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THE ROLE OF SEA POWER IN ANTIQUITY:
A REJOINDER TO CHESTER STARR

By James J. Bloom

I. Chester Starr Adrift

II. Sea Power in the Second Punic War

It is said that Rome, like Wihelmine and Hitlerian Germany, was forced to go to sea against her will. Unlike the Phoenicians and Athenians before them, Romans allegedly had no fondness for ships and seafaring. This is attested by the way she jerrybuilt fleets in an emergency, quickly neglecting them when the crisis passed.  Whether or not this is a well-founded assessment of Rome’s maritime attitude is a matter for poets, anthropologists and psychologists. Here, we need only look at her actions to gauge her respect for matters nautical, begrudging or not.

There’s no end to arguments about Hannibal Barca’s “what if’s” both on the Internet and over beer and pretzels. Most discussions focus on Fabius’ potential and failure to deliver a knockout blow or Hannibal’s prospects for besieging Rome.  The hypotheticals involve battles on land, and the precise enumeration of Hannibal’s transit of the Alps. The naval aspects of the campaign get short shrift. However, the whole raison d’etre for Hannibal’s tortuous and debilitating march through the Pyrenees is popularly attributed to Roman control of the more direct sea route to the Italian heartland.

Being as the renowned American seapower strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan cut his eyeteeth on the Second Punic war at sea, it’s worth examining in more detail. This is particularly so since the distinguished historian of ancient empires, Chester Starr wrote his quarrelsome little pamphlet chiefly in order to dispute Mahan’s so-called exaggerations about the significance of naval forces in that conflict – and the importance of seapower in antiquity more generally. Professor Starr advances a peculiar argument against Roman seapower as a deterrent to Hannibal. As noted above, the publisher implies that Starr’s title should read “The LIMITATIONS of Seapower in Ancient History”. Starr concisely recapitulates the sequence of events as given in Mahan. His only quibble is that “contrary to the views of Mommsen and Mahan … he (Hannibal) had to march by land not simply (emphasis supplied) because the Romans controlled the sea but by reason of his large forces of cavalry and elephants that could not easily have been transported by sea”. I’ll return to this piece of sophistry in a bit.

After the end of the First Punic War in 241 BC, Carthage chose to concentrate on controlling Spain rather than going directly for the Italian jugular near the seat of power.  One factor among several in determining the Carthaginian strategy, albeit a large one, is said to be the decline of Carthaginian seapower, and the concurrent rise of Roman naval mastery at the conclusion of the First Punic War.

As Starr asserts, there certainly were considerations other than the Roman naval threat prescribing the Spanish operational base/ long land route approach: (1) Carthage wanted to gain direct power over Spain’s mineral resources and (2) she needed to mount an army of its inhabitants to go against the Roman legions. In 218 BC, Hannibal took control of the Greek city and Roman ally, Saguntum, and set up a strong Carthaginian base there. Immediately after hearing the news of Saguntum’s fall, Rome declared war on Carthage. From his new base at Saguntum, Hannibal planned to march across the Pyrenees and the Alps in winter to surprise the Roman army. Along the way, Hannibal recruited reinforcements from the warlike Celtic tribes who rejected Rome’s dominion. To maintain his hold in Spain, Hannibal left about 20,000 men under the control of his brother Hasdrubal. Hannibal’s long march and subsequent rampage in Italy is too well known to bear repeating. In sum, there were some good reasons, other than Roman control of the sea lanes, for Hannibal to establish a base of operations in Spain where he could both recruit and exploit the natural resources to equip and feed his invasion force. But it is also clear that the perils of transiting short-sea crossings or cruising coastwise in Roman dominated waters loomed large.

Let’s briefly examine the war from the maritime perspective. After death of Hasdrubal in 221, Hannibal assumed command in Spain. Crossing both Pyrenees and Alps, he carried the war into Italy, winning a succession of victories: Ticinus and Trebbia (218), Lake Trasimenus (217) and Cannae (216). After this the Roman army avoided battle with Hannibal; their fleet, meanwhile controlled the sea. In 217 there is an action at the mouth of the Ebro wherein a Roman fleet under Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio decisively beats the Punic squadron in Spain. There follows a series of seesaw land battles in Spain, Sicily and Greece, but command of the sea permitted Rome to redeploy her forces rapidly. In 215, successfully wooing the Greeks in southern Italy away from Rome, Hannibal concluded an alliance with Philip V of Madedonia; but since the Roman fleet controlled the Adriatic, the Macedonians were unable to intervene in Italy. 

In 212, the Roman consul Marcellus captured Carthage’s ally Syracuse with his fleet and army, despite the ingenious defense by Archimedes (who died in the fighting). Meanwhile, on land, Hannibal captures Terentum (Taranto) and wins a battle at Capua (211). In 207, Hasdrubal crossed the Alps with reinforcements, but lost a battle on the Metaurus River (near Sena Gallica) and was  killed. In 206, P. Cornelius Scipio (to become known as Scipio Africanus) completes the conquest of Carthaginian Spain, while Hannibal’s youngest brother, Mago, manages to land at Genoa with the remnants of the Spanish army. Here he attempts vainly to lead the Ligurians and Gauls against Rome once more. This evacuation is the only large-scale Carthaginian sea operation during the Second Punic War. In 204, Consul P. Cornelius Scipio, thanks to Roman mastery at sea, landed in Africa and won a battle at Tunis (203). Hannibal was thus compelled to evacuate southern Italy in an improvised transport fleet. In 202, P. Cornelius Scipio defeated Hannibal at Zama, and Carthage was finally forced to conclude peace. She lost Spain to Rome, and Numidia became independent. Carthage was obliged to pay reparations, hand over all but 10 of her warships, and could not declare war without Roman permission.

As Mahan pointed out in his The Influence of Seapower on History, Hannibal rejected taking the maritime hop directly across the Straits of Messina to Italy because of logistical difficulties resulting from the inferiority of Carthaginian sea power at the time. While Mahan’s book is principally concerned with the British exercise of naval command in the 17th –19th centuries, he devoted a few introductory pages to the application of seapower in the Second Punic War, which provided him with the germinal insight. Nowhere in his brief (about 2 pages) passages on PW2 does he suggest that the concept of blockade and sea control exercised by the British Navy from 1660-1793 is applicable to PW2.

Chester Starr elsewhere includes the non sequitur that “in battle galleys were blunt instruments by comparison to the razor-sharp modern warship” and often merely lurched along shorelines to protect supplies. Now, the ability of an Aegis DDG, or a carrier battle group or an SSN to monitor and dominate maritime chokepoints is totally irrelevant to a discussion of what it meant to exercise maritime power in the ancient world. This is quite elementary. Ultimately, the publisher’s hype goes on to say, ancient societies simply did not have the economic or political stability to possess and protect the seas”. 

The rationale that Hannibal’s heavy troops and their mounts could not be conveyed by sea is without foundation. Roman cargo ships  (corbitas) could and regularly did convey horses as well as their riders and equipment for decades before PW2. While transits of several weeks were out of the question simply due to the problems of feeding and maintaining horses at sea, the short trip across the Strait to Sicily did not preclude the ferrying of cavalry. Scipio Africanus did this in the opposite direction near the war’s end, culminating in the battle of Zama. The Phonecians/Carthaginians were quite experienced in shipping bulky cargoes including livestock. As for the elephants, it should not have been beyond the capacity of the ingenious Hannibal and his intrepid admiral Bomilcar to transport the beasts as deck cargo on a one-week’s sea crossing. Certainly the rate of attrition would not have exceeded that encountered in the long march.

Mahan never maintained that  “Control of the Sea” in antiquity consisted of a seamless blockade of all enemy maritime movements.  He conceded that the Romans in general “controlled the sea” yet they “permitted” Carthaginian admiral Bomilcar, in the 4th year of the war, following the stunning Carthaginian victory at Cannae, to land 4,000 men and a body of elephants [so much for Starr’s disbelief that it could be done] in south Italy. Nor did Roman command of the sea prevent Bomilcar in the 7th year of the war from evading the Roman fleet at Syracuse and reappearing at Tarentum, then in Hannibal’s possession. Likewise, Roman naval mastery did not prevent Hannibal from sending dispatch vessels to Carthage, or from finally withdrawing the remnants of his army from Italy to Africa. These evasions and minor Carthaginian naval exploits create the impression that more help could have been given: that is, constant support by sea from the Carthaginian base. Thus, Mahan asserts, we have to examine “ascertained facts” to determine the kind and degree of “influence”. It was the renowned historian of ancient Rome Theodor Mommsen who said (as cited here by Mahan) that at the beginning of the war Rome controlled the seas. In PW2 there was no “naval battle of significance”. Mahan feels that this situation, along with other “well-ascertained facts” demonstrates superiority analogous to the same feature in later better-documented epochs.

Even though this control lasted throughout the war, didn’t preclude large or small maritime raids (as noted) but it did deter sustained and secure communications which Hannibal needed.

On the other hand, it was also plain that for the 1st 10 years of the war, the Roman fleet wasn’t strong enough for sustained operations on the sea between Sicily and Carthage, nor even to the south of a line drawn from Tarragona in Spain to Lilybaeum (now Marsala) at the west end of Sicily. Roman control extended from there around the north side of Sicily through the straits of Messina  down to Syracuse and from there to Brindisi in the Adriatic. At the early phase of Hannibal’s campaign he used whatever ships were available to maintain communications between Spain and Africa, which the Romans seemed incapable of impeding.

Roman seapower therefore threw Macedonia totally out of the war but couldn’t prevent Carthage from assisting its useful harassing diversion in Sicily; it did prevent her from sending troops to Hannibal in Italy at a time of dire need. This is the type of “sea denial” exercised by the Roman admirals during Hannibal’s war. It certainly didn’t match the “razor sharp” capabilities of modern warships – whatever Starr meant by the phrase – but it was sufficient to deprive an invading army of sustenance during a crucial part of the war.

What of the limited sea-keeping capabilities of the racing-shell styled ancient war galleys?  An apt riposte to this argument is provided by Boris Rankov’s fascinating essay in The Second Punic War: A Reappraisal. Rankov relates that by way of contrast to the First Punic War, the Second Punic war saw no decisive encounter at sea. Rankov points out that the reason for this is geographical. In order for large fleets to operate, they need to control harbors. As a result of the first Punic war, the Carthaginians did not have access to landing spots in Sicily, and thus could not support Hannibal by sea.  The galleys’ short sea legs did not matter when naval forces moving along the shoreline while legions marched along the seacoast parallel to the fleets could effect the control of the harbors.

This is a rational way to look at the actual meaning of “sea power” in the context of ancient fleets. It has implications for other periods of ancient history, where control of the sea (and landing places) proved less than decisive in the absence of an enemy who was prepared to contest the point. It was only when Rome could free up resources to take advantage of its command of the sea, that sea power mattered. And even as Chester Starr’s narrative acknowledges, superior Roman sea power, in conjunction with operations on land, made a difference in PW2, even if it wasn’t the dominant instrument that it proved to be in PW1. Let’s take a look at another episode treating with Roman command of the seas, this one dealing with the early imperial period.

III. PAX ROMANA AT SEA: The Naval Factor in the Roman-Jewish War

Our discussion of  Hannibal’s naval problem in the Second Punic War is perhaps better known than the next episode; it might be even more enlightening to investigate naval issues in a relatively obscure peripheral campaign: the Roman-Judaeo War, otherwise known as the First Jewish Revolt.  There were no prominent naval encounters in that conflict. Yet, much as in the First and Second American Persian Gulf Wars, ships and crews exercised persistent, if inconspicuous, influence over the events on land without inspiring epics or scholarly monographs on the subject.

The geography of their empire determined that the Romans would move most of their military supplies by water. During both the Republican and Imperial periods, nearly all of the provinces had extensive coasts along the Mediterranean, the Black Sea or the Atlantic Ocean. These interconnected seas gave the Romans a distinct advantage over their adversaries around the perimeter, who generally had to utilize coasts adjacent to or interdicted by Roman maritime control.

When Vespasian was given the task of bringing rebellious Judaea to heel in 66 AD, he had to rely upon naval logistics for the simple reason that land communications between his staging area in Antioch (now Syria) and the other main forward supply base at Alexandria, Egypt were tortuous and tenuous and long stretches were under the control of hostile forces.

The carrying capacity of a single representative supply ship is 60 tons. In order to drag this quantity overland it would take 140 wagons or 500 mules, not to mention their drivers.  Moreover it would have tied down thousands of troops devoted solely to maintaining and protecting the wagon trains.  One authority has estimated that the financial burden of land transport was 40 to 50 times that of provisioning by sea. This doesn’t take into account the relative slowness of hauling the goods through circuitous, rough trails – and there were plenty of these to traverse outside the vaunted Roman road network.

In any event, Vespasian had to provide for an invasion army usually reckoned at 60,000 – for the initial task force alone. One month’s supply of grain for such an army would have weighed some 1580 metric tons, which would have required only 26 ships with the conservative carrying estimate of 60 tons each. As far as the speed is concerned, the distance from Seleucia – the port for Antioch – and Caesarea, the chief offloading facility for the final siege of Jerusalem – is 350 km. The other source of grain supply, Alexandria is reckoned at 600 km from that port. Even under unfavorable weather conditions, it is estimated that the sea voyages would have taken respectively one and two weeks. In order to get the grain and other food provisions from the Syrian and Egyptian agricultural areas to the ports of embarkation, there was further reliance on ships. In Syria, the Orontes River, and in Egypt, the Nile, allowed the use of river transport. Cargo capacity of the river craft is slightly over half that given for the typical Roman merchant vessel.  It is not unreasonable to conclude that lacking the availability of ships, Vespasian’s  (and later his son Titus’) forces could not have been supplied adequately for at least six months and up to a year later than they were by sea, allowing the Judaeans that much more time to organize their defenses.

In preparation for the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Titus ordered his troops to concentrate at Caesarea, whereas the seacoast cities of Joppa and Jamnia were closer to Jerusalem. While the Roman sailors could and did make effective use of offloading cargo directly onto beaches, the harbor at Ceasearea had the considerable advantages of excellent dockyard facilities plus warehouses and silos to store crops as well as a trained cadre of merchants, longshoremen and shipping clerks all steadfastly loyal to Rome. 

To be sure, sending supplies by sea was risky and the ships of the day were quite helpless in the event of a storm. Witness the many tales of ships foundering (St. Paul, Flavius Josephus, among others) in the teeth of storms against which today’s offshore fishing yachts could tough it out.

In connection with the coastal village of Joppa, mentioned above, we find another nautical aspect of the Judaean rebellion that affected Roman strategy. It is notable that Vespasian turned his attention to Joppa (modern Jaffa, just north of the present-day Tel Aviv) at a time when his attention was still focused farther north and inland. Joppa, however, lies directly on the route which seaborne grain shipments had to proceed from Alexandria to Caesarea.  The city was host to a nest of Jewish pirates (an odd coupling indeed) that had been harassing the coast-wise Roman supply vessels. These pirates were not just a war-time contingency, as Strabo’s much earlier account attests to their presence several generations before the outbreak of the revolt. Piracy was endemic throughout the Roman Empire, entailing periodic maritime policing campaigns (this is how Pompey the Great rose to prominence) and the Jewish contingent just a local manifestation.  The Jewish buccaneers were forced further out to sea by the Roman attack on the landward flank and an offshore storm forced the coastal craft back towards the shore, most smashing against the rocky jetties and cliffs.

The potential to interdict Rome-bound grain convoys is one of the reasons that Vespasian had to first solidify support among the legions throughout the Near Eastern region in order to exercise leverage over events in the Imperial capital during the succession struggle following Nero’s demise.  Recall that Vespasian had to overcome legions loyal to Vitellius, stationed in Gaul and Germany. Once he controlled the Levantine coast, Vespasian could have choked off the grain ships. Under such circumstances, none of the other claimants to the purple could long have maintained order.

Finally, there is one further naval episode in this war that merits mention, since special naval commemorative coins were struck in Rome to immortalize the event. While mopping up rebel holdouts in Galilee in late summer, 67 AD, the assault on Tarichaea – near Tiberias – eventuated a naval battle on the Sea of Galilee when the rebels attempted to evacuate some of the Jewish forces on fishing boats. Titus had special rafts built for the occasion. The resulting battle on the Sea of Galilee was a fierce, close-quarters action in which the Jews attempted by spear and archery volleys to prevent the Romans from grappling and boarding, the latter’s  preferred naval tactic. The Jews lost the battle but only after inflicting some substantial casualties on the Romans.

IV. CONCLUSION: Ancient Ships as Instruments of Empire

I trust that the foregoing two Roman examples, one from the early Republic and the second from the early Empire, help to establish that, contrary to Chester Starr ( or his agent’s) claims to the contrary, triremes, biremes, and pot-bellied round merchantmen had a noteworthy, albeit perhaps not central, affect on the establishment and preservation of hegemony in antiquity. It’s not an over-simplification to assert that had Rome not built up her naval power in the First Punic War, Hannibal’s land campaigns in the Second might well have succeeded. Further, if the Jews had successfully contested Rome’s ability to supply and transport her troops in the Judaean campaign, the war might have been prolonged, with a possible compromise tolerating a degree, albeit much reduced, of Jewish political power in the Near East.  Don’t underestimate the power of sea-raiding “pirates” to cause large ripples in Rome. After all it was the “pirate question” that led to Pompey’s advancement to the point where he could challenge Julius Caesar’s clout.

Starr’s myopia can be attributable to his misunderstanding of specifically what is the essence of ancient sea power, or maritime power. This is odd for someone who wrote a much-cited book on the nuts and bolts of the Roman imperial navy. For maritime power was indeed crucial to the well being of  ancient Greece and Rome, never mind whether  Herodotus  , Thucydides, Tacitus or Polybius are rated as land warfare  or naval chroniclers.  There were no clear-cut Trafalgar-like victories in those campaigns; but any account of them would be quite incomplete without allusion to the effects of maritime enterprise, however incremental. It is not even clear that Thucydides, who coined the phrase, in fact asserted that the Greece of his day was, in fact, a thalassocracy in the sense that it could only survive by virtue of the superiority of its mercantile and naval fleets. Thucydides actual claims for the importance of maritime expertise were more nuanced than that. To assert that ships and sailors were essential concomitants of political power, as well as the fact that Rome could only rule her far-flung empire if she “ruled the waves”….or Mare Nostrum, as her lawmakers described the Med. – is an axiom no less valid because it is clichéd.

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This article is the core of a planned book-length treatment on ancient maritime power, which will be more than a simple rebuttal to Starr. It was also presented as a lecture at the New York Military Affairs Symposium at the City University of New York facility in Manhattan on June 25, 2004.

Copyright Jim Bloom © 2005


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