Very limited evidence of war at sea exists until the Greco-Persian Wars and Punic Wars of the last millennia BC. Historians are left to make largely educated guesses about sea fighting prior to these events. For example, the Minoan civilization of Crete prospered as sea traders from around 3400 BC until the catastrophe of 1200 BC. For those two millennia the Minoans apparently controlled the Mediterranean Sea.
Mycenaean palaces on the mainland were fortified while Minoan palaces on Crete were not. The lack of fortification on Crete suggests that the Minoans controlled the seas so completely that walls were not needed. Warships at sea that prevented any potential invader from coming ashore defended Crete.
Following the catastrophe of 1200 BC, various powers vied for control of the Mediterranean Sea, including the Greeks, Phoenicians, Persians (through Eastern Mediterranean port cities they controlled), Carthaginians, and the Romans. Fleets of several hundred warships clashed in many naval battles. From this period we have the best information available about the evolution of the ancient fighting ship and how sea battles were fought. Once the Romans gained dominance over the Mediterranean, making it almost a private lake, naval warfare (other than piracy) practically disappeared from Europe.
Evolution of the fighting ship
The first ships evolved into two major types—those built to carry a large cargo volume as traders or fishing boats at a sacrifice in speed and those built primarily for speed to carry small important cargoes such as diplomats or messages. Ships designed for war needed speed to run down the slower cargo vessels or to out-maneuver enemy warships.
The Importance of speed and maneuverability
Ancient courier and combat ships were galleys, relying on both sails and oarsmen for power, with the oars serving as a back-up power source in non-battle situations. Oar power was critically important during combat because it allowed precise and speedy movement, including fast turns (oared ships could essentially rotate in place by having the rowers on each side row in opposite directions) and backward movement. Sailing ships of the time had almost none of the maneuvering capability.
The first courier ships were long and thin, rather than short and wide, to maximize speed. A single mast might have been carried to provide wind power when conditions were right. A row of oarsmen was arranged down each side of the ship. Drums, chanting, or some other timing device controlled the stroke of the oars. Oars had to be pulled together to keep the ship movement smooth. Tangled oars or “catching a crab” (failing to withdraw the oar after the stroke and being pinned by it and the force of the ship’s motion) interrupted movement and interfered with steering. This could mean disaster in battle.
The most familiar ancient warship was the Trireme, a long thin ship carrying three banks of oars on both sides and a ram on the prow. This ship had evolved from the Greek Pentecontor that carried 50 rowers. Naval architects wished to add more power by adding more oarsmen, but the ship could not be made too long or risk breaking in the middle at sea. The solution was to add banks of rowers above each other. The basic Trireme was powered by 170 rowers and was about 120 feet long. The first Triremes were built by Corinth around 700 BC. After years of modification, they became the predominate type of warship from 500 to 300 BC.
Super galleys that were much larger and wider ships eventually replaced the Triremes. On the super galleys oars were manned by multiple men, up to as many as eight per oar. Super galleys appeared first in the navy of Dionysus I of Sicily, the ruler responsible for the invention of the catapult around 399 BC. Following the death of Alexander and the division of his empire, an arms race for control of the Mediterranean was touched off between the Antigenic dynasty in Macedonia and the Ptolemy’s in Egypt. During this period the largest oar-powered ships ever built appeared.
Ptolemy IV of Egypt built the most colossal of the new wide beam ships in the second century BC. It had a catamaran hull, apparently, with two hulls full of rowers and a large deck extending over both hulls like a modern aircraft carrier’s deck. The writer Athenaeus reports this ship was 420 feet long and 57 feet wide. The third level oars were 57 feet long. It carried 4000 rowers, 400 other crewmen, and 2850 marines. It was the largest warship the world would see until the twentieth century.
Historians believe this particular monster was more for show than practical use, but there are many accounts of smaller but still immense galleys engaging in combat.
Once Rome had established control of the Mediterranean world, the need for large super galleys disappeared after the battle at Actium in 31 BC. The Romans maintained sizable galley fleets, including several of the big super galleys, at big naval bases at Naples and Ravenna, plus smaller bases around the Mediterranean. The most useful ship in this navy was the liburnian, a light and fast two-deck galley equivalent to modern destroyer that was useful for chasing pirates and protecting commerce.
For most of antiquity, warships did not carry ship-killing weapons. Naval battles were boarding exercises. Fighting ships closed with each other and the battle was decided by missile fire and hand-to-hand combat between crews. Ships carried contingents of soldiers for combat and oarsmen left their posts to join in once the fighting started.
The principal ship-killing weapon of the ancient world was the ram, which appeared sometime after the catastrophe and before 850 BC. A blunt ramming point was mounted below the waterline on a heavily reinforced bow. Such a ram of bronze, weighing over 1000 pounds, has been recovered from the Mediterranean by Israeli archaeologists. The object of naval fighting was to drive the ram into the side or rear of an enemy ship, puncture it, and then pull back, leaving a hole that resulted in the ship sinking.
After 300 BC, grappling and boarding once again became important as ships increased greatly in size and became less maneuverable. The larger ships of this period carried large fighting contingents, up to the hardly believable figure of 2850 soldiers mentioned earlier.
A Roman innovation of the third century BC was a combination gangplank and grapple called a Corvus. This large plank was held in an upright position until an enemy ship got close. The Corvus was then released and swung down onto the deck of the enemy ship, simultaneously grappling the two and providing access for Roman marines to attack. The Romans were great land fighters but were at a disadvantage when fighting the superior navy of the Carthaginians. The Corvus made it possible for the Romans to fight at sea using their strengths.
Dionysus I of Sicily was the first to mount catapults and other missile-firing engines on ships. These were useful in causing casualties to marines on the enemy’s deck and a lucky hit in the rowing banks disrupted the rowing rhythm.
The tactics of sea fighting were missile fire and hand-to-hand boarding attacks until the invention of the ram. The boarding tactics are well illustrated in a series of carvings commissioned by Ramses III of Egypt on his temple at Medinet Habu. These carvings celebrate Ramses III’s naval victory over barbarian invaders around 1190 BC. He apparently surprised the barbarian fleet at the mouth of the Nile. The carvings show the antagonists fighting with bows, maces, spears, and javelins. Moving ships adjacent primarily accomplished naval fighting at this time, showering the opponent with missiles, and then boarding.
The fitting of rams to the prow of fast oar-powered ships changed tactics. The boarding of ships was de-emphasized for several hundred years. Ships maneuvered into position to race in quickly and ram. If the ramming ship could withdraw, the punctured ship usually sank quickly and with heavy loss of life. If the ramming ship was too slow in its attack, the ram might not punch through the enemy hull. If it attacked too fast, it might become stuck, leaving it motionless and vulnerable to other enemies. An account of a sea battle off the island of Chios in 201 BC mentions a ship stuck in such a manner being saved by a friendly ship ramming the already pierced enemy ship and pushing it off the stuck ship’s ram.
If a ramming ship missed, many of the oars on one side were sheered off, again leaving the ship vulnerable until replacement oars could be put in place.
Smaller and faster ships had an advantage in maneuverability, but the larger ships were stronger and more powerful. The ability of oar-powered ships to turn quickly made it difficult to catch them at a disadvantage, unless more than one ship could attack an enemy simultaneously. If a larger ship could turn its ram head-on against a smaller ship, the result was usually sheered oars, leading to grappling and successful boarding by the larger ship.
Fleets attempted to get around each other and attack simultaneously from two angles, making an anvil attack. The enemy could only turn to face one foe, leaving himself exposed to a second. One ship held the enemy in place on the anvil and the other struck the blow.
During last millennia BC, the oar-powered warships gradually got larger and more powerful, and began mounting fighting towers and catapults on their decks. Although boarding became important once again in the last centuries, warships continued to carry and use rams.