depended on a ship's rowers, and galleys were effectively constructed around these. In proportion to their size, galleys carried far larger crews than later sailing ships and nearly all of these men were rowers. Space was highly limited, especially so on a quinquereme which, despite their 40 per cent increase in crew, do not seem to have been much larger than triremes. The weight of the rowers provided much of a galley's ballast, making it unwise for any great number of them to leave their seats at the same time. There was also very little space available on a ship to carry provisions of food and water. The result was that not only was travel by sea uncomfortable, but very long, continuous journeys were simply impossible. A voyage of more than a few days between friendly ports was risky: If possible the galley was beached each night and the crew allowed to rest, but this was only practical when the shore was not hostile. Most naval battles throughout history have tended to occur relatively close to the shore, largely as a result of the real difficulty fleets had in locating each other in the vast expanse of ocean. In the ancient world this was an absolute necessity, simply because the fleets could not risk moving too far from the shore. Sicily provided the ideal theatre for a naval conflict because its numerous anchorages were within practical range of the fleets operating from home bases in Italy and North Africa.

Geography and the might of the Carthaginian navy meant that the conflict was likely to be dominated by sea-power, but at the beginning of the war Rome was not a naval power, largely because she had never needed to be in the past. She may have possessed a small number of ships, and some of her Italian allies certainly had their own navies, but they could not have hoped to form a serious rival to the Punic fleet, especially since it is possible that no state in Italy at that time possessed any quinqueremes. When in 261-260 BC the Romans decided to build a hundred quinqueremes, Polybius claims that they copied the design of a Carthaginian ship which had run aground and been captured earlier in the war. The story is one example of the pride the Romans took in their ability to copy the best weapons and tactics of their enemies, but may still be genuine. Polybius states that they trained the ships' crews while the fleet was under construction, building tiered benches on land to practise rowing. Yet even with this training, the new Roman fleet lacked the experience and skill of the well-drilled Carthaginian crews and the naval war did not start well for the Romans. The fleet's commander was surprised in harbour and all the seventeen ships with him were captured by a Punic squadron.

The tactics of ramming required skilful handling of a ship and the Romans may have realized that they could not match their opponents in this, as from the beginning of the war they were to rely on boarding the enem~ With this in mind they designed the 'Crow' (corvus), a boarding ramp fitted with a spike which stuck fast in an opponent's deck, locking the two ships together. Once grappled in this way no amount of skill on the part of the Carthaginian crew could break their ship free and the Roman legionaries swarmed across the bridge and settled the affair with their ferocity in hand-to-hand combat. The new device was tested when the massed fleets clashed off Mylae in north-eastern Sicily, 130 Carthaginian ships facing a slightly smaller number of Roman ones. The Carthaginian admiral, commanding the fleet in a ship that had once belonged to Pyrrhus, was confident in his 'crews' superiority and attacked aggressively. The Carthaginians did not realize the purpose of the corvi until they began to drop, the beaks spearing into their decks and grappling them fast. Thirty ships, including the flagship, were captured by the Roman infantry, who flooded over the ramps. Attempts to swing round and outflank the Romans were foiled when the Romans turned to face or swung their corvi round to drop over either side of the ship. The battle was a total success for the Romans with between thirty and fifty ships captured by the end of the da~ The prows (rostrata) of these prizes were cut off and sent to decorate the Speaker's platform in Rome, which in time gave it a new name.

In 256 BC the Romans repeated their success at the battle of Ecnomus, at which each side probably mustered well over 200 ships (Polybius gives the Carthaginian strength as 350 and the Roman as 330 which, if correct, would make this one of the largest naval battles in history). The Carthaginians had found no counter to the corvi, but in the next years few years the weather dealt Rome a series of severe blows when three fleets were wrecked in storms. Hundreds of ships were lost and the drowned numbered tens of thousands. Poor Roman seamanship may have been to blame, but it is also possible that the corvi's weight made the ships less seaworthy. Then at Drepana in 249 BC the Romans suffered their only defeat in a fleet action, a disaster blamed on impiety when the consul, Publius Claudius Pulcher, ignored the unfavourable auspices. When the chickens refused to eat (and so signify divine favour), he is said to have hurled them over the side, proclaiming that if they would not eat, then they would drink. These Roman disasters and Carthaginian exhaustion brought a lull, but in 242 BC the war was decided at sea when the Romans, having risked the creation of another fleet, smashed the last Punic fleet near the Aegates Islands. In the resulting peace treaty Carthage gave up both her fleet and all her possessions in Sicily.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Ming Chinas brief flirtation with overseas expansion provides unequivocal evidence of the remarkable competence of Chinese shipwrights, navigators and sailors. Chinese mariners had long traded in the same waters without official sanction, but seafarers ranked low in the Confucian social hierarchy and received little attention from court historians and chroniclers. The inset shows an early sixteenth-century Portuguese nao silhouetted against a nine-masted Ming treasure ship.

The Chinese sphere stretched from the Sea of Japan to the Straits of Malacca. China was culturally and economically dominant in the region and had the potential for naval mastery, a potential that was actually realized under the southern Sung dynasty (1127-1279), although we know little about the details. By the thirteenth century, as travellers Marco Polo and ibn- Battutah attested and nautical archaeologists have confirmed, junks engaged in long-distance trade were as stoutly built and as seaworthy as any ocean- going vessel afloat. But with few exceptions, after the Sung dynasty, China's rulers focused their attention on terrestrial affairs. Of critical importance, the mandarins (the Confucian literati responsible for day-to-day governance) were at best ambivalent about overseas trade, particularly when conducted by Chinese. After overthrowing the Sung dynasty, the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1260-1368) mobilized Chinese and Korean shipyards and mariners to mount massive invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281. Both invasions failed, and in the ensuing years the Yuan became increasingly sinicized and turned their backs to the sea. Mandarin attitudes prevailed thereafter, save for a brief interlude under the first emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). 

The Ming were an anomaly, a native dynasty founded by warrior kings who sought actively to expand China's boundaries by land and suzerainty by sea. They did so at sea by means of treasure fleets, so called because one of their main functions was to collect tribute in the form of ambassadors, precious metals, gems, exotic animals and other esoterica. Enormous in scope and competent in execution, these fleets sailed seven times between 1405 and 1434, under the eunuch admiral Cheng Ho, visiting Java and destinations as far afield as Ceylon, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Madagascar Channel. These fleets have acquired semi-legendary status and must therefore be put in perspective. The dimensions commonly given for the largest of Cheng Ho's ships, 450 feet long and 184 feet in breadth, are not only implausibly broad relative to length, but physically impossible, the result of erroneous interpolations by later Chinese authors and uncritical acceptance by western scholars. Still, they were impressive enough, sporting nine masts, measuring some 204 feet by 37 feet and displacing 1,000 to 1,100 tons. 

Some contemporary European vessels were larger, for example Henry V of England's 'great ships' Jesus (1,500 tons) and Grace Dieu (2,100 tons), but whereas these ships were exceptional, dozens of treasure ships were produced to a standardized design. The 1405 fleet consisted of 62 large and 255 small vessels and carried 27,870 men. Except for the smaller 1407 to 1409 expedition, the rest were of similar magnitude. The administrative and logistical competence required to outfit, man and provision such fleets speaks for itself. Moreover, the treasure fleets were not pure exercises in peaceful diplomacy, but suppressed piracy in the Straits of Malacca ,and intervened militarily in dynastic struggles in Java and Ceylon. We know little about the armament of Cheng Ho's ships, but Ming warships of the 1390s are known to have carried cannon that were at least equal in size and power to contemporary European naval ordnance. More importantly, seagoing junks, in contrast to Arab dhows and Malay jukungs, had hulls that could have been modified to support batteries of heavy ordnance. 

The treasure fleets were successful in expanding Chinese suzerainty for a time, but behind their success lay a dark reality, for the Ming emperors who launched them proclaimed a ban on private seaborne trade that forced the vast majority of Chinese deep-sea mariners into poverty, smuggling or piracy. The last loophole was closed in 1435, when the treasure fleets were banned. The ban was partially lifted in 1567, but by then the design of large, ocean-going war junks had been lost, a victim of the mandarins' suspicion of outside cultural influence. The Ming war fleet had wasted away and Japanese wako pirates, sailing in ships that were far inferior to those of Cheng Ho's fleets, had filled the vacuum, turning China's coastal districts into a depopulated wasteland.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Gokstad Ship

 By James Grout
"So great, also, was the ornamentation of the ships, that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled, and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood. For if at any time the sun cast the splendour of its rays among them, the flashing of arms shone in one place, in another the flame of suspended shields. Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. So great, in fact, was the magnificence of the fleet, that if its lord [Cnut] had desired to conquer any people, the ships alone would have terrified the enemy, before the warriors whom they carried joined battle at all. For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, who upon the dragons burning with pure gold, who upon the bulls on the ships threatening death, their horns shining with gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force?"
Encomium Emmae Reginae
With thirty-four oars on a side, the Long Serpent was exceptionally large. Only seven ships with even fifteen or more oars on a side are mentioned in the period between AD 995 and 1061. Three are described in the saga of King Olaf Trygvesson: the Long Serpent, and the Crane and the Short Serpent, both of which had fifteen oars on a side.

More representative of the Viking longship, at least in its number of oars, is the Gokstad Ship, with sixteen on a side. The finest and best preserved of the longships, it was excavated at Gokstad, near Oslo, in 1880. A thousand years before, the ship had served as a burial chamber, preserved under a barrow of impermeable blue clay. Seventy-six and a half feet long, seventeen and a half feet wide, and less than six and a half feet deep from the keel to the gunwale at midship, the keel, itself, was almost fifty-eight feet long. It is the length of the keel, in fact, that determined the size of such a ship. Constructed of a single piece of oak to ensure strength, there cannot have been too many trees that would have yielded straight timber much longer than that.

The remnants of thirty-two shields, alternately painted yellow and black, were found along each side, two for each oarport, which seems to indicate a crew of approximately the same number or possibly twice that if they rowed in shifts. Overlapping one another, the shields hung from a batten on the uppermost strake. Such a display presumably was ceremonial and decorative. Once under sail, the shields were at risk of being washed away and, while the ship was being rowed, they would have covered the oarports. The oarports were cut at the second strake of the ship, which permitted a higher freeboard than if the oars had been secured by oar locks on the gunwale and an advantage over the enemy.

There also were oars and spars, tubs and kegs for food and water, and even remnants of the woolen sail cloth, which often was interwoven to give a checkered or striped pattern. A rudder or steering board was affixed to the right side of the ship, its name providing the origin of the word "starboard." Curiously, there were no benches (thwarts) for the oarsmen, who probably sat on their sea-chests. There were found, however, the bones of a peacock, which must have seemed exotic indeed to these Norsemen.

The Gokstad ship was built around AD 900 and represents the finest expression of a technical achievement that already had been attained by the mid-eighth century and had begun long before. Writing eight hundred years earlier, Tacitus describes in Germania the Suiones (Svear), a tribe in Sweden, as being known for their love of wealth and the strength of their fleet. "The shape of their ships differs from the normal in having a prow at both ends, which is always ready to be put in to shore." (Much of this wealth was in gold solidi, one-ounce coins that were used by the Romans to pay mercenaries and from which the word "soldier" is derived.)

As the Gokstad ship is representative of the langskip, so the sturdy knörr (knarr) represents the hafskip (ocean ship). A merchant vessel, built for the transportation of cargo and livestock, it was shorter and broader in the beam than the longship (about fifty feet long and fifteen feet wide), with a deeper draft, and a higher freeboard to keep waves from washing over the side. Unlike the longship, which quickly could lower its mast, the knörr had a fixed mast and relied primarily on its sail. With ships such as these, the Vikings were the dominate sea power in the ninth and tenth centuries.
"Gokstad Ship" <> by James Grout, part of the Encyclopaedia Romana <>

Friday, May 1, 2009


A remarkably realistic depiction of a sea fight between two cogs, dated to c. 1300-1320 by details of the armour and the ships' construction. The picture emphasizes the importance of shock combat as the ultimate arbiter of boarding fights, although the two archers, identifiable as English longbowmen by the size of their bows and their full draw to the ear, seem to be playing a major role in the fight.

An English fleet landing at Lisbon during the time of the Hundred Years War, from a near-contemporary illuminated manuscript. A significant function of fleets at the time was to convey important persons and delegations to their destinations, though the vagaries of wind and weather made the business an uncertain one. As usual, the medieval artist's focus is on noble personages.

From a near-contemporary manuscript illumination depicting the 1340 battle of Sluys, vividly conveys the character of sea fights in the pre-gunpowder era: desperate contests with edged weapons;, bows and crossbows, fought out behind the dubious protection of wooden bulwarks. The exaggerated size of the combatants and the prominence of armoured men-at-arms reflects the social and military dominance in Europe of chivalric elites who excelled in shock combat. The ships are cogs.