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Ancient texts

Pol. (1.49-52)

Roman setbacks

Date: 249 bc
Consul: P. Claudius Pulcher
Inf.: 10,000
ships.: ±120
Casualties: ±14000 († or captured)
Remarks: 30 ships escaped
Enemy: Carthago
Leader: Adherbal
Inf.: ±12000
ships.: ±120?
Casualties: 0 ?

Battle of Drepanum

When during the siege of Lilibaeum a lot of Roman men were lost, the senate decided to replace them. When the 10,000 men arrived in the neighborhood of Lilibaeum, consul P. Claudius Pulcher (=the handsome) decided to attack the Carthaginian fleet in the harbor of Drepanum. He counted on the element of surprise, because he presumed the Carthaginians wouldn't expect an attack so soon after the great losses the Romans had suffered. According to Polybius het set sail at midnight.

  Battle of Drepanum phase 1  

Phase I


Sacred chickens
Polybius doesn't mention the following incident but Cicero and Valerius Maximus do.

Before the attack the sacred chickens were fed in order to learn the will of the gods. The poor creatures refused to eat. In many places I read they were seasick, but probably the auspices were taken when still land based. Cicero's text also points in that direction. Claudius eager to attack yelled:" Throw them in the sea, let's see if they are willing to drink!. Then he gave the order to depart.
Romans understood and accepted that not all battles could be won and seldom punished a commander. (Carthago would crucify failing commanders) But ignoring the will of the gods and being defeated as Claudius did was unacceptable. Claudius Pulcher is one of the few Roman generals who was to be fined for loosing a battle.

A quinquereme can move with a top speed of appro. 25 km/h (12 knots), but because it all came down to manpower this speed could not be maintained for a long time. My estimate is Claudius moved at a speed of 5 knots (9 km/h). He was sighted by the Carthaginians probably at a distance of 20 km or more. This gave general Adherbal at least 2 hours to prepare his surprise.


Phase II


Phase III


Claudius had chose position at the rear of the fleet. This caused him to be about the last Roman to see Adherbal had gathered his men and was moving his fleet out of the harbour. In the front his men kept carrying out their orders. According to Polybius he sent a fast ship with orders to stop and turn.

Adherbal had used his time well. It isn't sure if he moved his fleet around the island as shown in the diagram on the left or he used his own ship as a pivoting point. Sure is though, he got his ships lined up in battle order, while the Romans were still confused and messed up in the harbour. Polybius tells us the ships dashed into each other. I doubt that. The representation of the ships in the diagrams may be a little misleading, but the natural harbor of Drepanum (Trapani) is about 300m wide and about 1 km deep. So there must have been enough room for a neat turning maneuver.


Phase IV


Knock knockout
Probably, due to the losses in the storms, the Romans did no longer make use of the corvus. This meant the Carthaginians could attack head on. With their much more maneuverable and faster ships they rammed the Roman fleet to pieces. The Romans floated with their back against the wall. They had no room to maneuver and couldn't land their ship to at least save the crew. Claudius Pulcher escaped with about 30 ships, but even that wouldn't bring him much joy. He would commit suicide soon after he was fined.

Though his place in the fleet gave Claudius the opportunity to escape, it was also one of the causes of the disaster. Where on land a messenger on horseback can bring orders and messages to any part of a deployed land army in minutes, in this case in the fleet, it may have taken half an hour or more before the message was delivered. This shows how very important good communications are when you go to war. Claudius should have picked one of the first three positions
Another aspect were the new and thus untrained crews. It took a lot of time the train a crew how to work as a team.
Even Polybius recognizes this, and states that this had nothing to do with Fate, but everything with stupidity. That is probably the reason why he doesn't mention the holy chickens.

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