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About The Authors

By Amber Books, Iain Dickie and Phyllis Jestice

Iain Dickie’s interest in military matters was first inspired by pictures of Roman artillery at the age of 12. based in Britain, he has been a committee member of the Society of Ancients, the editor of Army & Navy Modelworld , Military Hobbies, and Miniature Wargames... More

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A universal truth in the military arena is that battles tend to happen along lines of communication. Until steam power became widely available, waterways -- salt and fresh -were the preferred means of transportation for armies, supplies and building materials. Thus, after the fall of the Romans, a vacuum in naval power allowed the Vikings to land armies where wanted. Not only did they make the sea their motorway, they also sailed far inland along rivers, even besieging Paris in 885 AD.
During the late twelfth century BC, Egypt was beset by foreign invaders. The cities and fertile territories subject to the pharaoh Ramses III were eyed enviously by all around him. He only had to turn his attention to one corner of his empire for his enemies to make inroads into another.
To the south were the Nubian Kushites, probably the enemy most familiar to the Egyptians since there was some level of trade between the peoples. The waters of the Nile, which brought shipping and fertilized Egypt's fields, formed a highway from these southern lands into the heart of the Egyptian kingdom. South of the second cataract (one of the shallow stretches of rocky, turbulent rapids), the Nile also fertilized the lands of the Nubians, allowing their wealth to grow and become a serious rival to Egyptian power. Ramses had 15 sophisticated fortresses, each garrisoned by up to 300 regular troops, in the region of the second cataract, plus a naval base at the first cataract to defend against the Nubians from Ethiopia. For the moment, these defences were sufficient; a few centuries later, however, the Kushites would break through to conquer Egypt.
To the west of Egypt, the Libyans, with their seemingly alien customs, lurked menacingly. Periodically they migrated in huge armies made of several different tribes, searching for fertile land to settle.They had little in the way of horses or metal, however, and at the battle of Hatsho in the fifth year of his reign, Ramses was easily able to defeat the Libyans. Lines of archers backed by spearmen advanced directly towards the tribesmen while chariots and javelin men harassed their flanks. When the Libyans broke, they were pursued for over 80km (50 miles), a victory attributed to superior Egyptian technology and organization.
In the north of his kingdom, to the west of the Nile Delta, Ramses built a fortified zone to protect against invasion by the Libyans and the mysterious Sea Peoples. It was here that his predecessor, Merneptah, had defeated a Libyan and Sea Peoples alliance just 50 years earlier. This zone would give early warning of an incursion from the Mediterranean by the Sea Peoples or along the coastal route from the west by the Libyans. To the east of Egypt, there were civilized peoples, the Hittites, with whom messages and ambassadors could be exchanged. However, the Hittites were weak and unable to hold back their own enemies, including the Sea Peoples.
Ramses III and the Sea Peoples: Battle on the Nile
The identity of these invaders, referred to in Egyptian inscriptions as the 'foreign peoples of the sea', is still something of a mystery. It seems likely that the Sea Peoples originated from Greece and islands in the Mediterranean. They are depicted by the Egyptians as two distinct groups. One group, known to the Egyptians as the Sherden, wear horned helmets very similar to those worn by the Acheans who fought at Troy. Indeed, although dates are difficult to establish, one theory places the end of the siege of Troy close to the beginning of the reign of Ramses III. The second group are shown sporting headdresses made of vertical stalks, possibly feathers.These are the Peleset, better known as the Philistines, who gave their name to Palestine. During the twelfth century BC, the Peleset swept aside the once-great Hittite Empire in a huge migration of men, women, children and flocks.
Egyptian Marine (1200 BC)
Armed with a javelin that had a range of about 30m (98ft), and a mace or club, the marine also carried a shield. He may have discarded this when the sea was rough, preferring to hold onto the boat.. The tunic was made from small pieces of metal or leather, known as scales. These were sewn onto a linen backing and overlapped each other, covering the stitches and affording some degree of protection against light missiles. The kilt was a design copied from earlier contact with the Sea Peoples. Note the bare feet, which gave better grip on the wooden deck than leather sandles.
It is possible that the Sherden and Peleset joined together in the southern part of the collapsing Hittite Empire. While the main body approached Egypt across the Sinai desert, the ships of the Sea Peoples moved ahead and entered the Nile Delta. Such a movement could be neither rapid nor secret, so Ramses III had plenty of time to assess his enemy's strength and to prepare a response.
At his disposal, Ramses had two armies in the eastern delta, facing the Libyans. Another army was held in reserve in the centre of the kingdom, possibly at Thebes, and one was in the south facing the Nubians. The soldiers were conscripted, one man in 10 being liable for service.The Egyptian population was organized into generations of roughly 100,000. By this means, it has been calculated that 10,000 fresh recruits were available each year. We do not know the length of service, but we do have details of a force of 8362, including noncombatants, sent on an expedition to the south in the reign of Ramses IV. If this was a portion of the army of the south and we assume a prudent two-thirds of that army were left behind, that would make an army of about 25,000 men and a term of service of 10 years. The infantry were organizedinto units of 250, the charioteers into units of 50. Military police accompanied the force.
Although Ramses maintained a fleet of ships, these were considered to be a part of the army. In addition, tribesmen from the fringes of the empire were recruited as auxiliary troops. We can assume he also used some of these tribesmen as scouts and spies, since they could more easily blend with the advancing horde and discover the final destination of the enemy's fleet. How else could Ramses have known to position his ships in the delta when there were so many possible landing sites on the Egyptian coast? For the coming campaign, Ramses summoned his land forces to Pi-Ramses, about 8km (5 miles) north of Suez, and commandeered all sorts of craft from the Nile and coastal areas.
His warships were equipped with 10 oars per side, a single mast with crow's nest, castles fore and aft, and a single steering oar. At the prow was a ram shaped like a lion's head and sheathed in metal, probably bronze.A slinger was posted in the crow's nest, a man with a grappling hook on the forecastle, and a boarding pike was wielded from the bow. For the rest of the fighting crew, a part of the army was selected and trained as marines, and armed with bows or javelins. The marines wore knee-length, linen kilts, possibly reinforced with leather strips.Above the waist they wore armour in the form of overlapping bronze scales sewn onto a cloth backing. An armoured helmet was made in the same way. The oarsmen were also expected to fight.The total crew numbered just 50 men.
The hulls of the Egyptian ships had a distinct belly in the centre and were relatively narrow, perhaps 16m (50ft) long and just 2m (7ft) wide. This made them a fairly good shape for rowing. They had sides high enough to protect all but the heads of the oarsmen. On the Medinet Habu monument and Queen Nefertiti's barge, the bows and sterns of the boats are shown extending fore and aft in a graceful arc above the waterline. Their leaf-shaped oars appear through the hull sides and the rowers face the stern. The planks of the hulls were lashed together with fibrous rope. We can also assume that the hulls were built from dry wood; when this became wet, it would expand and seal the gaps between the planks, keeping the lashings taut.
The ships of the Sea Peoples are depicted on Egyptian monuments with a similar hull shape to the Egyptian vessels: with castles and crow's nests but without rams or oars. They may have had paddles, although these are not shown. The stem and sternposts seem to be decorated with duck's head shapes. Their crews appear to have used the javelin but not the bow. They also wore knee-length kilts, of a type also worn by the Egyptians. Above the waist, their armour is shown as made of either leather, muscled corselets or strips of overlapping leather, similar to that worn by the Egyptians.
Clash in the Nile Delta
While the Sea Peoples approached the Nile Delta in their ships, their families and goods travelled on slow-moving ox-drawn carts, presumably with a military escort. These convoys were attacked by the Egyptian chariots, auxiliaries and skirmishers and destroyed, those who were not killed becoming slaves. The attacking force, a small proportion of the whole Egyptian army, is another indication that Ramses had good intelligence of his enemy's plans and movements.
Meanwhile, the naval assault sailed into the mouth of the Nile, presumably on a northerlywind. Once inside the reed-bound, meandering channels of the Nile Delta, they were trapped. It was difficult to find the right channel without a local pilot and the papyrus sedge formed great clumps 4-5m (13-16ft) high, making it hard to see the masts of lurking ships.
As the wind slackened - which it always does moving from the sea inshore - they would have found it hard to manoeuvre.As the southerly flow of the Nile competed with the northerly wind, the Egyptian ships appeared behind and in front of the Sea Peoples' fleet.
The Egyptians fired a shower of arrows from a range of 150m (500ft) and javelins from 15m (50ft) as their ships closed to ram. When the rams crashed into the gunwales of the enemy ships, these tended to roll as the Egyptian ships, their rams high out of the water, pushed over the top. The crew of the enemy ship, already distracted by the incoming missiles, would tumble to the far side, causing a sharp list. If the Egyptians were lucky, the opposite gunwale would go under water and the ship would roll onto its side, throwing the crew into the water.The high prow and stem shapes on the vessels of both sides would have provided an element of counter-buoyancy, helping to prevent a complete roll over. The usual effect, however, was to overturn the ships of the Sea Peoples, as depicted on Ramses' monument to the battle at the mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.
Even a few casualties would cause a lot of disruption to the smooth running of such small ships. With no medical facilities on board, the injured were left to suffer. Both sides fought with their masts and yards standing, the sail still furled. This would have contributed to the ships' instability and the Sea Peoples' vulnerability to the Egyptian ram. Crews of both sides were spilled into the water during the fighting, but it was the Sea Peoples whose fleet was finally destroyed. Some of the Sea Peoples were pulled out of the water or dragged to shore and tied up as prisoners for sale as slaves later. Ramses III's inscription at Medinet Habu records the fate of the invading fleet: 'They were dragged, overturned and laid low on the beach; slain and made heaps from stern to bow of their galleys.'
The Development of the Bireme
It would be wrong to think that the ships used by the Egyptians in this battle laid down the model for subsequent warship development. The materials available - wood, rope and cloth - lent themselves most readily to the sorts of ships used by either side. The next development that we are able to trace was deep in the bowels of the vessel: the maximum speed of a ship is proportional to the square of its length, so the longer the ship, the faster it can go. By changing the way the planks were fixed together, ship builders were able to construct longer and therefore faster ships.
To achieve this, a slot was cut into the edge of one plank to match a slot cut into the edge of its neighbour.A tongue of wood was then hammered (it had to be a tight fit) into the first slot and the neighbouring plank, carefully aligned, was hammered onto the protruding tongue. Each end of the tongue was secured by a dowel going through the plank and tongue and out the other side. When seawater soaked the wood, it would swell and tighten the joint. Planed smooth, this gave the ships an efficient shape with minimal water resistance.As well as joining the planks edge to edge, this allowed them to be securely joined end to end, meaning that the length of the ship was no longer limited to the tallest tree available. An internal frame was added after the planking was complete.
The Greeks evolved such ships up to around 30m (100ft) in length. They were powered by 30 oarsmen (the triakonter) or 50 oarsmen (the pentekonter) and by a square sail on a single mast. A small forecastle held between two and five marines, but the main weapon was a waterline ram designed to smash through the planks of the opposing ships and sink them. These ships would also leave their masts and sails on shore before a battle.This lightened the ship, making it faster, and cleared the deck of clutter.
' ... the unruly Sherden whom no one had ever known how to combat, they came boldly sailing in their warships from the midst of the sea, none being able to withstand them. '
Battle of the Sea Peoples 1190 BC
The end of the great conspiracy of the Sea Peoples was achieved by the greater organization of the Egyptian empire. The Sea Peoples' deeply flawed plan left their women and children with insufficient protection in open country - easy prey for the maurading Egyptian chariotry backed by their tribal allies. The invaders' strike force used outdated technology and failed to achieve surprise or numerical superiority. Indeed, they were themselves surprised by Egyptian ships lurking unseen amongst the tall papyrus reeds of the Nile delta. The Egyptians also employed superior tactics, with their ships ramming and then withdrawing to ram again - and again. The survivors from the Sea People's army were captured and used as slaves. Very few escaped, bringing an end to the culture of the Sea Peoples and the threat they posed in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Persian Marine (480 BC)
Persia was a vast empire and drew its fighting men from all quarters, including the Greek cities on the Asia mainland and Egypt. This, however, is a true Persian marine, dressed in the Median style with tunic, trousers and a cap that covers his ears. His principal weapon was the bow. In fact, almost every man in the Persian army was equipped with one. For close fighting, he used a hand axe, favoured for centuries for boarding actions. Although he carried a large shield, this did not compensate for his lack of armour. At the battle of Salamis, Xerxes relied heavily on marines, placing at least 30 on each vessel. At the heart of this decision was probably Persian distrust of sea power and failure to recognize the effectiveness of the ship itself as the primary weapon. Impressive as they appeared, the marines probably did Xerxes' cause more harm than good. They were so tightly packed on the ships that they could not fight effectively and their lack of body armour and light weapons were no match for the Greeks.
The difficulty with further increasing the motive power of the vessel was that each oarsman rowed a single oar and had to sit adjacent to the outside edge of the ship. The Phoenicians solved this problem by using the space between oarsmen to slide another oar through, with the extra man sitting inboard and slightly higher than the outer row. The holes through which the oars protruded also had to be staggered vertically. Each rowing station now sported two oarsmen and the type became known as the bireme.
A variant on this design was the bemiola, with one-and-a-half banks of oars. While merchantmen of the period operated under sail and warships fought under oar power, this ship was designed for the chase. She could supplement wind power with her oars and was capable of sustained faster speeds to catch her prey or evade capture - an ideal pirate craft.
More Oarsmen
The next development was to add a third row of oarsmen, creating the trireme. This third row was not accommodated within the hull of the ship but on an outrigger projecting from the side of the hull, which allowed the trireme to retain its sleek, fast, narrow hull shape. This ship could carry 14 marines in a small forecastle and was powered by 170 oarsmen. Her ram delivered more power and momentum to break through the hulls of the enemy vessel.To stop the enemy ship riding too far up the ram and damaging the forecastle, the stem post now appeared forward of the forecastle. In battle, leather side screens were rigged to protect the crew from enemy missiles. An additional mast was added near the bow, angled forwards like a bowsprit. The main mast and sail were still left ashore when battle was imminent, but the bow mast would be retained on board to facilitate escape, if necessary. It was the trireme that was the backbone of the Ancient Greek fleet at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC.
Salamis, 480 BC: Battle in the Straits
The rich and powerful rulers of Ancient Persia commanded a huge empire that stretched from the Caspian Sea and the borders of the Russian steppe in the north to the great river Indus beyond the mountains in the south. To the east, their writ ran as far as the edge of the Gobi desert and in the west beyond the land of the Pharaohs along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the province of Skudra, today part of Turkey. It was only here in the west that anyone continued to defy their will for here, on the Asiatic coast of the Persian Empire, there were many quarrelsome and disobedient Greek colonies.These colonies argued not only with the Persians but also amongst themselves and with the Greek city-states across the Aegean Sea.
In 500 BC, the Greek cities of the Asiatic mainland rose in revolt against the Great King. In a long campaign characterized by repeated Greek betrayal of their fellow Greeks, the overwhelming Persian forces crushed the revolt. In the final battle at Lade in 494 BC, some 600 Persian triremes defeated a fleet of 353 triremes from the Greek Ionian colonies. During the Ionian revolt, the rebels had often been supported by city-states in Greece, principally the Athenians. The Persian emperor Darius I resolved to punish the Greeks for their defiance of his authority.
Darius' first plan in 492 BC involved a fleet supporting the Persian land army's advance. Unfortunately his fleet was wrecked in a storm off Mount Athos and, after a reverse ashore, the army was forced to retire. Two years later, a new expedition set off from the Asiatic coast in 600 triremes plus transports with the intention of attacking Athens and Eretria for their part in the rebellion. After capturing several islands, the Persian fleet duly landed an army and took the city of Eretria.
The Persian fleet then transported the army to the bay of Marathon. This wide beach was on the edge of a broad plain just two days hard marching from Athens. It was ideal for a naval landing and agood cavalry ground - an arm of the military in which the Persian army far exceeded the power of the Athenians. The wily Greeks, however, declined to come down from the safer ground of the adjacent mountainside to fight their more mobile foe. A stand-off ensued. With 150,000 soldiers and crewmen to feed and water, the Persian supply train could not keep up and the Persians were forced to re-embark their forces. As they were so doing, the Athenians attacked and inflicted a minor victory on an enemy already trying to leave. News of the victory was carried from Marathon to Athens by runner, an event now commemorated in the race of the same name. The Persian fleet with the remainder of the army on board sailed round to Athens (having lost fewer than 7000 casualties), but the Greek army, marching overland, arrived first. Seeing that the opportunity for a landing had been lost, the Persian fleet returned to Asia.
OPPOSITE :A WOODCUT OF XERXES watching the battle of Salamis from the bill called Xerxes' Throne. Depicted here as a spectator, in reality Xerxes needed a full view of the straight to command effectively.
Darius' son Xerxes was next to try in 480 BC. Xerxes' plan was similar to his father's first scheme but much bigger. He had a fleet of 1207 warships and 3000 supply ships built or requisitioned, stripping bare the coastal areas of his empire. The fleet included ships from Egypt and Cyprus and from the formerly rebellious Greek cities in his empire. More than half the fleet was crewed by Greeks.This fleet was the largest in history and its size would not be exceeded until the D-Day landings in June 1944. The historian Herodotus claimed that over a million soldiers marched against Greece in the Persian army. Modern estimates of 150,000 are more credible, but still a remarkable figure. By comparison, Athens, which was one of the largest Greek city states, could boast barely 30,000 men of fighting age.
The Armies Advance
The Persian army assembled at Sardis in modern Asiatic Turkey, a city the Athenians had burned to the ground during the Ionian revolt but which had since been rebuilt. The Greeks sent three spies, who were captured. Instead of executing them, Xerxes ordered them to be taken on a guided tour of the preparations and then released to carry back news of the vast host assembling to attack Greece. While the army was gathering, advanced supply depots were established along the invasion route. It took four years before all the preparations were complete.
Finally the army - which Herodotus claims numbered 1.7 million men, including camp followers, servants and soldiers - set off towards the Hellespont, the modern Bosporus Strait between the European and Asian landmasses. A bridge of boats 2km (1.2 miles) wide was constructed across the Hellespont, but the strength of the current broke the cables and the boats drifted away. A Greek engineer supervised the construction of two replacement bridges using nearly 674 triremes, pentekonters and other ships from the invasion fleet. In addition to stronger cables, the ships employed extra large anchors to prevent the bridge being swept away. It reputedly took seven days and seven nights for the huge Persian army with all its baggage animals to cross over the bridge. Worried by the fate of his father's fleet, wrecked off Mount Athos in 492, Xerxes had also ordered a canal dug through the Mount Athos peninsular to allow his fleet to avoid the dangerous headland. Dug using local forced labour, the canal was 1.6km (1 mile) long, 60m (200ft) wide and at least 2.5m (8ft) deep.
As the army advanced, the northern Greek cities, no doubt greatly intimidated by the vast force, capitulated without a fight. A further 24 cities were forced to contribute more men and 120 ships to the already mighty host. As the army marched, it was organized into three columns. One moved along the shore within sight of the fleet, another inshore via tracks and roads, and the third, with Xerxes himself, in the middle. Such a huge enterprise was well known in Greece. It was obvious that the emperor coveted the whole of Greece, not just those cities that had supported the rebellious Greek colonies on the Asiatic shore. Conferences were called and oracles consulted, but even then the Greek cities were unable to present a unified front. Different cities demanded sole command of the combined army and argued bitterly amongst themselves.
In the end, terrified Athens ploughed all the revenues from her silver mines into building triremes, the wooden wall prophesied by the Oracle at Delphi. Working flat out, her shipwrights had completed 127 vessels, mainly triremes, by the time the fleet had to set sail. Each ship required a crew of 170 oarsmen, 20 sailors and 14 marines. Thus the 127 ships required about 26,000 men. This could be achieved only by heavily depleting the army and relying on her allies to make up the combined land force. Both sides knew from experience that in equipment, motivation and training the Greeks soldiers were better prepared than the Persians. But the difference was much less marked in the fleets than on shore. The ships were virtually the same and at least half the Persian ships were crewed by Greek sailors. Moreover, the Egyptian marines were possibly even better than the Greeks. So the Greek strategy was to seek confined or restricted battle sites to confront the overwhelming Persian host.
First Clashes
Geography pointed to the narrow pass at Thermopylae as the best site to meet the Persian land army and the narrow channel between the island of Euboea and the Greek mainland near Artemisium, some 64km (40 miles) to the west, as the best point to position the Greek fleet. A mere 300 Spartans and 4900 allies from other cities gathered at Thermopylae and set about repairing the wall built during an earlier conflict between the Phocians and Thessalians. Meanwhile, the Greek ships took their station by Artemisium. The Athenian fleet was supplemented by 40 Corinthian ships, 20 Megaran ships, 20 ships from Chalcis and 64 from various other states. A Spartan named Eurybiades was appointed as commander because the other contingents refused to serve under an Athenian. The whole fleet, some 271 ships strong, required more than 55,000 sailors and marines. Ashore, lookouts were posted and a contingent left to guard a mountain track that bypassed the wall. Afloat, a piquet of three triremes was posted at the island of Skiathos, 30km (20 miles) to the northeast. Alarm beacons were arranged on the hills and headlands and the fastest pentekonter was allocated the duty of liaising between fleet and army.
While the Persian army approached the position at Thermopylae, 10 of their fastest ships chased down and captured the three Greek piquets. They also marked a dangerous submerged rock in the channel off Artemisium using a large stone pillar. When their main fleet arrived, some 200 ships were dispatched to sail south around Euboea and take the Greek fleet from the rear. To counter this, the Greeks sent 53 ships to hold the other end of the inshore channel. Meanwhile, the main Persian fleet anchored at Aphetae on the northern side of the Euboea channel. Then the wind took a hand. A great storm from the east blew up and damaged or scattered about 400 of the Persian ships, including the squadron detached to encircle the Greeks. This reduced the Persian strength to around 727 ships, still outnumbering the Greeks by more than three to one. When the storm abated, the Persians sailed to attack. The Greeks, however, formed a defensive circle and the Persian attack lost 30 ships without inflicting any significant losses on the Greek side.
Delayed Offensive
The next day, neither side made a move - both fleets were presumably busy repairing damage. As the day wore on, the 53 Greek ships previously despatched to hold the end of the channel returned and the Persians must have realized that their flank force had been lost. On the third day, however, the Persians returned to the offensive. By the end of the action, about 100 Greek ships and more than 100 Persian ships had suffered some form of damage. This was a tit-for-tat battle, which the numerically weaker Greek fleet could ill afford. Now the news arrived that the Greek force at Thermopylae had been defeated. The desperate last stand of the Spartan-led army had bought valuable time, but the road to Athens now lay open. So, despite the post-battle weariness and trauma, the Greek sailors had to leave their dead and sail by moonlight down the inshore channel and back to defend the now vulnerable city of Athens.
"Forward, sons of the Greeks, Liberate the fatherland, Liberate your children, your women, the altars of the gods of your fathers And the graves of your forebears: Now is the fight for everything.'
While the gallant few had fought and died at Thermopylae, other Greeks had been busy preparing their defences. The next natural line of defence on the mainland was the Isthmus of Corinth and here another wall was being built. But the great cities of Athens and Thebes were on the wrong side of the new wall. And unless the Persian fleet could be neutralized, the Persian army would be able to land wherever it wished, regardless of the wall. Clearly drastic action was required to counter the remaining 600-odd Persian ships.
The city of Thebes submitted to the Persian king, a dreadful blow to the morale of the free Greeks. Those cities that refused to submit were burned and the countryside around them ravaged. Most of the remaining population of Athens - men, women and children - was ferried to the offshore islands of Salamis and Aegina and to Troezen on the far side of the Saronic Gulf. When the land army under Xerxes arrived at the almost deserted city, they found that the guardians of the Acropolis and a few others had barricaded themselves inside. A frontal attack with fire missiles failed but a secret way in was found and the defenders slaughtered.
Meanwhile the reinforced Greek fleet, now up to 378 ships, stationed itself between Salamis and the head of the Saronic Gulf. The Persian fleet settled in at the beaches around Phaleron and other beaches nearby. Divisions still racked the Greek ranks.The contingents from the lands south of the new wall wanted to return to their homes to join in the defence there.
At this crucial moment a little artifice went a long way. The Athenian commander Themistocles gave the impression that the Greeks were planning to escape. The Persians deployed their fleet that night to block both exits from the Salamis basin, preventing the Greek contingents from escaping. All night, the Persians stayed at sea. Their crews, unable to rest other than on their rowing benches, must have been exhausted by morning.
Battle Begins
The western channel was blocked by the still powerful Egyptian flotilla of perhaps 150 ships. To face this deployment, the Greeks placed around 80 ships of the Corinthian contingent. At the mouth of the eastern channel, to the west of the island of Psyttaleia, the Persian commander placed around 300 ships from the Greek cities in Asia. To the east of the island were positioned around 100 ships from the Ionian contingent. Psyttaleia itself was occupied by Persians so that any beached ships could be captured. Meanwhile, the great king Xerxes set up his throne on the hillside overlooking the Gulf, guarded by his elite force, the Immortals, to watch the battle.
Surviving accounts of the battle, like all such accounts, are confusing. It seems that the Egyptians and the Corinthians vessels fought all day.The main Greek fleet deployed as if to break out but then started to back water into the narrowest part of the strait, which was just 1.8km (1 mile) wide. This position suited the Greeks since their ships were on the outside of the curve and could enjoy local numeric superiority and the advantages of a flank attack. The Persians took the bait and pursued the Greeks into the narrow waters.
Although the rams used on both sides could cripple opposing ships, the victims tended not to sink. Having little in the way of ballast and being made largely of wood, stricken vessels would continue to float and become obstacles to manoeuvre. So, after the initial clash, naval battles of the period would usually break down into shipboard melees, with each side trying to reinforce their own beleaguered comrades. This is exactly what happened at Salamis. As they crowded into the strait, the Persian ships became so bunched up that they could not row without interfering with the neighbouring vessels, never mind manoeuvre to ram or counter ram. Consequently the Greeks, being better able to manoeuvre, had a field day for a while, at least until the water was so choked with waterlogged ships that they had to resort to boarding where they could and fighting hand to hand on blood-soaked decks.
'Remember also, thou goest home having gained the purpose of thy expedition; for thou hast burnt Athens!'
During the vicious hand-to-hand fighting, the superiority of the Greek hoplite's equipment, training and motivation quickly began to tell and the Persian king's men fell in droves. Morale is an important factor in any battle and it appears that the Persian morale gave way first. As Xerxes watched from his throne on the hillside overlooking the strait, the unengaged ships from the head of the Persian column turned to try and escape back out to sea, some unintentionally ramming others from their own side. Many of the Persian sailors who were thrown into the water drowned because they were unable to swim. Among the thousands of Persian casualties during the battle was Xerxes' own brother.
This defeat did not spell the end for Xerxes. Fearing that the victorious Greeks would sail off to the Hellespont and destroy his bridge of boats, cutting off his retreat, the emperor ordered some of his troops to build a mole out to the island of Salamis to mask his other preparations for retreat. As the remaining Persian fleet fell back to Asia, Xerxes left an army behind in his newly won northern Greek provinces. This army was beaten at the Battle of Platea the following year and the Persian fleet was caught in its winter base and destroyed. Greco-Persian animosity festered for years until Alexander the Great crossed the Hellespont in 334 BC and conquered Persia, finally ending the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
Battle of Salamis 480 BC
Both the previous land and naval battles between the Greeks and Persians had been fought on lines of communication, but this was not. If Xerxes could establish command of the seas he could bypass the next line of Greek defence, a wall being built near Corinth across the isthmus connecting the Peloponnese to the Greek mainland. So, he had to further reduce the already depleted Greek fleet or it would hamper his further conquest of Greece or harry his return home. The Greeks in turn knew that they had to establish naval superiority despite their inferior numbers or become vassals of the Great King.The Greek plan was to achieve locally superior numbers by forcing the Persian fleet to fight in narrow channels where their much larger fleet could not fully deploy. Once they had gained comparable or superior numbers the better-armed Greek marines would make mincemeat of the unarmoured Persian crews.
Costs, Crews and Storage
Although slavery was commonplace in the ancient world, slaves were not usually used on board ship in this period.The role of oarsman was considered an honourable trade and was at least partially skilled. The practice of beaching ships at night to allow the crews to come ashore to cook, eat and sleep would have made it difficult to prevent slaves from escaping. Moreover, in a battle, free and willing rowers meant that a substantial military reserve existed below decks to supplement the marines.The oarsmen were therefore paid as semiskilled labourers.
During the great Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the early fifth century BC, the oarsmen earned half a drachma per day. The captain of the ship earned 5000 drachma per year, from which he had to cover maintenance as well as his own salary. So, a trireme with a crew of 300 rowers, sailors and marines would cost, allowing for one day off in ten, around 55,000 drachmas per year to run.The cost to build was just 6000 drachmas. By the time of the Roman Empire, inflation had pushed the pay for crewmen up to 1 drachma per day.
Considering the number of trees required to build each ship - perhaps 50 - and the size of the fleets launched throughout the ancient period, it is small wonder that the forested shores of the Mediterranean were soon denuded of trees. It was clearly important for the owners to preserve the wooden ships for as long as possible. To shield them from the fierce summer sun and cold winter rain, they were stored while ashore in huge sheds, perhaps 50m (165ft) long.
The ship sheds in one harbour at Athens were capable of storing 350 ships.At Carthage in North Africa, a circular basin around the harbour was entirely lined with ship sheds, while more sheds were sited on an island in the centre of the harbour.
Ramming Tactics
There were two key tactics used by ramming ships in the ancient world: the periplus and thediekplus. The periplus involved manoeuvring to one side of the enemy ship and ramming the vessel full in the beam. The diekplus required more skill and nerve. The attacking ship would head for a gap between two enemy vessels and then swerve to one side, intending not to ram the ship but to break off all the oars down one side. This would have had a devastating effect on the oarsmen, crushing rib cages and breaking backs. Having lost propulsion along one side, the victim would inevitably turn across the stern of the attacker, leaving it vulnerable to a beam ram from a following ship.
Alternatively, the crippled ship could simply be ignored and dealt with later. The attacker could then gather speed from behind the enemy line and was thus ideally placed to use a periplus attack on another ship in the line. The best counter to this tactic was to have a second line of ships so that there was a vessel to ram the diekplus attacker in the beam as it emerged from the first line.
The Corinthian admiral Machaon, heavily outnumbered at the Battle of Patras in 429 BC, deployed his ships in a circle facing outwards with a small reserve in the centre. The attacking Athenian fleet sailed round like Native Americans circling a wagon train. Finally a wind came up and disrupted the circle, and the Athenian ships pounced. The Corinthians eventually discovered that if they greatly reinforced the bow timbers of their ships they could take on the lighter Athenian ships bow to bow and come off best. This tactic led to the victory over the Athenian fleet in the harbour of Syracuse in 415 BC and the disastrous end of the Athenian expedition to conquer Sicily.
Although it ended badly for the Athenians, the Sicilian Expedition was a classic example of the projection of authority by a dominant naval power. When that authority is absent or focused elsewhere, piracy prevails. The war that followed the fall of Athens from her predominant position involved four different groupings, all trying to command the trade routes between Athens and the grain harvests of the Crimea. At the battle of Cyzicus in 410 BC, a fleet from the Peloponnesian faction beached their ships stern first to avoid being rammed by a larger Athenian fleet. An Athenian squadron did, however, ram the ships on one flank, landing a force of marines and capturing the improvised camp. The losing admiral sent a message back to Sparta: 'Ships lost. General dead. Men starving. Don't know what to do.' Sadly, the reply is not recorded.
By 406 BC, the quality and number of experienced Athenian seamen had dwindled disastrously and the navy had to resort to hastily trained labourers and freed slaves. This fleet of 150 ships set off to raise the siege of Methymna on the island of Lesbos. The Athenians were faced by 120 ships of the Peloponnesian faction manned with experienced crews. To counter the diekplus manoeuvre, the Athenians lined up in two ranks, which made their line much shorter than the enemy's. To prevent their ships being outflanked, they deployed with an island in the middle of their line, allowing them to match the length of the enemy line. The tactic worked. The battle became a giant slogging match, devoid of manoeuvre, in which Athenian numbers counted for more. Athens lost 25 ships compared with 69 of the enemy.
The next development in naval technology came from the Greek colony of Syracuse in Sicily. This was to make the ships wider and add additional oarsmen to each oar. Thus the quadreme carried four oarsmen per rowing station and the quinquereme five oarsmen. Having made this breakthrough in design, there was no limit and the Greeks soon built heptaresand hexares with seven and eight oarsmen per rowing station respectively. The deck was extended from the narrow walkway in the centre of the ship across the full width of the ship, giving much greater protection to the oarsmen and creating a much enlarged platform for marines or even artillery. Even so, these ships were lightly constructed - the Roman ships of the Punic Wars period particularly so. It was found that the oars had to be in the water to steady a ship sufficiently for grapples to be thrown. On one occasion, a Roman ship was able to slide over a boom across the mouth of a harbour by moving all the non-rowing crew to the stern to lift the front of the ship while the rowers worked intensely, and then moving them forward to the bow to alter the way she sat in the water, thereby bringing the ship over the boom.
The Battle of Salamis in Cyprus, 306 BC
Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his successor generals carved out their own individual empires, initiating a series of wars that lasted for more than 20 years. Antigonos, known as 'One Eye', held much of Alexander's Asian empire and was at war with Ptolemy I, who held Egypt. Antigonos' son Demetrius invaded Egyptian territory in 312 BC, when he was beaten by Ptolemy at the battle of Gaza. Early in 306 BC, Demetrius went on to invade the Egyptian-held island of Cyprus, laying siege to the governor in the capital of Salamis on the eastern coast. Ptolemy raised a relief force in Egypt and set sail directly from the mouth of the Nile to Paphos, at the western end of Cyprus.
The trip of 400km (250 miles) was an extremely risky undertaking, involving a night passage in an age before the compass. A fleet that left at first light would need to maintain an average speed of over 7 knots to arrive at Cyprus before the second nightfall. Even with the pharos (lighthouse) at Alexandria, some 122m (400ft) high, the fleet would have lost sight of land after just five-and-a-half hours at sea and would not have seen it again for 28 hours.To steer a straight course for all that time must have taken nerve and skill in equal measures. Indeed, it must have been an enormous relief to see a thin dark line on thehorizon mature and grow into the recognizable silhouette of Cyprus.
Ptolemy's force comprised 140 quadremes and quinqueremes, plus 10,000 soldiers carried on 200 sail-only transports. Bottled up in the harbour at Salamis were a further 60 Egyptian ships, again quadremes and quinqueremes. Demetrius had only 108 ships, including seven heptares and 10 hexares plus 30 Athenian quadremes. But he did have the advantage of internal lines of communication.As Ptolemy sailed south and east around the island, Demetrius laid out his plans. He would leave 10 quinqueremes to hold the narrow entrance to Salamis harbour, thereby neutralizing the 60 ships inside. To supplement his remaining fleet, he would use his own 53 transports, which were built with a deeper draft like merchantmen but also equipped with three banks of oars.These were well manned with soldiers to act as marines. Stone and dart throwing artillery was stationed on the decks of his ships along with the usual archers and marines. Demetrius also deployed units of cavalry on shore to mop up any enemy crews who made it to land.
Ptolemy expected to outflank his enemy and thought that Demetrius would therefore keep one flank of his line close to shore. Both sides therefore deployed their ships in the traditional two lines with one end as close to the shore as was prudent. Ptolemy placed his own ship about 12 ships out from the coast and, presumably, put his heaviest ships in his front line.
Demetrius' deployment was more interesting. His shore-side wing comprised his quadremes and quinqueremes, his centre the transports, and on his seaward side the heptares and hexares were backed by more quinqueremes including his own ship. To lengthen his line and ensure he could outflank the Egyptian line, he deployed some of this squadron only one rank deep.
It must have been a staggering sight, with the ships all colourfully painted using the traditional eyes on the bow and stretched out into a line over 1km (0.6 miles) in length. The 141 Greek ships closed with 140 Egyptian ships at a combined speed of about 16 knots. The artillery had a range of around 370m (1215ft) and would have opened fire at the earliest opportunity; they had only six or seven minutes before the fleets clashed and the rams started their work.The effect of the artillery - torsion catapults firing heavy bolts or stones - was mainly psychological. Aiming when both ships were rolling in the swell and closing at 16 knots would have been difficult to say the least.
As the fleets met in a crash of ships and rams, the two ranks of ships on both sides provided a counter to diekplus ramming tactics. The exposed flank of the Egyptian line, however, proved more vulnerable to the longer Greek line. Demetrius's ships overwhelmed the seaward end of Ptolemy's line and rolled it up. The Governor of Salamis eventually broke through the Greek blockade of the harbour and Ptolemy managed to break through the Greek line near the shore, but the battle was already lost. Around 8000 of Ptolemy's soldiers were captured together with 120 ships before the remainder, including Ptolemy, escaped. The island surrendered to Demetrius, who controlled the eastern Mediterranean for the next 20 years. Antigonos was killed in battle five years later, fighting his former fellow generals in central Turkey. Ptolemy survived until 283 BC, founding the dynasty that ended with Queen Cleopatra.
Campaign Against the Pirates, 66-67 BC
The early period of Roman expansion was marked by a succession of wars with neighbours near and far. First there were the other states in Italy and then Carthage. When Carthage was beaten, the Rome turned its gaze to the east. Macedonia, Greece and then Pontus (modern Asiatic Turkey) fell to Rome over a number of years. But it was while Rome was focused on these wars that piracy raised its head in the eastern Mediterranean.
For many years, the island of Rhodes had used its navy to suppress piracy in order to protect her position as a transit port in the lucrative east-west trade. However, Rhodes fell foul of the Macedonian kingdom and appealed to Rome, who sent a force of quinqueremes to defend her ally. The combined force compelled the Macedonians to sue for peace. Under the treaty, the Romans gained the small island of Delos, which they returned to Macedonia on the condition that it was run as a free port with no taxes or dues on goods entering or leaving. Unfortunately for Rhodes, the presence of this offshore tax haven undermined the revenues from her trade and the island and her navy went into long-term decline. With Rhodes no longer able to police the waters of the Mediterranean, the pirates spread their depredations beyond the eastern Mediterranean. Ports and coastal towns were sacked, shrines desecrated and cargoes, crews and ships taken at sea. The goods, ships and their crew were then sold off at various markets. Wealthy captives were held to ransom.
The ordinary merchants of the ancient world sailed in ships far simpler in design than the warships of the period. Such ships could not afford the expensive oarsmen of the warship and had to rely instead on the single main mast and single square sail with the optional refinement of bowsprit and second, smaller square sail. Later ships added a triangular sail above the main for extra propulsion. The merchant ships could be as much as 60m (200ft) in length, possibly with more than one mast, but were more usually just 30m (100ft) long and 8m (26ft) in beam, drawing just 3m (10ft) of water and carrying loads of around 100-150 gross tons. Built for capacity rather than speed, they were not fast - perhaps 5-6 knots if the wind permitted. Crews were kept to a minimum since they ate into the profits: 10-15 men were usual on a medium-sized ship; less on a smaller ship and more on a larger one.
While the sail-powered merchantman was dependent on the wind for speed, the oarpowered warship or pirate ship was unhampered by head winds or rough seas. Since the square sail meant the merchantman would sail fastest heading down wind, the pirate tactics were simple: cruise into the wind so that any prey coming the other way would find it next to impossible to escape. Alternatively, the pirates would lurk behind headlands for a quick spurt to catch any passing trader. Fear and intimidation were the best weapons to induce a quick surrender. Faced by a pirate ship apparently bristling with armed men and with no way to escape, most merchant ships would be forced to capitulate. The pirates couldthen use their oars to spin the ship around and bring their bows up to the victim's stern, where it was safe to board. The crew would be bundled below and well trussed up and the pirates would install their own crew to sail the prize for home.
So widespread and powerful did the pirates grow that when the rebel leader Spartacus and his army of ex-slaves became trapped in the toe of Italy in 72 BC they negotiated with the pirates to evacuate the whole army - some 90,000 men, women and children - by ship. The pirates were then paid even more by the Roman politician Crassus not to fulfil the contract. The problem with piracy reached such a pass that two Roman Praetors, together with their staff, were captured by the pirates. Another squadron attacked Rome's port at Ostia and sacked other towns in the region.
Pompey's Appointment
In many ways, the Roman elite benefited from the pirate's activities. For those who could afford to buy, piracy kept the price of slaves low and supply plentiful. On the other hand, it did interrupt trade. So the wealthiest classes in Rome, who needed to buy slaves to work their estates, benefited while the lower, merchant classes and their workers suffered. In 69 BC, however, the pirates excelled themselves and plundered the island of Delos. It comes as no surprise, then, that the consul Metellus was voted an army to reduce the pirate base in Crete. He headed off and set about his task, rounding up some pirates and settling down to besiege others in the main pirate base on the island.
In 67 BC, the Roman tribune Aulus Gabinus presented a bill to the Peoples' Assembly to appoint the most famous general of the age, Pompeius Magnus - better known as Pompey - to sweep the pirates from the seas once and for all.The ramifications were enormous. Clearing the Mediterranean of the pirates would greatly ease the lot of the ordinary man. Indeed, prices in the markets of Rome fell significantly simply at the presentation of this bill. The Roman citizens, the plebs, were right behind the idea. However, the wealthy ruling classes, the senators and, to a lesser extent, the knights were almost universally against the bill. The one notable exception was Julius Caesar. Ever the populist, he supported the motion. It was passed.
Pompey had already enjoyed a very distinguished military career. He had first been appointed commander of an army at the age of 24, supporting Sulla's side in an earlier civil war. Although he was occasionally accused of cruelty, he proved so successful during campaigns in Sicily and in Africa that he was acclaimed 'Great' by Sulla. He even asked for and was granted a triumphal procession that should not have been permitted given his youth and junior rank. No sooner had Sulla died than another civil war loomed and Pompey found himself in Spain, leading an army against Sertorius. Although he was supported by a second army under Metellus, it was Pompey who gained a second triumph. It was a truly remarkable achievement.
The resources initially proposed for Pompey in this next task were huge. They comprised some 200 ships plus oarsmen, sailing crew and marines totalling over 40,000 men. He was to be given 15 legates (military commanders), an unlimited treasury, and unlimited powers over the whole of the Mediterranean and up to 7km (4.5 miles) inland. However, the vote was postponed for a day and when the final amended version was passed the Assembly voted through an even bigger force.This consisted of no less than 500 ships, 120,000 infantry and 5000 cavalrymen, 24 senior military commanders and a pair of quaestors (magistrates responsible for military finances). Against this, however, the pirates were reputed to have 1000 ships at their disposal and bases both large and small all around the Mediterranean.
Pompey versus the Sea Pirates 67 BC
The pirates needed to avoid contact with more powerful military elements so that they could continue to extract plunder from less well defended ports and communities in the Mediterranean, while the Roman squadrons sought to round up the pirates and bring them to a very rudimentary justice. Pompey chose to divide the Mediterranean into discrete areas and conquer each in turn, starting in the far west off the coast of Spain. This drove the pirates steadily towards the southern shore of Turkey and the final bloody confrontation happened near Soli, in modern-day southern Turkey. There, Pompey's assault routed the pirates, destroying their sttongholds in the area. Although hailed as a great victory Empire, it was not successful in the long term. Just a few years later in Sicily, Anthony and Octavian had to combine to combat Pompey's son, who had turned to piracy.
Planning and preparation are key to the success of any enterprise and Pompey's orders were decisive.The Mediterranean was divided into 13 areas and each one was allocated a commander and a force appropriate to the threat in that area. Pompey retained direct control over a reserve of 60 of his best ships - almost certainly quinqueremes with well-trained crews. Starting with the waters west of Italy, the local commanders restricted the seaborne movements of the pirates and forced them ashore, where they were destroyed. It took only 40 days to sweep these seas clean of the menace. Those pirates that escaped, made their way back to bases along the inhospitable Cilician coast in what is now Turkey.
The greatest threat to Pompey's success came from inside Rome. The general's wide powers were both envied and feared, especially by those who benefited most from the activity of the pirates. The consul Piso, safe within the walls of Rome, went so far as to countermand Pompey's orders, paying off some of the ships' crews. While Pompey's fleet sailed south around the foot of Italy to tackle the pirates in the Adriatic, Pompey himself hurried back to Rome. There, his friend and supporter Gabinius had already started the process of dismissing Piso from his position as consul. This would have been a dreadful and permanent stain on his family honour and reputation. Having got his crews back, however, Pompey had the bill withdrawn, and thus Piso lwas let off. Meanwhile, Rome had been transformed - the markets were full of foodstuffs from all overthe Mediterranean and prices were almost back to normal. From Rome, Pompey made his way to Brundisium on the east coast of Italy and took ship for Greece and the final part of the war.
Some of the more cut-off pirate squadrons surrendered to Pompey, who confiscated their ships and arrested the men. He stopped short of having the pirates crucified - the normal form of execution for such a crime (all the survivors of Spartacus' rebellion had been crucified). Thus encouraged, a large number of pirates also sent a message of surrender from Crete, where they were sitting out a siege by Metellus. Pompey accepted their surrender and despatched one of his own commanders, Lucius Octavian, with instructions that no one should pay heed to Metellus but only to Octavian. Mettelus was understandably livid and continued the siege. Octavian, following Pompey's orders, now masterminded the defence of the city on behalf of the pirates. Eventually the city - and Octavian - were forced to surrender. Metellus humiliated his rival in front of the assembled army before sending him back to Rome with a flea in his ear.
Pompey's rehabilitation worked. Around 20,000 former pirates were eventually settled in underpopulated inland areas like Dyme in Achea, on the northern coast of the Peloponnese, and Soli, in what is now Turkey. However, a substantial body of the miscreants occupied the mountain fastnesses of Cilicia with their families. The inevitable battle with Pompey's men took place at Coracesium in Cilicia in 67 BC. That there was a battle and that the pirates lost it is about all that is known. Pompey's victory was not surprising, however. The trained and experienced men of Pompey's army and navy, with their proper equipment, were more than a match for the undisciplined pirates. It is worth recording that among the spoils of war after that last battle were 90 ships equipped with bronze-headed rams.
The Cataphract and Roman Artillery
The trireme as a warship had a number of weaknesses. First, the rowers were exposed to high-trajectory missile fire and, being unarmoured, were extremely prone to head and shoulder injuries. Injured oarsmen flailing about in agony tended to disrupt the stroke of the others and thereby slow the progress of the ship just when speed and power were needed most. Second, the narrow walkway between banks of oarsmen and the small decks fore and aft severely limited the number of marines or archers a ship could carry.
The solution to the first two problems was the same: to raise the deck of the ship to above the height of the oarsmen's heads and to board over the whole thing. These vessels were known as cataphract ships, from the Iranian term that literally meant 'baking oven' and which was used to describe a fully armoured man on an armoured horse. This enlarged deck space protected the rowers and provided more room for marines and even for small pieces of torsion-powered artillery.
The ballista was a Roman artillery-piece made by holding two loops of animal gut and hair in a wooden, or later iron, frame.Through each of thesewas passed a horizontal arm. Both the top and bottom halves of the loop were then twisted away from the frame and clamped, thus spring-loading the arms in opposition. The individual strands of the loops were tensioned to the same musical note to ensure consistent results. A cord strung between the extremities of the arms could, when pulled back, provide the power to launch a heavy dart to a distance of about 400m (1300ft) with sufficient power to impale more than one victim.
Alternatively, the ballista could be used to shoot a spherical stone projectile. Although the balls were not heavy enough to sink the opposing galleys, they would cause considerable damage as they smashed into the ships or crews. The balls could also be made of flammable material to set fire to the target - dangerous to use but very effective against a wooden ship. Another novelty was to hurl earthenware pots filled with poisonous snakes. The pot would shatter on impact, releasing the snakes and causing pandemonium on board the enemy ship. Although much larger artillery was available and capable of hurling missiles of around 40kg (88lb), such machines were too large to be accommodated on board ship and were confined to the defence of cities and harbours.
The third problem, and the most significant for the Romans, was that each ship needed skilled oarsmen and helmsmen. Learning to row is in itself not so much of a problem; during the Punic Wars, the Romans famously set up rowing benches on shore and taught thousands to row before their ships were even completed. However, helming a 35m (115ft) ship well enough to ram an enemy who is simultaneously attempting to avoid your ram and to ram you in turn is a lot less easy to teach.The Romans concluded that the best answer was to board the enemy rather than attempting to ram and to treat the fight as if it were a shore battle. The Roman solution to an enemy who did not want to be boarded was the corvus, or raven. A narrow bridge 1.2m (4ft) wide was constructed and one end slotted over an extra mast, some 7m (23ft) high, erected near the bow. The free end of the bridge was raised to a near vertical position by a hoist at the mast head. Underneath the outboard end of the bridge was a large spike. When the hoist was released, the bridge fell with great force, impaling the spike into the deck of the enemy ship. The direction of fall was controlled by sailors or marines on the deck. Once the corvus had been dropped, the Roman marines could storm across two abreast to attack. It is arguable that this one device did more to secure Rome's ultimate victory over Carthage than any other factor.
Actium 31 BC: Anthony and Cleopatra's Last Stand
In 48 BC, Julius Caesar travelled to Egypt to try to restore the grain shipments that were so vital to the Roman masses and which had been disrupted by civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy. He also intended to hunt down Pompey, his deadly rival. Cleopatra used every device at her disposal to secure Caesar's affection and protection for herself as the Queen of Egypt. Nine months later, in 47 BC, Cleopatra gave birth to Julius Caesar's son, Ptolemy Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion. Caesar never named Caesarion as his heir, instead nominating his grand-nephew Gaius Octavian. Nonetheless, Caesar restored Cleopatra to her throne and they remained lovers until his death in 44 BC.
One of Caesar's most trusted subordinates was Mark Antony, the grandson of a man who had backed the wrong side in the civil war with Sulla. Despite a frugal upbringing, Antony had still managed to misspend his youth on wine and women, landing up in considerable debt. Summoned to join the army, however, he quickly came to prominence as a gifted leader of his men. Caesar needed good leaders and Antony rose to be his trusted commander of cavalry. Indeed, he was left in charge of Rome for some of the time when Caesar was away campaigning in Spain.
In 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated by a faction headed by the Roman senators Brutus and Cassius. Following Caesar's murder, Mark Antony formed an alliance with Caesar's nominated heir Gaius Octavian to proscribe and eliminate their rivals, the conspirators in Caesar's murder. In time, however, Octavian fell out with the much older Antony and they separated to raise their own armies to hunt down Julius Caesar's killers and the supporters they had recruited.
Brutus and Cassius had meanwhile fled to Macedonia with an army of 17,000.At the battle of Philippi in 42 BC, Octavian was so badly defeated by Brutus that he only narrowly missed being captured himself. He fled to Rome, pleading ill health. Antony, however, defeated Cassius and had him executed.A few days later, he defeated Brutus' contingent too, forcing him to commit suicide. Other collaborators, real or perceived, were also terminated. Antony and Octavian now had a problem. They had promised their soldiers 5000 drachmas each to ensure their loyalty, but with Octavian apparently near to death in Rome it was left to Antony to collect the funds.
He planned a grand tour of the Eastern provinces of the empire to extract the annual tribute/protection money. Unfortunately, it was in Antony's nature to be lavish with gifts and entertainment, so he had to resort to demanding double tribute to pay for the expenses of travel and the soldiers' bounty. Antony received information suggesting that Cleopatra had supported Cassius, one of the prime movers in Julius Caesar's assassination, with funds. He summoned the Egyptian queen to meet with him in Cilicia, now southern Turkey, to give an account of herself. Cleopatra arrived for the meeting on the royal barge surrounded by slave boys dressed as Eros and 'crewed' by slave girls. Antony was captivated. He spent the winter with Cleopatra in Alexandria and soon the queen had borne him two children.
In 40 BC, there was trouble on the eastern frontiers of the empire. An invasion by the Parthians had been blocked by the local commander, Antony's subordinate. Now Antony had to counterattack. But he was more focused on Cleopatra's delights. He rushed the job, leaving behind his siege train, which was captured and destroyed. In 36 BC, the army was very nearly trapped and annihilated while trying to besiege the city of Phraata without the necessary equipment. Antony managed to extricate some of the men, but not before having to resort to decimation - the systematic execution of one in every ten men - to enforce discipline. By the time the roll was called, they had lost 32,000 casualties, fully one third of his force. Eventually, Antony reached the coast of modern Syria and Cleopatra arrived by ship, bringing supplies and money to pay the troops.
' ...suddenly Cleopatra's sixty ships were seen hoisting their sails for flight and breaking away through the mass of fighting ships ...'
While he was recovering on the coast, news arrived that his wife Octavia, a sister of Octavian, was on her way from Rome with reinforcements and supplies. He instructed her to wait at Athens and began planning to duck the confrontation by tackling the easier task, a return expedition to Parthia. A war of words erupted with Octavian in Rome. While Antony continued his affair with Cleopatra from her capital Alexandria, where they indulged in a continuous round of parties, his wife Octavia had no choice but to return to Rome, having been rejected in a most public way.
Declaration of War
Meanwhile, Antony at last set off to Armenia, the first move in the campaign against Parthia. There he received news of Octavian's denunciation, which galvanized him into action. He ordered 16 legions to move to the coast and the combined fleet of all the Egyptian and eastern Roman client territories to assemble at Ephesus on the west coast of modern Turkey. While the fleet was getting together, he and Cleopatra lavishly entertained the client kings on the nearby island of Samos. Seizing the initiative, they moved across to Athens. In Rome, Octavian was working hard to alert the Senate to Antony's betrayal.The key issue was Antony's will. Contrary to Roman custom, Octavian had the scroll removed from the custody of the Vestal Virgins and read before the Senate. It revealed that Antony had bequeathed his portion of the split empire to Cleopatra. Incensed, the Senate agreed to Octavian's declaration of war in 33 BC. Since he had commenced his preparations for war before getting the required decree ratified by the Senate, he was was ready to move instantly.
Since Antony and Cleopatra controlled much of the eastern Mediterranean, the size of their combined fleet was considerable: 520 warships, including a number of huge octaremes and decaremes, ships with eight and ten rowers per station respectively. The huge decaremes alone had a crew of around 1000 men.The vessels were organized into eight flotillas, each consisting of 60 heavy warships and five light ships as scouts. The force also included 300 transports, carrying 100,000 soldiers and 12,000 cavalry - the equivalent of 19 legions.
Much of the navy was Egyptian and the ships were rather short of crew following an outbreak of disease. Many of those pressed into service were therefore largely untrained. In addition, many recruits to the army were from subject kingdomsand were not trained or equipped to the same standard as the Roman legionaries. Trudging along on foot, they struggled to keep up with the fleet.
This huge armada moved from Athens to the Gulf of Ambracia on the western seaboard of Greece. This Gulf forms an almost complete circle with Actium, and Antony's first camp, on the southern tip of its narrow mouth. Octavian meanwhile collected some 250 warships, 150 transports, 80,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry at the southeast Italian ports of Tarentum and Brundisium, just 320km (200 miles) from Antony's headquarters. Although he had a few big ships, most of his galleys were lighter and more manoeuvrable than Antony's.
Octavian may have been a master of political manoeuvring, but for the leadership of his fleet he relied on the older and more experienced general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.Agrippa's first move was to cut Antony's fleet off from the supplies that were being shipped from Egypt, by capturing the southern port of Methone.Then, as Antony focused on this problem and was forced to re-route supplies through Corinth, Agrippa raided the watch stations located immediately north and south of Actium. Finally he launched a raid up the length of the Gulf of Corinth, 160km (100 miles) into the heart of Antony's territory, capturing Corinth as well as Patras on the southern shore and forcing the vast amount of supplies required by Antony's fleet to come over the narrow mountain passes.
At full strength, Antony's host can be calculated as amounting to nearly 400,000 men. Feeding even half that number given the transport resources of the era would have been extremely difficult.And by the time that Antony was able to react to the news of one raid, another was occurring in a completely different part of his territory. Under cover of all this activity, Octavian moved his army across from Italy to Epirus on the Greek coast, just north of Antony's base in Actium. Not only had they firmly gained the initiative, but Agrippa and Octavian had also started to hurt Antony where he was most vulnerable.The restricted rations of his men and the unanswered raids had begun to damage the morale of his soldiers and sailors; more importantly, Antony's supporters had started to wonder whether they had backed the wrong horse.
Agrippa kept up the pressure. He had Octavian's fleet sail out in battle formation across the mouth of the Gulf. Antony matched this challenge by parading every cook and bottle washer on the decks as fighting crew but keeping the ships as close as possible, blocking the entrance to the Gulf. Agrippa recognized this as an impossible situation and retired to let the shortages take more effect. He moved the army south from its landing site to the Ionian shore just 16km (10 miles) from Antony's base, and set up his own camp there at the end of March 31 BC. Through the late spring and all summer, Antony tried everything he could to gain the upper hand. He had the wells of the neighbouring villages salted to make the water undrinkable. He mounted a cavalry raid, sending the troopers all around the shore of the Gulf to attack the camp from an unexpected direction. Then he shipped troops across the narrow entrance to attack the eastern wall of the camp. It was all to no avail.
Battle Commences
By August, Antony was in desperate straits. Having to match his available manpower to his ships, he took the drastic measure of burning 140 ships that he could not fully crew. Clearly he had no expectation of recovering them after theimpending battle - he was already planning to break out rather than to defeat his arch rival. The remaining vessels were supplemented with 20,000 legionaries and 2000 archers. For four days the weather was too poor to venture out, but on the fifth day, 2 September 31 BC, the skies cleared and the fleet sallied forth.
Agrippa was ready. He deployed his fleet in three divisions, each in two ranks to counter the diekplus tactic. Octavian took the southern command, Arruntius controlled the centre while Agrippa commanded the northern division. His plan was straightforward but risky: to lure the enemy away from the shore in an ever lengthening crescent. He needed several of his smaller ships to be able to attack the sides of each of Antony's monsters at the same time. When the gaps between the enemy's ships were wide enough, his fleet would attack. Antony was not looking for a decisive battle; he was looking for an escape to regroup, rebuild the strength of his hungry men and try again. He needed to force Octavian's fleet away from the land to gain space to hoist his masts and sails and flee south. It was usual in this period for ships to leave their masts and sails ashore to keep the decks clear of clutter and to retain just the bowsprit and small fore sail on board, for escape or pursuit.
Main Masts in Place
Antony, however, retained his main mast and sails, betraying his intention to flee - although it is unlikely that Octavian or Agrippa would have known this until after they joined battle. He organized his fleet, still larger than that of his rivals, into four commands. Facing Octavian in the south was Caelius, in the centre another Octavian, while Antony led the northern command. Each of these divisions was larger than the one facing it. In reserve waited Cleopatra with her Egyptian contingent and the pay chest.
In war, morale and confidence are everything. At the Battle of Philippi just nine years earlier, when Antony had saved Octavian from disaster, he was at his peak as a leader. Now, after the disasters in Parthia and having being continually wrongfooted by Agrippa, he no longer had the dash and drive that had won Caesar's confidence. He was defeated before he fought.
Agrippa's plan gave him the initiative. At first, Antony's line held fast and for a while the two fleets faced one another 1.5km (1 mile) apart. Then Agrippa appeared to move northwards to overlap the end of Antony's line. This was a potentially disastrous position for Antony. He had to attack. As Antony's ships moved forwards, Agrippa's backed water and slowed down, the crescent formation opening the gap between the individual ships. Antony pushed the ships under his command forward while Agrippa edged further back and to the north. The other divisions of Antony's fleet were obliged to do the same or let their leader be outflanked. When he was satisfied that the enemy line had opened and that his own ships outflanked the enemy, Agrippa signalled the attack.
The vessels on both sides were fully decked cataphract ships crammed with marines and augmented with artillery. The bigger ships in Antony's fleet had these mounted on small deck towers to fire over the heads of their own marines. Both sides flung burning missiles at the opposition. There are few things more frightening on a wooden ship than fire, and under the hot summer sun the decks were as dry as matchwood. Where fires started, the sailors flapped at them with leather cloaks, hurled buckets of water, and even piled the bodies of the dead to try to smother the flames.
Amid this chaos Agrippa's ships darted in to shatter the oars on one side or the other or to ram the reinforced sides of the bigger enemy. Sometimes they grappled in an attempt to board; sometimes they withdrew to gather speed and try again. Each of the bigger ships was assailed by three or four smaller quadremes or quinqueremes. Meanwhile, the lumbering giants with their weakened and hungry crews struggled to get up to ramming speed and catch the manoeuvrable smaller ships. The ships in the centre of Antony's fleet engaged their counterparts, but a gap opened between them and the northern flotilla. The southern flotilla did not try so hard; there was more posturing than fighting against Octavian's division, which continued to back water.
In this part of the world, a wind often springs up from the west in the late afternoon and then veers round to blow strongly from a northerly direction. Suddenly Cleopatra's reserve flotilla of 60 ships sprang into action, shouldering their way through the gap that had appeared between the northern and central divisions. Throwing these fresh ships into action could have decisively turned the course of the battle. Had they attempted, they could surely have rolled up Octavian's central or northern commands. Instead, they continued past the fray, raised their masts, hoisted their sails and set off south.
Antony's final act of betrayal was to abandon his own ship, transfer to a lighter quinquereme and set off after his queen. Some 40 ships of his fleet also managed to escape the fight. Only three Liburnian scout ships from Octavian's fleet made any attempt at pursuit, capturing one of the fleeing ships. The rest of Antony's fleet fought on for nine hours before exhaustion overtook them and the survivors surrendered.
The naval battle cost 5000 lives, less than two per cent of the total numbers of men involved and a measure of how localized the fiercest fighting was. Nearly 300 ships were captured by Octavian and his commander Agrippa. For three days, Antony sulked in the bows of his ship. Only when they rendezvoused off Taenarum Point, at the southern tip of the Peloponnese, could he be persuaded to talk to Cleopatra. At first, Antony's desertion was not widely believed.After all, he still had a very substantial army at his disposal. Antony and Cleopatra were pursued to Egypt, where their men deserted them in droves as Octavian and Agrippa approached. The lovers famously, and separately, committed suicide, leaving the Roman Empire in the hands of just one man, Octavian. He adopted the title Caesar Augustus and ruled the empire like a benevolent father figure for 45 years until he died in AD 14. He remained firm friends with Agrippa until his death in 12 BC.
Battle of Actium 31 BC
Anhony's best hope for success over Octavian was at sea as he had a greater number of well-equipped ships than his opponent. Moreover, he could not risk invading Italy with his Egyptian soldiers, since his attack would be regarded as a foreign invasion of the homeland rather than an act of civil war. He therefore planted his fleet and army at Actium, as a challenge to Octavian to come out and fight. However, this surrendered the initiative to Octavian, whose general, Agrippa, took full advantage, interrupting food supplies and waging a war of attrition that left Antony's men seriously under strength. They also suffered from the diseases associated with large numbers living in the same place without proper sanitation. Mark Antony's warships were mostly gigantic quinqueremes, huge galleys with massive rams that could weigh up to three gross tons. Agrippa had smaller, more mobile ships and better-trained crews who were fresh and healthy.
Final Evolution of the Ancient Galley
Although Actium was the final great battle of the classical world, it did not feature the most spectacular ships seen in the age of the galley. In 350 BC, the Macedonians had joined two quinqueremes together to form a catamaran and mounted a huge siege tower four storeys high on top. Designed to assault city walls, the inner sets of oars were removed as unnecessary. But the greatest of the ancient galleys was the tessarakonteres ('forty'). Built by Cleopatra's ancestor Ptolemy IV of Egypt in 215 BC, this monster was nearly 130m (425ft) long with a catamaran hull form and nearly 18m (60ft) beam. There were three banks of oars: the lowest oar was manned by four standing oarsmen, the middle by two seated and five standing, and the uppermost oar by five standing and three seated oarsmen. The total crew came to 4000 rowers, 2900 marines and 100 sailors.
In accordance with the custom of the time, the crew boarded in themorning and disembarked each evening, there being no space for sleeping and certainly no chance of cooking for 7000 hungry men. Unfortunately this took so long, there was little time for this showpiece galley to actually go anywhere.
The Battle of Actium and the annexation of Egypt, Rome's last serious rival with a Mediterranean seaboard, effectively pushed the boundaries of the empire beyond the middle sea. Fleets of smaller ships were still required on the frontiers: the Rhine and Danube, the English Channel and the Irish Sea all supported fleets, mainly biremes, nothing bigger being required. The threats they faced were from open boats with a single small square sail and low freeboard, like the Saxon and Viking longships that rafted together to fight or the Irish curragh, a leather boat of about 6m (20ft), designed only for raiding.
No major challenge to the Roman Navy came until after the separation of the empire into eastern and western portions. It was the efforts of the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire to reimpose its authority that restarted the trend for building large warships. They were now generally shorter, 36m (120ft), with just 25 sets of oars per side.The lower oar was pulled by just one man and the upper oar by one to three men. All were armed and the upper oarsmen also wore armour. The ships now sported two masts with lateen fore and aft sails giving better performance to windward. The ram was raised above the waterline, like the ships of Ramses III, designed to damage enemy ships rather than to sink them, and they carried up to three towers.
The principle weapon now was fire. A napthalike inflammable substance - 'Greek fire' - was projected using a bellows device from a nozzle in the bow, with short range but truly horrific results. Long into the medieval era, these ships were able to wade into a melee and cause death and destruction all around them.
Copyright © Amber Books Ltd 2009. All rights reserved.

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