A History of Sea Power
by William Oliver Stevens and Allan Westcott
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

E-text prepared by Robert J. Hall




Professors in the United States Naval Academy

With Maps, Diagrams, and Illustrations

New York George H. Doran Company


This volume has been called into being by the absence of any brief work covering the evolution and influence of sea power from the beginnings to the present time. In a survey at once so comprehensive and so short, only the high points of naval history can be touched. Yet it is the hope of the authors that they have not, for that reason, slighted the significance of the story. Naval history is more than a sequence of battles. Sea power has always been a vital force in the rise and fall of nations and in the evolution of civilization. It is this significance, this larger, related point of view, which the authors have tried to make clear in recounting the story of the sea. In regard to naval principles, also, this general survey should reveal those unchanging truths of warfare which have been demonstrated from Salamis to Jutland. The tendency of our modern era of mechanical development has been to forget the value of history. It is true that the 16" gun is a great advance over the 32-pounder of Trafalgar, but it is equally true that the naval officer of to-day must still sit at the feet of Nelson.

The authors would acknowledge their indebtedness to Professor F. Wells Williams of Yale, and to the Classical Departments of Harvard and the University of Chicago for valuable aid in bibliography. Thanks are due also to Commander C. C. Gill, U. S. N., Captain T. G. Frothingam, U. S. N. R., Dr. C. Alphonso Smith, and to colleagues of the Department of English at the Naval Academy for helpful criticism. As to the "References" at the conclusion of each chapter, it should be said that they are merely references, not bibliographies. The titles are recommended to the reader who may wish to study a period in greater detail, and who would prefer a short list to a complete bibliography.



United States Naval Academy, June, 1920.








Civilization and sea power arose from the Mediterranean, and the progress of recent archeological research has shown that civilizations and empires had been reared in the Mediterranean on sea power long before the dawn of history. Since the records of Egypt are far better preserved than those of any other nation of antiquity, and the discovery of the Rosetta stone has made it possible to read them, we know most about the beginnings of civilization in Egypt. We know, for instance, that an Egyptian king some 2000 years before Christ possessed a fleet of 400 fighting ships. But it appears now that long before this time the island of Crete was a great naval and commercial power, that in the earliest dynasties of Egypt Cretan fleets were carrying on a commerce with the Nile valley. Indeed, the Cretans may have taught the Egyptians something of the art of building sea-going ships for trade and war.[1] At all events, Crete may be regarded as the first great sea power of history, an island empire like Great Britain to-day, extending its influence from Sicily to Palestine and dominating the eastern Mediterranean for many centuries. From recent excavations of the ancient capital we get an interesting light on the old Greek legends of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, going back to the time when the island kingdom levied tribute, human as well as monetary, on its subject cities throughout the AEgean.

[Footnote 1: It is interesting to note that the earliest empires, Assyria and Egypt, were not naval powers, because they arose in rich river valleys abundantly capable of sustaining their inhabitants. They did not need to command the sea.]

On this sea power Crete reared an astonishingly advanced civilization. Until recent times, for instance, the Phoenicians had been credited with the invention of the alphabet. We know now that 1000 years before the Phoenicians began to write the Cretans had evolved a system of written characters—as yet undeciphered—and a decimal system for numbers. A correspondingly high stage of excellence had been reached in engineering, architecture, and the fine arts, and even in decay Crete left to Greece the tradition of mastery in laws and government.

The power of Crete was already in its decline centuries before the Trojan War, but during a thousand years it had spread its own and Egyptian culture over the shores of the AEgean. The destruction of the island empire in about 1400 B.C. apparently was due to some great disaster that destroyed her fleet and left her open to invasion by a conquering race—probably the Greeks—who ravaged her cities by sword and fire. On account of her commanding position in the Mediterranean, Crete might again have risen to sea power but for the endless civil wars that marked her subsequent history.

The successor to Crete as mistress of the sea was Phoenicia. The Phoenicians, oddly enough, were a Semitic people, a nomadic race with no traditions of the sea whatever. When, however, they migrated to the coast and settled, they found themselves in a narrow strip of coast between a range of mountains and the sea. The city of Tyre itself was erected on an island. Consequently these descendants of herdsmen were compelled to find their livelihood upon the sea—as were the Venetians and the Dutch in later ages—and for several hundred years they maintained their control of the ocean highways.

The Phoenicians were not literary, scientific, or artistic; they were commercial. Everything they did was with an eye to business. They explored the Mediterranean and beyond for the sake of tapping new sources of wealth, they planted colonies for the sake of having trading posts on their routes, and they developed fighting ships for the sake of preserving their trade monopolies. Moreover, Phoenicia lay at the end of the Asiatic caravan routes. Hence Phoenician ships received the wealth of the Nile valley and Mesopotamia and distributed it along the shores of the Mediterranean. Phoenician ships also uncovered the wealth of Spain and the North African coast, and, venturing into the Atlantic, drew metals from the British Isles. According to Herodotus, a Phoenician squadron circumnavigated Africa at the beginning of the seventh century before Christ, completing the voyage in three years. We should know far more now of the extent of the explorations made by these master mariners of antiquity were it not for the fact that they kept their trade routes secret as far as possible in order to preserve their trade monopoly.

In developing and organizing these trade routes the Phoenicians planted colonies on the islands of the Mediterranean,—Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Malta. They held both shores of the Straits of Gibraltar, and on the Atlantic shores of Spain established posts at Cadiz and Tarshish, the latter commonly supposed to have been situated just north of Cadiz at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. Cadiz was their distributing point for the metals of northern Spain and the British Isles. The most famous colony was Carthage, situated near the present city of Tunis. Carthage was founded during the first half of the ninth century before Christ, and on the decay of the parent state became in turn mistress of the western Mediterranean, holding sway until crushed by Rome in the Punic Wars.

Of the methods of the Phoenicians and their colonists in establishing trade with primitive peoples, we get an interesting picture from Herodotus,[1] who describes how the Carthaginians conducted business with barbarous tribes on the northern coast of Africa.

[Footnote 1: HISTORY, translated by Geo. Rawlinson, vol. III, p. 144.]

"When they (the Carthaginian traders) arrive, forthwith they unload their wares, and having disposed them in orderly fashion on the beach, leave them, and returning aboard their ships, raise a great smoke. The natives, when they see the smoke, came dawn to the shore, and laying out to view so much gold as they think the wares to be worth, withdraw to a distance. The Carthaginians upon this come ashore and look. If they think the gold enough, they take it up and go their way; but if it does not seem sufficient they go aboard their ships once more and wait patiently. Then the others approach and add to the gold till the Carthaginians are satisfied. Neither party deals unfairly with the other; for the Carthaginians never touch the gold till it comes up to the estimated value of their goods, nor do the natives ever carry off the goads till the gold has been taken away."

In addition to the enormous profits of the carrying trade the Phoenicians had a practical monopoly of the famous "Tyrian dyes," which were in great demand throughout the known world. These dyes were obtained from two kinds of shellfish together with an alkali prepared from seaweed. Phoenicians were also pioneers in the art of making glass. It is not hard to understand, therefore, how Phoenicia grew so extraordinarily rich as to rouse the envy of neighboring rulers, and to maintain themselves the traders of Tyre and Sidon had to develop fighting fleets as well as trading fleets.

Early in Egyptian history the distinction was made between the "round" ships of commerce and the "long" ships of war. The round ship, as the name suggests, was built for cargo capacity rather than for speed. It depended on sail, with the oars as auxiliaries. The long ship was designed for speed, depending on oars and using sail only as auxiliary. And while the round ship was of deep draft and rode to anchor, the shallow flat-bottomed long ships were drawn up on shore. The Phoenicians took the Egyptian and Cretan models and improved them. They lowered the bows of the fighting ships, added to the blunt ram a beak near the water's edge, and strung the shields of the fighting men along the bulwarks to protect the rowers. To increase the driving force and the speed, they added a second and then a third bank of oars, thus producing the "bireme" and the "trireme." These were the types they handed down to the Greeks, and in fact there was little advance made beyond the Phoenician war galley during all the subsequent centuries of the Age of the Oar.

About the beginning of the seventh century before Christ the Phoenicians had reached the summit of their power on the seas. Their extraordinary wealth tempted the king of Assyria, in 725 B.C., to cross the mountain barrier with a great army. He had no difficulty in overrunning the country, but the inhabitants fled to their colonies. The great city of Tyre, being on an island, defied the invader, and finally the Assyrian king gave up and withdrew to his own country. Having realized at great cost that he could not subdue the Phoenicians without a navy, he set about finding one. By means of bribes and threats he managed to seduce three Phoenician cities to his side. These furnished him sixty ships officered by Phoenicians, but manned by Assyrian crews.

With this fleet an attack was made on Tyre, but such was the contempt felt by the Tyrians for their enemy that they held only twelve ships for defense. These twelve went out against the sixty, utterly routed them, and took 500 prisoners. For five years longer the Assyrian king maintained a siege of Tyre from the mainland, attempting to keep the city from its source of fresh water, but as the Tyrians had free command of the sea, they had no difficulty in getting supplies of all kinds from their colonies. At the end of five years the Assyrians again returned home, defeated by the Phoenician control of the sea. When, twenty years later, Phoenicia was subjugated by Assyria, it was due to the lack of union among the scattered cities and colonies of the great sea empire. Widely separated, governed by their own princes, the individual colonies had too little sense of loyalty for the mother country. Each had its own fleets and its own interests; in consequence an Assyrian fleet was able to destroy the Phoenician fleets in detail. From this point till the rise of Athens as a sea power, the fleets of Phoenicia still controlled the sea, but they served the plans of conquest of alien rulers.

As a dependency of Persia, Phoenicia enabled Cambyses to conquer Egypt. However, when the Phoenician fleet was ordered to subjugate Carthage, already a strong power in the west, the Phoenicians refused on the ground of the kinship between Carthage and Phoenicia. And the help of Phoenicia was so essential to the Persian monarch that he countermanded the order. Indeed the relation of Phoenicia to Persia amounted to something more nearly like that of an ally than a conquered province, for it was to the interests of Persia to keep the Phoenicians happy and loyal.

When, in 498 B.C., the Greeks of Asia and the neighboring islands revolted, it was due chiefly to the loyalty of the Phoenicians that the Persian empire was saved. Thereafter, the Persian yoke was fastened on the Asiatic Greeks, and any prospect of a Greek civilization developing on the eastern shore of the AEgean was destroyed.

But on the western shore lay flourishing Greek cities still independent of Persian rule. Moreover, the coastal towns like Corinth and Athens were developing considerable power on the sea, and it was evident that unless European Greece were subdued it would stand as a barrier between Persia and the western Mediterranean. Darius perceived the situation and prepared to destroy these Greek states before they should become too formidable. The story of this effort, ending at Salamis and Platea, and breaking for all time the power of Persia, belongs in the subsequent chapter that narrates the rise and fall of Athens as a sea power.

At this point, it is worth pausing to consider in detail the war galley which the Phoenicians had developed and which they handed down to the Greeks at this turning point in the world's history. The bireme and the trireme were adopted by the Greeks, apparently without alteration, save that at Salamis the Greek galleys were said to have been more strongly built and to have presented a lower freeboard than those of the Phoenicians. A hundred years later, about 330 B.C., the Greeks developed the four-banked ship, and Alexander of Macedon is said to have maintained on the Euphrates a squadron of seven-banked ships. In the following century the Macedonians had ships of sixteen banks of oars, and this was probably the limit for sea-going ships in antiquity. These multiple banked ships must have been most unhandy, for a reversal of policy set in till about the beginning of the Christian era the Romans had gone back to two-banked ships. In medieval times war galleys reverted to a single row of oars on each side, but required four or five men to every oar.

At the time of the Persian war the trireme was the standard type of warship, as it had been for the hundred years before, and continued to be during the hundred years that followed. In fact, the name trireme was used loosely for all ships of war whether they had two banks of oars or three. But the fleets that fought in the Persian war and in the Peloponnesian war were composed of three-banked ships, and fortunately we have in the records of the Athenian dockyards accurate information as to structural detail.

The Athenian trireme was about 150 feet in length with a beam of 20 feet. The beam was therefore only 2/15 of the length. (A merchant ship of the same period was about 180 feet long with a beam of 1/4 its length.) The trireme was fitted with one mast and square sail, the latter being used only when the wind was fair, as auxiliary to the oars, especially when it needed to retire from battle. In fact, the phrase "hoist the sail" came to be used colloquially like our "turn tail" as a term for running away.

The triremes carried two sails, usually made of linen, a larger one used in cruising and a smaller one for emergency in battle. Before action it was customary to stow the larger sail on shore, and the mast itself was lowered to prevent its snapping under the shock of ramming.

The forward part of the trireme was constructed with a view to effectiveness in ramming. Massive catheads projected far enough to rip away the upper works of an enemy, while the bronze beak at the waterline drove into her hull. This beak, or ram, was constructed of a core of timber heavily sheathed with bronze, presenting three teeth. Although the ram was the prime weapon of the ship, it often became so badly wrenched in collision as to start the whole forward part of the vessel leaking.

The rowers were seated on benches fitted into a rectangular structure inside the hull. These benches were so compactly adjusted that the naval architects allowed only two feet of freeboard for every bank of oars. Thus the Roman quinquiremes of the Punic wars stood only about ten feet above water. The covering of this rectangular structure formed a sort of hurricane deck, standing about three feet above the gangway that ran around the ship at about the level of the bulwarks. This gangway and upper deck formed the platform for the fighting men in battle. Sometimes the open space between the hurricane deck and the gangway was fenced in with shields or screens to protect the rowers of the uppermost bank of oars from the arrows and javelins of the enemy.

The complement of a trireme amounted to about 200 men. The captain, or "trierarch," commanded implicit obedience. Under him were a sailing master, various petty officers, sailors, soldiers or marines, and oarsmen.

The trireme expanded in later centuries to the quinquereme: upper works were added and a second mast, but in essentials it was the same type of war vessel that dominated the Mediterranean for three thousand years—an oar driven craft that attempted to disable its enemy by ramming or breaking away the oars. After contact the fighting was of a hand to hand character such as prevailed in battles on land. These characteristics were as true of the galley of Lepanto (1571 A.D.) as of the trireme of Salamis (480 B.C.). Of the three cardinal virtues of the fighting ship, mobility, seaworthiness, and ability to keep the sea, or cruising radius, the oar-driven type possessed only the first. It was fast, it could hold position accurately, it could spin about almost on its own axis, but it was so frail that it had to run for shelter before a moderate wind and sea. In consequence naval operations were limited to the summer months. As to its cargo capacity, it was so small that it was unable to carry provisions to sustain its own crew for more than a few days. As a rule the trireme was beached at night, with the crew sleeping on shore, and as far as possible the meals were cooked and eaten on shore. In the battle of AEgospotami (405 B.C.), for example, the Spartans fell upon the Athenians when their ships were drawn up on the beach and the crews were cooking their dinner. Moreover, the factors of speed and distance were both limited by the physical fatigue of the oarsmen. In the language of to-day, therefore, the oar-driven man-of-war had a small "cruising radius."

This dependence on the land and this sensitiveness to weather are important facts in ancient naval history. It is fair to say that storms did far more to destroy fleets and naval expeditions than battles during the entire age of the oar. The opposite extreme was reached in Nelson's day. His lumbering ships of the line made wretched speed and straggling formations, but they were able to weather a hurricane and to keep the sea for an indefinite length of time.

As a final word on the beginnings of navies, emphasis should be laid on the enormous importance of these early mariners, such as the Cretans and the Phoenicians, as builders of civilization. The venturesome explorer who brought his ship into some uncharted port not only opened up a new source of wealth but also established a reciprocal relation that quickened civilization at both ends of his route. The cargo ships that left the Nile delta distributed the arts of Egypt as well as its wheat, and the richest civilization of the ancient world, that of Greece, rose on foundation stones brought from Egypt, Assyria, and Phoenicia. It may be said of Phoenicia herself that she built-up her advanced culture on ideas borrowed almost wholly from her customers. But control of the seas for trade involved control of the seas for war, and behind the merchantman stood the trireme. It is significant and appropriate that a Phoenician coin that has come down to us bears the relief of a ship of war.

In contrast with these early sea explorers and sea fighters stand the peoples of China and India. Having reached a high state of culture at an early period, they nevertheless, sought no contact with the world outside and became stagnant for thousands of years. Indeed, among the Hindus the crossing of the sea was a crime to be expiated only by the most agonizing penance. Hence these peoples of Asia, the most numerous in the world, exercised no influence on the development of civilization compared with a mere handful of people in Crete or the island city of Tyre. And for the same reason China and India ceased to progress and became for centuries mere backwaters of history.

It is worth noting also that the Mediterranean, leading westwards from the early developed nations of Asia Minor and Egypt, opened a westward course to the advance of discovery and colonization, and this trend continued as the Pillars of Hercules led to the Atlantic and eventually to the new world. For every nation that bordered the Mediterranean illimitable highways opened out for expansion, provided it possessed the stamina and the skill to win them. And in those days they were practically the only highways. Frail as the early ships were and great as were the perils they had to face, communications by water were far centuries faster and safer than communications by land. Hence civilization followed the path of the sea. Even in these early beginnings it is easy to see that sea-borne commerce leads to the founding of colonies and the formation of an empire whose parts are linked together by trade routes, and finally, that the preservation of such an empire depends an the naval control of sea. This was as true of Crete and Phoenicia as it was later true of Venice, Holland, and England.


THE SEA KINGS OF CRETE, J. Baikie, 1910. PHoeNICIA, Story of the Nations Series, George Rawlinson, 1895. THE SAILING SHIP, E. Keble Chatterton, 1909. SHIPS AND THEIR WAYS OF OTHER DAYS, E. Keble Chatterton, 1913. ANCIENT SHIPS, Cecil Torr, 1894. ARCHEOLOGIE NAVALE, Auguste Jal, 1840. THE PREHISTORIC NAVAL ARCHITECTURE OF THE NORTH OF EUROPE, G. H. Buhmer, in Report of the U. S. National Museum, 1893. This article contains a complete bibliography on the subject of ancient ships. SEA POWER AND FREEDOM (chap. 2), Gerard Fiennes, 1918.




In determining to crush the independence of the Greek cities of the west, Darius was influenced not only by the desire to destroy a dangerous rival on the sea and an obstacle to further advances by the Persian empire, but also to tighten his hold on the Greek colonies of Asia Minor. Helped by the Phoenician fleet and the treachery of the Lesbians and Samians, he had succeeded in putting down a formidable rebellion in 500 B.C. In this rebellion the Asiatic Greeks had received help from their Athenian brethren on the other side of the AEgean; indeed just so long as Greek independence flourished anywhere there would always be the threat of revolt in the Greek colonies of Persia. Darius perceived rightly that the prestige and the future power of his empire depended on his conquering Greece.

In 492 he dispatched Mardonius with an army of invasion to subdue Attica and Eretria, and at the same time sent forth a great fleet to conquer the independent island communities of the AEgean. Mardonius succeeded in overcoming the tribes of Thrace and Macedonia, but the fleet, after taking the island of Thasus, was struck by a storm that wrecked three hundred triremes with a loss of 20,000 lives. As the broken remnants of the fleet returned to Asia, leaving Mardonius with no sea communications, and harassed by increasing opposition, he was compelled to retreat also. In 490 Darius sent out another army under Mardonius, this time embarking it on a fleet of 600 triremes which succeeded in arriving safely at the coast of Attica in the bay of Marathon. While the army was disembarking it was attacked by Miltiades and utterly defeated. The second expedition, therefore, came to nothing. But Marathon can hardly be called a decisive battle because it merely postponed the invasion; it affected in no way the communications of the Persians and it did not weaken seriously their military resources.

The great savior of Greece at this crisis was the Athenian, Themistocles. He foresaw the renewed efforts of the Persian king to destroy Greece, and realized also that the most vital point in the coming conflict would be the control of the sea. Accordingly he urged upon the Athenians the necessity of building a powerful fleet. In this policy he was aided by one of those futile wars so characteristic of Greek history, a war between Athens and the island of AEgina. In order to overcome the AEginetans, who had a large fleet, the Athenians were compelled to build a larger one, and by the time this purpose was accomplished rumors came that the Persian king was getting ready another invasion of Greece.

Campaign of Salamis

The third attempt was undertaken ten years after the second, in the year 480, under Xerxes, the successor to Darius. This time the very immensity of the forces employed was to overcome all opposition and all misfortunes. An army, variously estimated at from one to five million men, crossed the Hellespont on a bridge of boats to invade the peninsula from the north, while a fleet of 1200 triremes was assembled to insure the command of the sea.

Against the unlimited resources of the Persian empire and the unity of plan represented by Xerxes and his generals, the Greeks had little to offer. They possessed the two advantages of the defensive, knowledge of the terrain and interior lines,[1] but their resources were small and their spirit divided. Greece in those days was, as was later said of Italy, "merely a geographical expression." The various cities were mutually jealous and hostile, and it took a great common danger to bring them even into a semblance of cooperation. Even during this desperate crisis the cities of western Greece, counting themselves reasonably safe from invasion, declined to send a ship or a man for the common cause.

[Footnote 1: "'Interior Lines' conveys the meaning that from a central position one can assemble more rapidly on either of two opposite fronts than the enemy can, and therefore utilize force more effectively." NAVAL STRATEGY, A. T. Mahan, p. 32.]

The Persian army advanced without opposition as far as the pass of Thermopylae, which guarded the only road into the rest of Greece. Twelve days after the army had started on its march the great fleet crossed the AEgean to establish contact with the army and bring supplies. The army was checked by the valor of Leonidas, and the Persian fleet was intercepted by a Greek fleet which stood guard over the channel leading to the Gulf of Lamia, thus protecting the sea flank of Leonidas. The Persian fleet, after crossing the open sea safely, made its base at Sepias preparatory to the attack on the Greek fleet. The latter numbered only about 380 vessels to some 1200 of their enemy and the prospects for the Persian cause looked bright indeed. But as the very number of the Persian ships made it impossible to beach all of them for the night a large proportion of them were anchored, lying in eight lines, prows toward the sea. At dawn a northeast gale fell upon them, and, according to the Greek accounts, wrecked 400 triremes, together with an uncounted number of transports. Meanwhile the Greek ships had taken refuge under the lee of the island of Euboea, and the news of the Persian disaster was signaled to them by the watchers on the heights.

As soon as the weather moderated the Greeks returned to their position in the straits near Artemisium, and during the next three days the two fleets fought stubbornly but without advantage to either side. During the second day a southerly gale caught a flying squadron of some 200 triremes, that had been dispatched round the island of Euboea to catch the Greeks in the rear, and not one of the Persian ships survived. The Greek rear guard squadron of fifty brought the welcome news to the main fleet and served as a much needed reenforcement. Although the Persian armada had lost about half its force in three days by storms, the odds were still so heavily against the Greeks that they found themselves in constant peril of having their flanks turned in this open sea fighting.

On the afternoon of the third day the pass of Thermopyae was forced, thanks to the treachery of a Greek and the contemptible policy of the Spartan government which steadily refused the plea of Leonidas for reenforcements. With Thermopyae taken there was no further reason for the Greek fleet to try to hold the straits north of Euboea, and during the night it retired unobserved. The following day the Persian fleet advanced and brought to the army the supplies which it sorely needed.

With the fall of Thermopyae and the contact established between his army and his fleet, Xerxes found his route open for the invasion of Attica. Since there was no possibility of opposing him on land, the population of the province was removed and Athens left to its fate. Themistocles, who was in command of the Athenian division of the Greek fleet, now urged the assembling of the fleet at Salamis, partly to cover the withdrawal of the Athenians and partly to assist in the defense of the Isthmus of Corinth, which was to be the next stand of the Greeks. The advice was adopted and the fleet assembled off the town of Salamis. Athenian refugees had crowded into the town and from the heights above they watched the smoke of their burning city. Their own future and the future of Athenian civilization hung on the long lines of triremes drawn up on the shore.

A glance at the map of the region of Salamis shows the advantages offered by the position for the defensive. The fighting off Artemisium had shown the peril of attacking a greatly superior force in the open because of the danger of being outflanked. In the narrow straits between Salamis and the mainland the Greek line of battle would rest its flanks on the opposite shores. But it is one thing to choose a position and another to get the enemy to accept battle in that position. If the Persians ignored the Greek fleet and moved to the Isthmus, the Greeks would be caught in an awkward predicament. To regain touch with the Greek army, the fleet would be then compelled to come out of the straits and fight at a disadvantage in the open. There was only one chance of defeating the Persian fleet and that was to make it fight in the narrow waters of the strait where numbers would not count so heavily. Everything depended on bringing this to pass.

Nor could the Greeks wait indefinitely for the Persians. Already the incorrigible jealousies of rival cities had almost reached the point of disintegrating the fleet. Although the commander in chief was the Spartan general Eurybiades, the whole Spartan contingent was on the point of deserting in a body to its own coasts. The situation was saved by Themistocles. Having wrung from his allies a reluctant consent to stop at Salamis temporarily to cover the withdrawal of the Athenian populace, the story is that he secretly dispatched a messenger to Xerxes to say that if he would attack at once he could crush the entire naval forces of the Greeks at a blow, but if he delayed the Greeks would scatter. Acting on this advice, Xerxes landed troops on the island of Psyttaleia, dispatched a squadron to block the western outlet of Salamis Straits, and proceeded to move the main body of his fleet to attack the Greeks by way of the eastern channel. The preparations were made during the night and were not completed till dawn of the day of battle, September 20, 480 B.C.

The debates in the allied fleet came to an end with the appearance of the Persians. The shrewd plan of Themistocles had succeeded. The Greeks would have to fight with their backs to the wall, but they would fight with better chance of success than under any other circumstances.

The Greek force consisted of about 380 vessels. Of these, Athens contributed 180, Sparta and the rest of the Peloponnesus were represented by 89 and the remainder were made up of squadrons from the island states. Some of these island contingents contained a type of ship different from the triremes, the penteconter. This was a galley with only one bank of oars, but these were long sweeps, each manned by five oarsmen. The penteconter was an early prototype of the galley of the Christian era.

The Persians had been reduced by this time to about 600 ships, although there had been numerous reenforcements since the disaster at Cape Sepias. The fleet was "Persian" only in name, for, except for bands of Persian archers on some of the ships, it was composed of elements levied from each of the subject nations that followed the sea. Indeed Persia is a curious example in history of a nation with a purely artificial sea power, for its navy was composed of aliens entirely. Thus the squadron that was sent to blockade the western end of the straits was Egyptian, the right wing of the fleet as it advanced to the attack was composed of Phoenicians, and the center and left was made up of Cyprians, Cilicians, Samothracians, and Ionians, the latter only recently in rebellion against Persia and at that time welcoming help from Athens in a cause in which Athens herself was now involved. Apparently there was no compunction felt on this account, for the Ionians distinguished themselves by gallant fighting against their Greek brethren. Nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine difficulties involved in the task of making a unit of such an assortment of peoples. The fleet was commanded by a Persian, Prince Ariabignes, brother of Xerxes.

At daybreak the Persian triremes drew up in three lines on each side of the island of Psyttaleia and advanced into the straits. But the narrowing waters of the channel made it necessary to reduce the front and bear to the left. Consequently all formation was lost, and the Persian triremes poured into the narrows "in a stream,"—to quote the phrase of the tragedian AEschylus, who fought on an Athenian trireme in this battle and describes it in one of his plays.

Facing the invader was a smaller array of ships but a better ordered line of battle. On the Greek left was the Athenian division opposing the advancing triremes of Phoenicia; on the right was the Spartan division facing the Greeks of Asia Minor. The two fleets rushed toward each other, but just before contact the Persians found themselves embarrassed by their very number of ships. As may be seen by the map, they had an awkward turn to make in entering the narrows. At this point, just opposite the peninsula of Salamis, the straits are only about 2000 yards wide, making it impossible for more than 80 or 90 triremes to advance abreast. As a result the Phoenician wing of the line was extended considerably in advance of the rest, forced ahead by the pressure of ships behind. Although, as a matter of fact, the Spartan wing also was somewhat in advance of the rest of the Greek line, the first shock of battle came between the Phoenicians and the Athenians.

This initial advantage offered by an exposed wing was immediately seized upon. While the Athenians bore the frontal attack, the AEginetans on their right fell upon the Phoenicians' flank. This double attack on the Persian right wing eventually proved the turning point of the battle. The Phoenicians, however, had the reputation of being the foremost sea fighters in the world, and they bore themselves well. Similarly the Asiatic Greeks proved themselves foemen worthy of their brethren from the Peloponnesus, and the fight was maintained with great ferocity all along the line. The inhabitants of Athens who had been removed to Salamis blackened the shores on one side of the Strait, as anxious watchers of the tremendous spectacle. Opposite them on the slope of Mt. AEgaleos sat Xerxes himself, surrounded by his staff, a less anxious spectator but no less interested in the outcome.

About seven o'clock a fresh westerly wind arose, as it does at this day in that region, and as it did some years later during a battle won by an Athenian admiral in the Gulf of Corinth.[1] This wind blows every morning with considerable violence for about two hours; and in this battle it must have tended to make the bows of the Persian ships pay off—thus exposing their sides to the Greek rams—and drift back upon the galleys that were crowding forward from the rear in the attempt to get into the battle.

[Footnote 1: The Battle of the Corinthian Gulf: v. p. 43]

The Greeks pressed their advantage, using their rams to sink an adversary or disable her by cutting away her oars. Where the melee was too close for such tactics they tried to take their enemy by boarding. On every Greek trireme was a specially organized boarding party consisting of 36 men—18 marines, 14 heavily armed soldiers, and four bowmen; and the Greeks seem to have been superior to their enemy at close quarters. On the Persian side the superiority lay in their archers and javelin throwers. Toward the end of the battle, for instance, a Samothracian trireme performed a remarkable feat. Having been disabled by an AEginetan ship, the Samothracian cleared the decks of her assailant with arrows and javelins and took possession. Although the invaders seem to have fought with the greatest courage and determination, the disadvantage of confusion at the outset of the battle, augmented by the head wind, told decisively against them. They were unable to take advantage of their superiority in ships on account of the narrowness of the channel, and indeed found that the very multitude of their ships only added to their difficulties.

The retreat began with the flower of the Persian fleet, the Phoenician division. Caught at the opening of the battle with the Athenians in front and the AEginetans on the left flank, they were never able to extricate themselves, although they fought stubbornly. The foremost ships, many in a disabled condition, began to retreat; others backed water to make way for them; the rearmost finding it impossible to reach the battle at all, withdrew out of the straits; and soon the retreat became general. As the Phoenicians withdrew, the Athenians and the AEginetans fell upon the center of the Persian line, and the rout became general with the Greeks in full pursuit. The latter pressed their enemy as far as the island of Psyttaleia, thus cutting off the Persian force on the island from their communications. Whereupon Aristides, the Athenian, led a force in boats from Salamis to the island and put to death every man of the Persian garrison. The Persian ships fled to their base at Phaleron, while the Greeks returned to their base at Salamis.

The battle of Salamis was won, but at the moment neither side realized its decisive character. The Greeks had lost 40 ships; the Persians had lost over 200 sunk, and an indeterminate number captured. Nevertheless, the latter could probably have mustered a considerable force for another attack—which the Greeks expected—if their morale had not been so badly shaken. Their commander, Ariabignes, was among the killed, and there was no one else capable of reorganizing the shattered forces. Xerxes, fearing for the safety of his bridge over the Hellespont, gave orders for his ships to retire thither to protect it, and the very night after the battle found the remains of the Persian fleet in full flight across the AEgean.

The news reached the Greeks at noon of the following day and they set out in pursuit, but having gone as far as Andros without coming up with the enemy, they paused for a council of war. The Athenians urged the policy of going on and destroying the bridge over the Hellespont, but they were voted down by their allies, who preferred to leave well enough alone.

It is customary to speak of the victory of the Greeks at Salamis as due to their superior physique and fighting qualities. This superiority may be claimed for the Greek soldiers at Marathon and Platae, where the Persian army was actually Persian. The Asiatic soldier, forced into service and flogged into battle, was indeed no match for the virile and warlike Greek. But at Salamis it was literally a case of Greek meeting Greek, except in the case of the Phoenicians—who had the reputation of being the finest seafighters in the world—and it is not easy to see how the battle was won by sheer physical prowess. There is no evidence to show any lack of either courage or fighting ability on the Persian side. The decisive feature of the battle was the fatal exposure of the Phoenician wing at the very outset. However, it is worth noting that the invaders had been maneuvering all night and were tired—especially the oarsmen—when called upon to enter battle against an enemy that was fresh. In that respect there was undoubtedly some advantage to the Greeks, but it can hardly have been of prime importance.

The immediate results of the victory at Salamis were soon apparent. The all-conquering Persian army suddenly found itself in a critical situation. Cut off from its supplies by sea, it had to retreat or starve, for the country which it occupied was incapable of furnishing supplies for a host so enormous. Xerxes left an army of occupation in Thessaly consisting of 300,000 men under Mardonius, but the rest were ordered to get back to Persia as best they could. A panic-stricken rout to the Hellespont began, and for the next forty-five days a great host, that had never been even opposed in battle, went to pieces under famine, disease, and the guerilla warfare of the inhabitants of the country it traversed, and it was only a broken and demoralized remnant of the great army that survived to see the Hellespont. This great military disaster was due entirely to the fact that Salamis had deprived Xerxes of the command of the sea. Indeed, if the advice of Themistodes had been taken and the Greek fleet had proceeded to the Hellespont and held the position, not even a remnant of the retreating army would have survived. It happened that the bridge had been carried away by storms and the army had to be ferried over by the ships of the beaten and demoralized Persian fleet, an operation which would have been impossible in the face of the victorious Greeks.

Xerxes still held to the idea of conquering Greece; but the chance was gone. Mardonius, it is true, remained in Thessaly with an army, but it was no longer an army of millions. The Greeks assembled an army of about 100,000 men and in the battle of Plataea the following year utterly defeated it. On the same day the Greeks destroyed what was left of the Persian fleet in the battle of Mycale, on the coast of Asia Minor. This, strictly speaking, was not a naval battle at all, for the Persians had drawn their ships up on shore and built a stockade around them. The Greeks landed their crews, took the stockade by storm and burnt the ships. These later victories were the direct consequences of the earlier victory of Salamis.

Another phase of the Persian plan of conquering the Greeks must not be overlooked. Xerxes had stirred up Carthage to undertake a naval and military expedition against the Greeks of Sicily, in order that all the independent Greek states might be crushed simultaneously. Again the weather came to the rescue, for the greater part of the Carthaginian fleet was wrecked by storms. The survivors of the expedition laid siege to the city of Himera, but were eventually driven back to their ships in rout with the loss of their general. Thus the Greek civilization of Sicily was saved at the same time as that of Athens.

East and west, therefore, the grandiose plan of the Persian despot fell in ruin, and with it fell the prestige and the power of the empire. The Ionians revolted and joined Athens as allies, and the control of the AEgean passed from Persia to Athens. With this loss of sea power began the decline of Persia as a world power.

The significance of this astounding defeat of the greatest military and naval power of the time lies in the fact that European, or more particularly Greek, civilization was spared to develop its own individuality. Had Xerxes succeeded, the paralyzing regime of an Asiatic despotism would have stifled the genius of the Greek people. Self-government would never have had its beginnings in Greece, and a subjugated Athens would never have produced the "Age of Pericles." In the two generations following Salamis, Athens made a greater original contribution to literature, philosophy, science, and art than any other nation in any two centuries of its existence.

For the fact that this priceless heritage was left to later ages the world is indebted chiefly to the Greeks who fought at Salamis. The night before that battle the cause of Greece seemed doomed beyond hope. The day after, the invaders began a retreat that ended forever their hopes of conquest. This amazing change of fortune was due to the fact that the success of the Persian invasion depended on the control of the sea. Hence the Greeks, though unable to muster an army large enough to meet the Persian host on land, defeated it disastrously by winning a victory on the sea.


After Salamis, Athens rose to a commanding position among the Greek states. Her period of supremacy was brief, lasting less than 75 years, but while it endured it rested on her triremes. In the middle of the fifth century she had 100,000 men in her navy, practically as many as Great Britain in her fleet before 1914. Although the period of Athenian supremacy was short-lived, it is interesting because it produced a great naval genius, Phormio, and because it wrecked itself as Persian sea power had done, in an attempt at foreign conquest.

Scarcely had the Persian invasion come to an end when bickering broke out among the various Greek states, much of it directed against Athens. She had small difficulty, however, in maintaining her ascendancy in northern Greece on account of her superiority on the sea, and it was during the half century after Salamis that Athens arose to her splendid climax as the intellectual and artistic center of the world.

In 431 began the Peloponnesian War. Its immediate cause was the help given by Athens to Corcyra (Corfu) in a war against Corinth. Corinth called on Sparta for help, and in consequence northern and southern Greece were locked in a mortal struggle. The Athenians had a naval base at Naupaktis on the Gulf of Corinth, and in 429, two years after war broke out, the Athenian Phormio found himself supplied with only twenty triremes with which to maintain control of that important waterway. At the same time Sparta was setting in motion a large land and water expedition with the object of sweeping Athenian influence from all of western Greece and of obtaining control of the Gulf of Corinth. A fleet from Corinth was to join another at Leukas, one of the Ionian Islands, and then proceed to operate on the northern coast of the gulf while an army invaded the province.

As it happened, the army moved off without waiting for the cooperation of the fleet and eventually went to pieces in an ineffectual siege of an inland city. When the fleet started out from Corinth it numbered 47 triremes. As this was more than twice the number possessed by Phormio, the Corinthian admiral evidently counted on being secure from attack. Accordingly he used some of his triremes as transports and started on his journey without taking the precaution to train his oarsmen or practice maneuvers. But as he skirted along the southern coast he was surprised to see the Athenian ships moving in a parallel course as if on the alert for an opportunity to attack. When the Corinthian ships bore up from Patrae to cross to the AEtolian shore, the Athenian column steered directly toward them. At this threat the Corinthian fleet turned away and put in at Rhium, a point near the narrowest part of the strait, in order to make the crossing under cover of night. The Corinthian admiral made the same fatal mistake committed by the commander of the Spanish Armada 2000 years later in a similar undertaking, that of trying to avoid an enemy on the sea rather than fight him before carrying out an invasion of the enemy's coast. This ignominious conduct on the part of the Corinthian admiral was partly due to the fact that he was encumbered with his transports, but chiefly to the fact that he knew that in fighting qualities his men were no match for the Athenians. The latter had no peers on the sea at that time. Since Salamis they had progressed far in naval science and efficiency and were filled with the confidence that comes from knowledge and experience.

All night Phormio watched his enemy and at dawn surprised him in mid-crossing. On seeing Phormio advance to the attack, the Corinthian drew up his squadron in a defensive position, ranging his vessels in concentric circles, bows outward, like the spokes of a wheel. In the center of this formation he placed his transports, together with five of his largest triremes to assist at any threatened spot. The formation suggests a leader of infantry rather than an admiral; moreover, it revealed a fatal readiness to give up the offensive to an enemy force less than half his own.

At any rate there was no lack of decision on the part of Phormio. He advanced rapidly in line ahead formation, closed in near the enemy's prows as if he intended to strike at any moment and circled round the line. The Corinthian triremes, having no headway and manned by inexperienced rowers, began crowding back on one another as they tried to keep in position for the expected attack. Then the same early morning wind that had embarrassed the Persian ships at Salamis sprang up and added to the confusion of fouling ships and clashing oar blades. Choosing his opening, Phormio flew the signal for attack and rammed one of the flagships of the Corinthian fleet. The Athenians fell upon their enemy and almost at the first blow routed the entire Corinthian force. In addition to those triremes that were sunk outright, twelve remained as prizes with their full complement of crews, and the rest scattered in flight. Phormio returned in triumph to Naupaktis with the loss of scarcely a man.

So humiliating a defeat had to be avenged, and Sparta organized a new expedition. This time a fleet of 77 triremes was collected. Meanwhile Phormio had sent to Athens the news of his victory together with an urgent plea for reenforcements. Unfortunately the great Pericles was dying and the government had fallen into weak and unscrupulous hands. Consequently while 20 triremes were ordered to the support of Phormio, political intrigue succeeded in diverting this squadron to carry out a futile expedition to Crete, and Phormio was left to contest the control of the gulf against a fleet of 77 with nothing more than his original twenty.

It is interesting to observe what strategy Phormio adopted in this difficult situation. In the campaign of Salamis, Themistocles chose the narrow waters of the strait as the safest position for a fleet outnumbered by the enemy, because of the protection offered to the flanks by the opposite shores. But Phormio, commanding a fleet about one-fourth that of his adversary, chose the open sea. Apparently his decision was based on the fact that the superiority of the Athenian ship lay in its greater speed and skill in maneuvering. Unable to cope with his adversary in full force, he might by his superior mobility beat him in detail. Accordingly, he boldly took the open sea.

For about a week the two fleets lay within sight of each other, with Phormio trying to draw his enemy out of the narrows into open water and his adversary attempting to crowd him into a corner against the share. Finally the Peloponnesian, realizing that Phormio would have to defend his base, and hoping to force him to fight at a disadvantage, moved upon Naupaktis. As this port was undefended, Phormio was compelled to return thither.

The Peloponnesian fleet advanced in line of four abreast with the Spartan admiral and the twenty Spartan triremes—the best in the fleet—in the lead. At the signal from the admiral the column swung "left into line" and bore down in line abreast upon the Athenians who were ranging along the shore in line ahead. The object of the maneuver was to cut the Athenians off from the port and crowd them upon the shore. The latter, however, developed such a burst of speed that eleven of the twenty succeeded in reaching Naupaktis; the remaining nine drove ashore and their crews escaped. Apparently the victory of the Spartan was as complete as it was easy. But while the rest of the fleet busied itself with the deserted Athenian triremes on the share, the Spartan squadron continued in the pursuit of the eleven Athenian ships that were heading for Naupaktis. Ten of the eleven reached port and drew up in a position of defense. The eleventh, less speedy than the rest, was being overhauled by the Spartan flagship which was pushing the pursuit far in advance of the rest of the squadron. The captain of the Athenian ship, seeing this situation, determined on a bold stroke. Instead of pushing on into the harbor he pulled round a merchant ship that lay anchored at the mouth, and rammed his pursuer amidships, disabling her at a blow. The Spartan admiral promptly killed himself and the rest of the ship's company were too panic stricken to resist.

At this disaster the rest of the Spartan squadron hesitated, dropped oars or ran into shallow water. Seeing his opportunity, Phormio dashed out of the harbor with his ten triremes and fell upon the Spartans. In spite of the ridiculous disparity of forces, this handful of Athenian ships pressed their attack so gallantly that they destroyed the Spartan advance wing and then, catching the rest of the fleet in disorder, routed the main body as well. By nightfall Phormio had rescued eight of the nine Athenian triremes that had fallen into the hands of the enemy and sent the scattered remnants of the Peloponnesian fleet in full flight towards Corinth. This battle of Naupaktis remains one of the most brilliant naval victories in history, a victory won against overwhelming odds by quick decision and superb audacity.

Only a half century separates Salamis from the battle of the Corinthian Gulf and the battle of Naupaktis, but during that period there had been a great advance in naval science.

As far as naval tactics are concerned, Salamis was merely a fight between two mobs of ships, except that when opportunity offered, a vessel used her ram. Otherwise the only difference from land fighting was the fact that the combatants stood on floating platforms. But in the Peloponnesian war we see not only the birth of naval tactics but a very high development, especially as revealed in these two victories of Phormio.

With the development of a naval science rose also a naval profession. At Salamis Themistocles was a politician and Eurybiades was a soldier; it happened that they were made fleet commanders for the emergency. Phormio was a naval officer by profession, and he won by genius combined with superior efficiency in the personnel under his command. In his courage, resourcefulness, in the spirit he inspired, and the high pitch of skill he developed among his officers and men, he is an ideal type for every later age. Little is known of his life and character beyond the story of these two exploits, but they are sufficient to give him the name of the first great admiral of history.

His exploits illustrate, too, at the very outset of naval history, the vital truth that the man counts more than the machine. In these later days, when the tendency is to measure naval power merely by counting dreadnoughts, and to settle all hypothetical combats by the proportion of strength at a given point on the game board, it is well to remember that the most overwhelming victories have been won by the skill and audacity of a great leader, which overcame odds that would be reckoned by the experts as insuperable.

The Peloponnesian war dragged on with varying fortunes for ten years. The Athenians were regularly successful on the sea and unsuccessful on land. They seem to have laid an unwise dependence on their navy for a state situated on the mainland with land communications open to the enemy. They attempted to make an island of their state by withdrawing into the city of Athens the entire population of Attica, leaving open to the invader the rest of the province. The repeated ravaging of Attica by Peloponnesian armies weakened both the resources and the morale of the Athenians, and the crowding of the inhabitants into the city resulted in frightful mortality from the plague. At the same time the naval expeditions sent out to harry the coast of the Peloponnesus accomplished nothing of real advantage.

In 421 a truce was agreed upon between Athens and Sparta, which was to last fifty years. Both sides were sorely weakened by the protracted struggle and neither had gained any real advantage over the other. Without waiting to recuperate from the losses of the war, Athens embarked in 415 on an ambitious plan of conquering Syracuse, and gaining all of Sicily as an Athenian colony. In the event of success Athens would have a western outpost for the eventual control of the Mediterranean, as she already had an eastern outpost in Ionia, which gave her control of the AEgean.

In the light of the event it is customary to refer to this expedition as the climax of folly, and yet it is clear that if the commander in chief had not wasted time in interminable delays the Athenians might easily have won their objective. At first the Syracusans felt hopeless because of the large army and fleet dispatched against them, and the great naval prestige of their enemy, but as delay succeeded delay, assistance arrived from Corinth and Sparta, and the besieged citizens took heart. The siege dragged on for the greater part of two years, with the offensive gradually slipping from the Athenians to the Syracusans, till finally the invaders found their troops besieged on shore and their ships bottled up in the harbor by a line of galleys anchored across the entrance. The Syracusans knew that they were no match for the Athenians on the open sea, but with a fleet crowded into a harbor with no room for maneuvering, the problem was not essentially different from that of fighting on land. They built a fleet of ships with specially strengthened bows for ramming and erected catapults for throwing heavy stones on the decks of the enemy. Meanwhile, the Athenian ships had deteriorated from lack of opportunity to refit and their crews had been heavily reduced by disease. In a pitched battle between the two fleets in the harbor, the Athenians were worsted. Shortly after as the Athenians were attempting to break through the barrier and escape, they were again attacked by the Syracusans. There was no room for maneuvering; the Athenian ships were jammed together in a mass in which all advantage of numbers was lost. Moreover, against the deadly rain of huge stones the Athenians had no defense whatever.

The result was an overwhelming victory for the Syracusans. Out of 110 triremes the Athenians lost fifty. The besieging army went to pieces in attempting a retreat across the island, and the whole expedition came to a tragic end. This defeat of the Athenian fleet in the harbor of Syracuse was the ruin of Athens. When the news reached Greece, many of her dependencies revolted, the Peloponnesian war had broken out anew, and she had no strength left to hold her own. The deathblow was given when a Spartan admiral destroyed all that was left of the Athenian navy at AEgospotami in the year 405. Thereafter Athens was merely a conquered province, permitted to keep a fleet of only twelve ships, and watched by a garrison of Spartan soldiers in the citadel.

The downfall of Athenian sea power at Syracuse may be compared with the downfall of Persian sea power at Salamis. Just as the latter prevented the spread of an Asiatic form of civilization in Europe and gave Greek civilization a chance to develop, so the former put an end to the extension of a strong Hellenic power in Italy and left opportunity for the rise of the civilization of Rome.


HISTORY OF GREECE, Ernst Curtius, 1874. HISTORY OF GREECE, George Grote, 1856. THE GREAT PERSIAN WAR, G. B. Grundy, 1901. HISTORY OF THE PERSIAN WARS, Herodotus, ed. and transl. by Geo. Rawlinson, 1862. HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR, Thucydides, ed. and transl. by Jowett.




When peoples have migrated in the past, they have frequently changed their habits to conform to new topographical surroundings. We have seen that the Phoenicians, originally a nomadic people, became a seafaring race because of the conditions of the country they settled in; and on the other hand, at a later period, the Vikings who overran Normandy or Britain forsook the sea and became farmers. The popular idea that a race follows the sea because of an "instinct in the blood of the race" has little to stand on. When, however, the colonists from Phoenicia settled Carthage and founded an empire, they continued the traditions of their ancestors and built up their power on a foundation of ships. This was due to the conditions—topographical and geographical—which surrounded them, and which were much like those of the mother country. Carthage possessed the finest harbor on the coast of Africa, situated in the middle of the Mediterranean, where all the trade routes crossed. To counteract these attractions of the sea there was nothing but the arid and mountainous character of the interior. It was inevitable, therefore, that the Carthaginians, like their ancestors, should build an empire of the sea.

As early as the sixth century B.C. Carthage had established her power so securely in the western Mediterranean as to be able to set down definite limits beyond which Rome agreed not to go. Thus the opening sentence of a treaty between the two nations in 509 B. C. ran as follows:

"Between the Romans and their allies and the Carthaginians and their allies there shall be peace and alliance upon the conditions that neither the Romans nor their allies shall sail beyond the Fair Promontory[1] unless compelled by bad weather or an enemy; and in case they are forced beyond it they shall not be allowed to take or purchase anything except what is barely necessary for refitting their vessels or for sacrifice, and they shall depart within five days."[2]

[Footnote 1: A cape on the African coast about due north from Carthage.]

[Footnote 2: GENERAL HISTORY, Polybius, Bk. III, chap. 3.]

A second and a third treaty emphasized even mare strongly the Carthaginian dictatorship over the Mediterranean.

It was inevitable, therefore, that as Rome expanded her interests should come in collision with those of Carthage. The immediate causes of the Punic wars are of no consequence for our purpose; the two powers had rival interests in Sicily, and the clash of these brought on the war in the year 264 B.C. There followed a mortal struggle between Rome and Carthage that extended through three distinct wars and a period of aver a hundred years.

When the two nations faced each other in arms, Carthage had the advantage of prestige and the greatest navy in the world. Her weaknesses lay in the strife of political factions and the mercenary character of her forces. Her officers were usually Carthaginians, but it was considered beneath the dignity of a Carthaginian to be a private. The rank and file, therefore, were either hired or pressed into service from the subject provinces. In the case of Xanthippus, who defeated Regulus in the first Punic war, even the commanding officer was a Spartan mercenary. These troops would do well so long as campaigns promised plunder but would became disaffected if things went wrong.

The Romans, on the other hand, had only a small navy and no naval experience; their strength lay in their legionaries. And in further contrast with their enemy they had none but Romans in their forces, or allies who were proud of fighting on the side of Rome. Consequently they fought in the spirit of intense patriotism which could stand the moral strain of defeat and even disaster. On land there was no better fighter than the Roman soldier. At sea, however, all the advantage lay with the Carthaginian, and it soon became clear that if the Romans were to succeed they would have to learn to fight on water.

For the first three years Carthaginian fleets raided the coasts of Sicily and Italy with impunity. Finally, in desperation, Rome set about the creation of a fleet, and the story is that a Carthaginian quinquereme that had been wrecked an the coast was taken as a model, and while the ships were building, rowers were trained in rowing machines set up an shore. The first contact with the enemy was not encouraging. The new fleet, which was constructed in two months, consisted of 100 quinqueremes and 30 triremes. Seventeen of these while on a trial cruise were blockaded in the harbor of Messina by twenty Carthaginian ships, and the Roman commander was obliged to surrender after his crews had landed and escaped.

The next encounter was a different story. The Romans, realizing their ignorance of naval tactics and their superiority in land fighting, determined to make the next naval battle as nearly as possible like an engagement of infantry. Accordingly the ships were fitted with boarding gangways with a huge hooked spike at the end, like the beak of a crow, which gave them their name, "corvi" or "crows."[1]

[Footnote 1: The following is the description in Polybius of what they were like and how they were worked.

"They [the Romans] erected on the prow of every vessel a round pillar of wood, of about twelve feet in height, and of three palms breadth in diameter, with a pulley at the top. To this pillar was fitted a kind of stage, eighteen feet in length and four feet broad, which was made ladder-wise, of strong timbers laid across, and cramped together with iron: the pillar being received into an oblong square, which was opened for that purpose, at the distance of six feet within the end of the stage. On either side of the stage lengthways was a parapet, which reached just above the knee. At the farthest end of this stage or ladder was a bar of iron, whose shape was somewhat like a pestle; but it was sharpened at the bottom, or lower point; and on the top of it was a ring. The whole appearance of this machine very much resembled those that are used in grinding corn. To the ring just mentioned was fixed a rope, by which, with the help of the pulley that was at the top of the pillar, they hoisted up the machines, and, as the vessels of the enemy came near, let them fall upon them, sometimes on their prow, and sometimes on their sides, as occasion best served. As the machine fell, it struck into the decks of the enemy, and held them fast. In this situation, if the two vessels happened to lie side by side, the Romans leaped on board from all parts of their ships at once. But in case that they were joined only by the prow, they then entered two and two along the machine; the two foremost extending their bucklers right before them to ward off the strokes that were aimed against them in front; while those that followed rested the boss of their bucklers upon the top of the parapet on either side, and thus covered both their flanks." GENERAL HISTORY, Book 1.]

Armed with this new device, the Consul Duilius took the Roman fleet to sea to meet an advancing Carthaginian fleet and encountered it off the port of Mylae (260 B.C.). The Carthaginians had such contempt for their enemy that they advanced in irregular order, permitting thirty of their ships to begin the battle unsupported by the rest of the fleet. One after the other the Carthaginian quinqueremes were grappled and stormed, for once the great corvus crashed down on a deck all the arts of seamanship were useless. Before the day was over the Carthaginians had lost 14 ships sunk and 31 captured, a total of half their fleet, and the rest had fled in disorder towards Carthage.

The unexpected had happened, as it so frequently does in history. The amateurs had beaten the professionals, not by trying to achieve the same efficiency but by inventing something new that would make that efficiency useless. Thus, as we nave seen, the Syracusans, who were no match for the Athenians in the open sea, destroyed the sea power of Athens by bottling up her fleet in a harbor and bombarding it with catapults. It is an instance such as we shall see recurring throughout naval history, in which the power of a great fleet is largely or completely neutralized by a new or device in the hands of the nation with the smaller navy.

The significance of Mylae lay in the fact that a new naval power had arisen, that henceforth Rome must be reckoned with on the sea. The victory served to encourage the Romans to enlarge their navy, and with it to press the war into the enemy's territory. Soon after Mylae they gained possession of the greater part of Sicily, and in the year 256 they dispatched a fleet to carry the offensive into Africa. This Roman fleet of 330 ships met, just off Ecnomus, on the southern coast of Sicily, a Carthaginian fleet of 350, and a great battle took place, interesting for the grand scale on which it was fought and the tactics employed.

The Romans, an seeing their enemy, assumed a formation hitherto unknown in tactics at sea. Their first and second squadrons formed the sides of an acute-angled triangle; the third squadron formed the base of the triangle, towing the transports, and the fourth squadron brought up the rear, covering the transports. The whole formed a compact wedge, pushing forward like a great spear head to pierce the enemy's line.

Admirable as this formation was, the Carthaginians were no less skillful in their tactics for destroying it. Instead of keeping an unbroken line to receive the attack, they stationed their left wing at same distance from the center so as to overlap the Roman right, and their right wing in column ahead, so as to overlap the Roman left. As the Romans advanced, the Carthaginian center purposely gave way, drawing the advance wings of their enemy away from the transports and the two squadrons in the rear. Then they faced about and attacked. Meanwhile the two Carthaginian squadrons on the flanks swung round the Roman wedge, the left wing engaging the Roman third squadron, which was hampered by the transports, and driving it toward the shore. At the same time the Carthaginian right wing attacked the fourth, or reserve, squadron from the rear and drove it into the open sea. Thus the battle went on in three distinct engagements, each separated by considerable distance from the others. The outcome is thus narrated by Polybius:

"Because in each of these divisions the strength of the combatants was nearly equal, the success was also for some time equal. But in the progress of the action the affair was brought at last to a decision: a different one, perhaps, from what might reasonably have been expected in such circumstances. For the Roman squadron that had begun the engagement gained so full a victory, that Amilcar [the Carthaginian commander] was forced to fly, and the consul Manlius brought away the vessels that were taken.

"The other consul, having now perceived the danger in which the triarii[1] and the transports were involved, hastened to their assistance with the second squadron, which was still entire. The triarii, having received these succors, when they were Just upon the point of yielding, again resumed their courage, and renewed the fight with vigor: so that the enemy, being surrounded on every side in a manner so sudden and unexpected, and attacked at once both in the front and rear were at last constrained to steer away to sea.

[Footnote 1: The rear guard, or fourth squadron.]

"About this time Manlius also, returning from the engagement, observed that the ships of the third squadron were forced in close to the shore, and there blocked up by the left division of the Carthaginian fleet. He joined his forces, therefore, with those of the other consul, who had now placed the transports and triarii in security, and hastened to assist these vessels, which were so invested by the enemy that they seemed to suffer a kind of siege. And, indeed, they must have all been long before destroyed if the Carthaginians, through apprehension of the corvi, had not still kept themselves at distance, and declined a close engagement. But the consuls, having now advanced together, surround the enemy, and take fifty of their ships with all the men. The rest, being few in number, steered close along the shore, and saved themselves by flight.

"Such were the circumstances of this engagement; in which the victory at last was wholly on the side of the Romans. Twenty-four of their ships were sunk in the action, and more than thirty of the Carthaginians. No vessel of the Romans fell into the hands of the enemy; but sixty-four of the Carthaginians were taken with their men."[2]

[Footnote 2: Polybius's GENERAL HISTORY, Book I, Chap. 2.]

The battle of Ecnomus had no such decisive effect on history as the battle of Salamis, but it was on a far greater scale and it reveals an enormous advance in tactics. Three hundred thousand men, rowers and warriors, were engaged, and nearly 700 ships. Up to the battle of Actium, two centuries later, Ecnomus remained the greatest naval action in history. Moreover, the tactics of the rival fleets show a high degree of discipline and efficiency. The Carthaginian plan of dividing their enemy's force and defeating it by a concentrated attack on his transport division, was skillfully carried out and came perilously near succeeding. Had the first and second squadrons of the Carthaginians been able to carry out their part of the plan and "contain" the corresponding advance squadrons of the Romans, the result would have been an overwhelming victory for Carthage, involving not only the destruction of the Roman fleet but also the capture of the Roman army of invasion.

This victory left open the way for the advance into Africa. The Romans had landed and marched almost to the gates of Carthage when the army was destroyed by the skill of a Spartan, Xanthippus, and Regulus, the Consul in command, was captured. This astonishing catastrophe inflicted on the Roman legionaries was due to the use of elephants, and offers a curious parallel to the effect of the corvi on the Carthaginian sailors. Such was the terror inspired by these animals that the Roman soldier would not stand before them until a year or two later, in Sicily, the Consul Cecilius showed how they could not only be repulsed but turned back on their own army by the use of javelins and arrows.

Nothing daunted by the loss of their army, Rome dispatched a fleet of 350 ships to Africa to carry off the remnants of the defeated army that were besieged in the city of Aspis. They were met by a hastily organized Carthaginian fleet off the promontory of Hermaea in a brief action in which the Romans were overwhelmingly victorious. The latter took 114 vessels with their crews. The Roman expedition continued on its course to Africa, rescued the besieged troops and turned back in high feather toward Sicily. The Consuls in command had been warned by the pilots not to attempt to skirt the southern coast of Sicily at that season of the year, but the warning was disregarded. Suddenly, as the fleet was approaching the shore it was overwhelmed by a great gale, and out of 464 vessels only eighty survived.

Frightful as this loss was in ships and men, Rome proceeded at once to build another fleet, to the number of 250, which, with characteristic energy, was made ready for service in three months. This force also, after an ineffectual raid on the African coast, fell victim to a storm on the way home with the loss of 150 ships.

Unwilling to relinquish the mastery of the sea that had been won by an uninterrupted series of victories, Rome sent another fleet to attack a Carthaginian force lying in the harbor of Drepanum. As the Romans approached, the Carthaginians went out to meet them, and so maneuvered as to force them to fight with an enemy in front and the rocks and shoals of the coast in their rear. The Roman ships were never able to extricate themselves from this predicament, and the greater part were either taken or wrecked on the coast. The Consul in command managed to escape with about thirty of his vessels, but 93 were taken with their crews. This is the single instance of a pitched battle between Roman and Carthaginian fleets in which the victory went to Carthage, a victory due entirely to better seamanship. The immediate result of this success was the destruction of the Roman squadron lying in the port of Lilybaeum which was assisting the troops in the siege of that town.

Still another Roman fleet that had the temerity to anchor in an exposed position was destroyed by a storm. "For so complete was the destruction," writes Polybius, "that scarcely a single plank remained entire."

Stunned by these disasters, the government at Rome gave up the idea of contesting any further the command of the sea. The citizens, how ever, were not willing to submit, and displayed a magnificent spirit of patriotism in this the darkest period of the war. Individuals of means, or groups of individuals, pledged each a quinquereme, fully equipped, for a new fleet, asking reimbursement from the government only in case of victory. By these private efforts a force of 200 quinqueremes was constructed. At this time, as at the very beginning, the model for the Roman ships was a prize taken from the enemy.

Meanwhile the Carthaginians, confident that the Romans were finally driven from the sea, had allowed their own fleet to disintegrate. Accordingly when the astonishing news reached them that the Romans were again abroad they were compelled to fill their ships with raw levies of troops and inexperienced rowers and sailors. And, since the Carthaginian troops who were besieging the city of Eryx in Sicily were in need of supplies, a large number of transports were sent with the fleet. The Carthaginian commander planned to make a landing unobserved, leave his transports, exchange his raw crews for some of the veterans before Eryx and then give battle to the Roman fleet.

This program failed because of the initiative of the Roman Consul commanding the new fleet. Having got word of the coming of the Carthaginians and divining their plan, he braved an unfavorable wind and a rough sea for the sake of forcing an action before they could establish contact with their army. Accordingly he sought out his enemy and met him (in the year 241 B.C.) off the island of AEgusa, near Lilybaeum. Almost at the first onset the Romans won an overwhelming victory, capturing seventy and sinking fifty of the Carthaginian force.

This final desperate effort of Rome was decisive. The Carthaginians had no navy left, and their armies in Sicily were cut off from all communications with their base. Accordingly ambassadors went to Rome to sue for peace, and the great struggle that had lasted without intermission for twenty-four years and reduced both parties to the point of exhaustion, ended with a triumph for Rome through a victory on the sea. By the treaty of peace Carthage was obliged to pay a heavy indemnity and yield all claim to Sicily.

Whatever historical moral may be drawn from the story of the first Punic war, the fact remains that a nation of landsmen met the greatest maritime power in the world and defeated it on its own element. In every naval battle save one the Romans were victors. It is true, however, that in the single defeat off Drepanum and in the dreadful disasters inflicted by storms, Rome lost through lack of knowledge of wind and sea. No great naval genius stands above the rest, to whom the final success can be attributed. Rome won simply through the better fighting qualities of her rank and file and the stamina of her citizens. To quote the phrase of a British writer,[1] Rome showed the superior "fitness to win."

[Footnote 1: Fred Jane, HERESIES OF SEA POWER, passim.]

The Second Punic War

In the first Punic war the prize was an island, Sicily. Naturally, therefore, the fighting was primarily naval. The second Punic war (218-202 B.C.) was essentially a war on land. Carthage, driven from Sicily, turned to Spain and made the southern part of the peninsula her province. Using this as his base, Hannibal marched overland, crossed the Alps, and invaded Italy from the north. Had he followed up his unbroken series of victories by marching on the capital instead of going into winter quarters at Capua, it is possible that Rome might have been destroyed and all subsequent history radically changed. The Romans had no general who could measure up to the genius of Hannibal, but their spirit was unbroken even by the slaughter of Cannae, and their allies remained loyal. Moreover, Carthage, thanks to factional quarrels and personal jealousies, was deaf to all the requests sent by Hannibal for reenforcements when he needed them most. In the end, Scipio, after having driven the Carthaginians out of Spain, dislodged Hannibal from Italy by carrying an invasion into Africa. At the battle of Zama the Romans defeated Hannibal and won the war.

It is difficult to see any significant use of sea power in this second Punic war. Neither side seemed to realize what might be done in cutting the communications of the other, and both sides seemed to be able to use the sea at will. Of course due allowance must be made for the limitations of naval activity. The quinquereme was too frail to attempt a blockade or to patrol the sea lanes in all seasons. Nevertheless both sides used the sea for the transport of troops and the conveying of intelligence, and neither side made any determined effort to establish a real control of the sea.[1]

[Footnote 1: For a distinguished opinion to the contrary, v. Mahan, INFLUENCE OF SEA POWER UPON HISTORY, 14 ff. In this view, however, Mahan is not supported by Mommsen (vol. II, p. 100). See also Jane, HERESIES OF SEA POWER, 60 ff.]

The Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.)

The third Punic war has no naval interest. Rome, not satisfied with defeating her rival in the two previous wars, took a convenient pretext to invade Carthage and destroy every vestige of the city. With this the great maritime empire came to an end, and Rome became supreme in the Mediterranean.


After the fall of Carthage no rival appeared to contest the sovereignty of Rome upon the sea. The next great naval battle was waged between two rival factions of Rome herself at the time when the republic had fallen and the empire was about to be reared on its ruins. This was the battle of Actium, one of the most decisive in the world's history.

The rivalry between Antony and Octavius as to who should control the destinies of Rome was the immediate cause of the conflict. In the parceling out of spoil from the civil wars following the murder of Caesar, Octavius had taken the West, Lepidus the African provinces, and Antony the East. Octavius soon ousted Lepidus and then turned to settle the issue of mastery with Antony. In this he had motives of revenge as well as ambition. Antony had robbed him of his inheritance from Caesar, and divorced his wife, the sister of Octavius, in favor of Cleopatra, with whom he had become completely infatuated. In this quarrel the people of Rome were inclined to support Octavius, because of their indignation over a reported declaration made by Antony to the effect that he intended to make Alexandria rather than Rome the capital of the empire and rule East and West from the Nile rather than the Tiber. Both sides began preparations for the conflict. Antony possessed the bulk of the Roman navy and the Roman legions of the eastern provinces. To his fleet he added squadrons of Egyptian and Phoenician vessels of war, and to his army he brought large bodies of troops from the subject provinces of the East. In addition he spent great sums of money by means of his agents in Rome to arouse disaffection against Octavius. At the outset he acted with energy and caused his antagonist the gravest anxiety. It was clear also that Antony intended to take the offensive. He established winter quarters at Patras, on the Gulf of Corinth, during the winter of 32-31 B.C., billeting his army in various towns on the west coast of Greece, and keeping it supplied by grain ships from Alexandria. His fleet he anchored in the Ambracian Gulf, a landlocked bay, thirty miles wide, lying north of the Gulf of Corinth; it is known to-day as the Gulf of Arta.

Octavius, however, was equally determined not to yield the offensive to his adversary, and boldly collected ships and troops for a movement in force against Antony's position. His troops were also Roman legionaries, experienced in war, but his fleet was considerably less in numbers and the individual ships much smaller than the quinqueremes and octiremes of Antony. The ships of Octavius were mostly biremes and triremes. These disadvantages, however, were offset by the fact that his admiral, Agrippa, was an experienced sea-fighter, having won a victory near Mylae during the civil wars, and by the other fact that the crews under him, recruited from the Dalmatian coast, were hardy, seafaring men. These were called Liburni, and the type of ship they used was known as the Liburna. This was a two-banked galley, but the term was already becoming current for any light man of war, irrespective of the number of banks of oars. In contrast with these Liburni, who divided their days between fishing and piracy and knew all the tricks of fighting at sea, the crews of Antony's great fleet were in many cases landsmen who had been suddenly impressed into service.

As soon as Antony had moved his force to western Greece he seemed paralyzed by indecision and made no move to avail himself of his advantageous position to strike. He had plenty of money, while his adversary was at his wit's end to find even credit. He had the admiration of his soldiers, who had followed him through many a campaign to victory, while Octavius had no popularity with his troops, most of whom were reluctant to fight against their old comrades in arms. And finally, Antony had a preponderating fleet with which he could command the sea and compel his opponent to fight on the defensive in Italian territory. All these advantages he allowed to slip away.

During the winter of 32-31 one-third of Antony's crews perished from lack of proper supplies and the gaps were filled by slaves, mule-drivers, and plowmen—any one whom his captains could seize and impress from the surrounding country. The following spring Agrippa made a feint to the south by capturing Methone at the southern tip of the Peloponnesus, thus threatening the wheat squadrons from Egypt on which Antony depended. Next came the news that Octavius had landed an army in Epirus and was marching south. Then Antony realized that his adversary was aiming to destroy the fleet in the Ambracian Gulf and hastened thither. He arrived with a squadron ahead of his troops, at almost the same instant as Octavius, and if Octavius had had the courage to attack the tired and disorganized crews of Antony's squadron, Antony would have been lost. But by dressing his crews in the armor of legionaries and drawing up his ships in a position for fighting, with oars suspended, he "bluffed" his enemy into thinking that he had the support of his troops. When the latter arrived Antony established a great camp on Cape Actium, which closes the southern side of the Gulf, and fortified the entrance on that side.

Thereafter for months the two forces faced each other on opposite sides of the Gulf, neither side risking more than insignificant skirmishes. During this time Octavius had free use of the sea for his supplies, while the heavier fleet of Antony lay idle in harbor. Nevertheless, Octavius did not dare to risk all on a land battle, and conducted his campaign in a characteristically timid and vacillating manner which should have made it easy for Antony to take the aggressive and win. But the famous lieutenant of Julius Caesar was no longer the man who used to win the devotion of his soldiers by his courage and audacity. He was broken by debauchery and torn this way and that by two violently hostile parties in his own camp. One party, called the Roman, wanted him to come to an understanding with Octavius, or beat him in battle, and go to Rome as the restorer of the republic. The other party, the Egyptian, was Cleopatra and her following. Cleopatra was interested in holding Antony to Egypt, to consolidate through him a strong Egyptian empire, and she was not at all interested in the restoration of Roman liberties. In Antony's desire to please Cleopatra and his attempt to deceive his Roman friends into thinking that he was working for their aims, may be seen the explanation of the utter lack of strategy or consistent plan in his entire campaign against Octavius.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse