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Battle of the Aegates

The Battle of the Aegates (Italian Battaglia delle Isole Egadi) was a naval battle fought on 10 March 241 BC between the fleets of Carthage and Rome during the First Punic War. It took place among the Aegadian Islands, off the western coast of the island of Sicily. It was the final battle of the 23-year-long war.

Battle of the Aegates
Part of the First Punic War
Date10 March 241 BC
Coordinates: 37°58′12″N 12°12′00″E / 37.9700°N 12.200°E / 37.9700; 12.200
Result Decisive Roman victory
Treaty of Lutatius
Vexilloid of the Roman Empire.svg Roman Republic Carthage standard.svg Carthage
Commanders and leaders
Gaius Lutatius Catulus
Quintus Valerius Falto
c. 200 quinqueremes c. 250 quinqueremes
Casualties and losses
30 quinqueremes sunk
50 quinqueremes damaged
  • 120 quinqueremes
  •      50 sunk
  •      70 captured
  •      10,000 men captured
The Aegadian Islands is located in Sicily
The Aegadian Islands
The Aegadian Islands
Location of the battle, off the west coast of Sicily

The better-trained Roman fleet defeated a hastily raised, undermanned and ill-trained Punic fleet in a decisive Roman victory. As a direct result, Carthage sued for peace and agreed the Treaty of Lutatius, by which Carthage surrendered Sicily to Rome and paid substantial reparations.


The main source for almost every aspect of the First Punic War[note 1] is the historian Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BC), a Greek sent to Rome in 167 BC as a hostage. His works include a now lost manual on military tactics,[2] but he is best known for his Histories, written sometime after 167 BC, or about a century after the Battle of Aegates.[3][4] Polybius' work is considered broadly objective and largely neutral as between Carthaginian and Roman points of view.[5][6]

Carthaginian written records were destroyed along with their city in 146 BC and so Polybius' account of the First Punic War is based on several, now lost, Greek and Latin sources.[7] Polybius was an analytical historian and wherever possible personally interviewed participants in the events he wrote about.[8][9] Only the first book of the 40 comprising The Histories deals with this war'[10] The accuracy of Polybius' account has been much debated over the past 150 years, but the modern consensus is to accept it largely at face value, and the details of the battle in modern sources are almost entirely based on interpretations of Polybius' account.[10][11][12] The modern historian Anne Curry considers that "Polybius turns out to [be] fairly reliable".[13] Other, later, histories of the war exist, but in fragmentary or summary form,[14] and they usually cover military operations on land in more detail than those at sea.[15] The classicist Adrian Goldsworthy states that "Polybius' account is usually to be preferred when it differs with any of our other accounts".[9] Other sources include inscriptions, archaeological evidence, and empirical evidence from reconstructions such as the trireme Olympias.[16]



Depiction of the position of the rowers of the three different oars in a Greek trireme

During this period the standard warship of the Carthaginian navy was the quinquereme, meaning "five-oared".[15] The quinquereme was a galley, c. 45 metres (150 ft) long, c. 5 metres (16 ft) wide at water level, with its deck standing c. 3 metres (10 ft) above the sea, and displacing around 100 long tons (110 short tons; 100 tonnes). The galley expert John Coates has suggested that they could maintain 7 knots (8 mph; 13 km/h) for extended periods.[17] The quinquereme was superior as a warship to the previous mainstay of Mediterranean navies, the trireme,[18][19] and, being heavier, performed better than the triremes in bad weather.[20] The modern replica galley Olympias has achieved speeds of 8.5 knots (10 mph; 16 km/h) and cruised at 4 knots (4.6 mph; 7.4 km/h) for hours on end.[15]

The generally accepted theory regarding the arrangement of oarsmen in quinqueremes is that for each file there were three banks of oarsmen, one above the other, with two oarsmen on each oar of the two uppermost levels and one on the lower, for a total of five oarsmen per file.[21] At least one man on each oar would need to have had some experience if the ship was to be handled effectively. Vessels were built as cataphract, or "protected", ships, with a closed hull to protect the rowers, and a full deck able to carry marines and catapults.[22][23] Carthaginian quinqueremes used a separate "oar box" which contained the rowers and was attached to the main hull. This development meant the rowers would be located above or at deck level,[24][25] which allowed the hull to be strengthened, and increased carrying capacity; as well as improving the ventilation conditions of the rowers, an important factor in maintaining their stamina, and thereby improving the ship's maintainable speed.[26]

The corvus, the Roman ship boarding device

In 260 BC Romans set out to construct a fleet and used a shipwrecked Carthaginian quinquereme as a blueprint for their own.[27] As novice shipwrights, the Romans built copies that were heavier than the Carthaginian vessels, and so slower and less manoeuvrable.[20] The quinquereme provided the workhorse of the Roman and Carthaginian fleets throughout the Punic Wars, although hexaremes (six oarsmen per bank), quadriremes (four oarsmen per bank) and triremes (three oarsmen per bank) are also occasionally mentioned. So ubiquitous was the type that Polybius uses it as a shorthand for "warship" in general.[28] A quinquereme carried a crew of 300: 280 oarsmen and 20 deck crew and officers;[29] it would also normally carry a complement of 40 marines;[30] if battle was thought to be imminent this would be increased to as many as 120.[31][32]

Getting the oarsmen to row as a unit, let alone to execute more complex battle manoeuvres, required long and arduous training.[33] As a result, the Romans were initially at a disadvantage against the more experienced Carthaginians. To counter Carthaginian superiority, the Romans introduced the corvus, a bridge 1.2 metres (4 ft) wide and 11 metres (36 ft) long, with a heavy spike on the underside, which was designed to pierce and anchor into an enemy ship's deck.[31] This allowed Roman legionaries acting as marines to board enemy ships and capture them, rather than employing the previously traditional tactic of ramming. All warships were equipped with rams, a triple set of 60-centimetre-wide (2 ft) bronze blades weighing up to 270 kilograms (600 lb) set at the waterline. They were made individually by the lost-wax method to fit immovably to a galley's prow.[34] In the century prior to the Punic Wars, boarding had become increasingly common and ramming had declined, as the larger and heavier vessels adopted in this period lacked the speed and manoeuvrability necessary to ram, while their sturdier construction reduced the ram's effect even in case of a successful attack. The Roman adaptation of the corvus was a continuation of this trend and compensated for their initial disadvantage in ship manoeuvring skills. However, the added weight in the prow compromised the ship's manoeuvrability, and in rough sea conditions the corvus became useless.[35][36]

Operations in SicilyEdit

Territory controlled by Rome and Carthage at the start of the First Punic War

In 264 BC the states of Carthage and Rome went to war, starting the First Punic War.[37] Carthage was a well-established maritime power in the Western Mediterranean; Rome had recently unified mainland Italy south of the Po under its control. The immediate cause of the war was control of the Sicilian town of Messana (modern Messina). More broadly both sides wished to control Syracuse, the most powerful city-state on Sicily.[38]

By 241 BC the war had lasted 23 years, with many changes of fortune. It had developed into a struggle in which the Romans were attempting to decisively defeat the Carthaginians and, at a minimum, control the whole of Sicily.[39] The Carthaginians were engaging in their traditional policy of waiting for their opponents to wear themselves out, in the expectation of then regaining some or all of their possessions and negotiating a mutually satisfactory peace treaty.[40] The Romans were essentially a land-based power and had gained control of most of Sicily. Largely because of the Romans' use of the corvus, the Carthaginians were defeated in large naval battles at Mylae (260 BC),Sulci (257 BC), Ecnomus (256 BC) and Cape Hermaeum (255 BC). However, shortly after the last of these, the large majority of the Roman fleet was destroyed in a storm; the instability of the Roman ships in heavy weather due to the presence of the corvus may have contributed to this disaster.[41]

The Carthaginians gained command of the sea with victories at Drepanum and Phintias in 249 BC. Rome had previously rebuilt her fleet after heavy losses, but these defeats so demoralized the Romans that they restricted their naval activities to small-scale operations for seven years.[42][43][44] The absence of Roman fleets probably led Carthage to gradually decommission her navy, saving the financial strain of building, maintaining and repairing ships, and providing and provisioning their crews.[45] Certainly they withdrew most of their warships from Sicily.[46] The Carthaginian leadership preferred to expand their area of control in North Africa at the expense of the Libyans and the Numidians. Hanno the Great had been in charge of operations in Africa since 248 BC and had conquered considerable territory by 241 BC. Carthage probably viewed Sicily as a secondary theatre.[47]

By 248 BC the Carthaginians held only two cities on Sicily: Lilybaeum and Drepanum; these were well-fortified and situated on the west coast, where they could be supplied and reinforced without the Romans being able to use their superior army to interfere.[48][49] When Hamilcar Barca [note 2] took command of the Carthaginians on Sicily in 247 BC he was given a fairly small army and the Carthaginian fleet was gradually withdrawn. Hostilities between Roman and Carthaginian forces declined to small-scale land operations, which suited the Carthaginian strategy. Hamilcar employed combined arms tactics in a Fabian strategy from his base at Eryx, north of Drepana. This guerrilla warfare kept the Roman legions pinned down and preserved Carthage's foothold in Sicily.[51][52][53]

After more than 20 years of war, both states were financially and demographically exhausted.[54] Evidence of Carthage's financial situation includes their request for a 2,000 talent loan[note 3] from Egypt, which was refused.[56] Rome was also close to bankruptcy and the number of adult male citizens had declined by 17 per cent since the start of the war.[57]


Carthage's foothold in western Sicily, 248–241, in gold; Roman-controlled territory in pink; Syracusan in green

Early in the blockade of Lilybaeum and Drepanum, 50 Carthaginian quinqueremes gathered off the Aegates Islands, which lie 15–50 kilometres (9–30 mi) to the east of Sicily. Once there was a strong east wind they sailed into Lilybaeum before the Romans could react. They unloaded reinforcements – either 10,000 or 4,000 according to different ancient sources[58] – and a large quantity of supplies. They evaded the Romans by leaving at night, evacuating the Carthaginian cavalry.[59] The Romans had sealed off the landward approach to Lilybaeum with earth and timber camps and walls and now made repeated attempts to block the harbour entrance with a heavy timber boom; due to the prevailing sea conditions they were unsuccessful.[60] The two Carthaginian garrisons were kept supplied by blockade runners. These were light and manoeuvrable quinqueremes with highly trained crews and pilots who knew the shoals and currents of the difficult waters. Chief among the blockade runners was a galley captained by Hannibal the Rhodian, who taunted the Romans with the superiority of his vessel and crew. Eventually the Romans captured Hannibal, and his well-constructed galley.[61]

In late 243 BC, realizing they could not capture Drepana and Lilybaeum unless they could extend their blockade to the sea, the Roman Senate decided to build a new fleet. With the state's coffers exhausted, the Senate approached Rome's wealthiest citizens for loans to finance the construction of one ship each, repayable from the reparations to be imposed on Carthage once the war was won. The result was a fleet of approximately 200 quinqueremes, built, equipped, and crewed without government expense.[62] The Romans modelled the ships of their new fleet on the vessel captured from Hannibal the Rhodian. By now, the Romans were experienced at shipbuilding and with a proven vessel as a model produced high quality quinqueremes. Importantly, the corvus was abandoned, which improved the ships' speed and handling but forced a change in tactics on the Romans; they would need to be superior sailors, rather than superior soldiers, to beat the Carthaginians.[63][64][65][66]

The new Roman fleet was completed in 242 BC and the consul Catulus, assisted by the praetor Falto, led it to Sicily. Arriving with the 200 quinqueremes and 700 transports laden with supplies and legionary reinforcements, Catulus seized the harbour of Drepana and the anchorages off Lilybaeum uncontested, as there were no Carthaginian ships to counter the Roman fleet. Catulus and Falto kept a strong squadron off each city whenever the weather permitted, to avoid any possibility of Carthaginian supplies getting past them, and to drill the crews in manoeuvres and exercises. They also ensured that the crews received good treatment, including an adequate diet, and created a fleet with crews at the peak of their ability.[65][67] Impressed by the energy of Catulus and Falto, the senate extended their terms of office beyond the normal one year.

The garrisons of Lilybaeum and Drepana, and Hamilcar's army at Eryx, held fast, but without supplies from Carthage they could not hold out indefinitely. Carthage began to ready a fleet, fit out transports, gather supplies and train crews and marines to meet the Roman challenge. It took nine months to ready 250 warships and between 150 and 350 transports. Carthage was pressed for time as supplies in their blockaded strongholds were running out. They struggled to find the 100,000 men necessary to fully crew just the warships, and did not feel that they had sufficient time to provide the extended training necessary for the crews to work together effectively as teams.


The course of the battle

It is uncertain who led the Carthaginian fleet. It is not known why the victors of Drepana, Adherbal and Carthalo, were not in command. Hanno, the general who had lost the Battles of Agrigentum and Ecnomus, may have been in command; although it is possible that he had bee executed for his earlier failures.[68] The Carthaginian plan was to assemble in secret off Hiera (Holy Island), the westernmost of the Aegates islands, wait for a following wind, and rely on surprise and numbers to take them into Lilybaeum before the Romans became aware and concentrated their fleet. This would have been a repeat of the successful Carthaginian feat with a smaller fleet several years before. They would then unload their cargos, mostly grain, and embark a large proportion of the Carthaginian army to be used as marines on their quinqueremes which would then configure themselves for fighting and seek out the Roman fleet.[69]It is unclear, given the large number of transports available, why the Carthaginian warships were also laden with cargo; and why they were not already carrying marines taken from their forces in Africa.

The Carthaginian fleet arrived to relieve the blockade in March 241 BC. However, the Carthaginian fleet was spotted by Roman scouts and Catulus abandoned the blockade to meet his enemy. The Roman fleet sailed and anchored off the middle island. On the morning of March 10, the Carthaginians and Hanno immediately set sail. Catulus measured the risk of attacking with the wind in his bow versus the risk of letting Hanno reach Sicily to relieve Hamilcar Barca and Lilybaeum.

Despite unfavourable conditions, the proconsul decided to intercept the Carthaginians and ordered his fleet to prepare for battle. He had the Roman ships stripped of their masts, sails and other unnecessary equipment in order to make them more seaworthy in the rough conditions. Catulus himself was unable to join the actual battle because of injuries suffered in an earlier engagement, so in the actual battle the ships were commanded by his second in command, Falto.

In the ensuing battle the Romans enjoyed far greater mobility, since their vessels were carrying only the bare necessities, while the Carthaginians were burdened with men, equipment, and provisions. The Carthaginian crews had also been hurriedly levied and thus were inexperienced. The Romans quickly gained the upper hand, using their ships' greater manoeuverability to ram the enemy vessels. The Romans lost 30 ships sunk and another 50 damaged. 50 Carthaginian ships were sunk, 20 of them with all hands, and 70 were captured along with up to 10,000 men.[70] The rest were saved only by an abrupt change in the direction of the wind, allowing them to flee from the Romans. Several rams from both Roman and Phoenician ships have been found[71] along with amphora from the cargoes and helmets.[72]


Remains of the Temple of Juturna at Largo di Torre Argentina, built by Gaius Lutatius Catulus to celebrate his victory.

Catulus was granted a triumph to celebrate his victory, while Falto was granted a separate and slightly junior triumph.[73] To celebrate the victory, Catulus built a temple to Juturna in the Campus Martius, in the area currently known as the Largo di Torre Argentina.[74]

Upon achieving decisive victory over the Carthaginian fleet, Catulus continued the land operations in Sicily against Lilybaeum, Eryx and Drepana which were being defended by Hamilcar Barca and his army. The Carthaginian senate was reluctant to continue the war by allocating the resources necessary to have another fleet built and manned. Carthage had taken nine months to fit out the fleet that was defeated, and if they took another nine months to ready another fleet, the Sicilian Cities still holding our would run out of supplies and request terms. Strategically, Carthage had to build a fleet capable of defeating the Roman fleet, and then raise an Army capable of defeating the Roman armies in Sicily. Carthaginian Senate ordered Hamilcar to negotiate a peace treaty with the Romans, which he left up to his subordinate commander Gesco. The Treaty of Lutatius was signed with conditions unfavourable to Carthage and brought the First Punic War to its end.

A Carthaginian naval ram recovered from the site of the battle showing damage in the form of V-shaped scratches, attributed to frontal collision(s) with Roman ships (ram against ram).

Notes, citations and sourcesEdit


  1. ^ The term Punic comes from the Latin word Punicus (or Poenicus), meaning "Carthaginian", and is a reference to the Carthaginians' Phoenician ancestry.[1]
  2. ^ Hamilcar Barca was the father of Hannibal.[50]
  3. ^ 2,000 talents was approvimately 52,000 kilograms (51 LT) of silver.[55]


  1. ^ Sidwell & Jones 1998, p. 16.
  2. ^ Shutt 1938, p. 53.
  3. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 20.
  4. ^ Tipps 1985, p. 432.
  5. ^ Lazenby 1996, pp. x–xi.
  6. ^ Hau 2016, pp. 23–24.
  7. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 23.
  8. ^ Shutt 1938, p. 55.
  9. ^ a b Goldsworthy 2000, p. 21.
  10. ^ a b Goldsworthy 2000, pp. 20–21.
  11. ^ Lazenby 1996, pp. x–xi, 82–84.
  12. ^ Tipps 1985, pp. 432–433.
  13. ^ Curry 2012, p. 34.
  14. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 22.
  15. ^ a b c Goldsworthy 2000, p. 98.
  16. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, pp. 23, 98.
  17. ^ Coates 2004, p. 138.
  18. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 101.
  19. ^ Tipps 1985, p. 434.
  20. ^ a b Murray 2011, p. 69.
  21. ^ Casson 1991, p. 101.
  22. ^ de Souza 2008, p. 358.
  23. ^ Meijer 1986, p. 120.
  24. ^ Coates 2004, pp. 137–138.
  25. ^ Morrison & Coates 1996, pp. 259–260, 270.
  26. ^ Coates 2004, pp. 129–130, 138–139.
  27. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, pp. 97, 99–100.
  28. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 104.
  29. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 100.
  30. ^ Tipps 1985, p. 435.
  31. ^ a b Casson 1995, p. 121.
  32. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, pp. 102–103.
  33. ^ Casson 1995, pp. 278–280.
  34. ^ Curry 2012, pp. 35–36.
  35. ^ Wallinga 1956, pp. 77–90.
  36. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, pp. 100–101, 103.
  37. ^ Warmington 1993, p. 168.
  38. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, pp. 74–75.
  39. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 129.
  40. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 130.
  41. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, pp. 107–108, 110–115, 115–116.
  42. ^ Casson 1995, p. 149-150.
  43. ^ Rankov 2011, p. 163.
  44. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 122.
  45. ^ Miles 2011, p. 193.
  46. ^ Bagnall 1999, pp. 92, 94.
  47. ^ Bagnall 1999, p. 94.
  48. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, pp. 94–95.
  49. ^ Bagnall 1999, pp. 64–66.
  50. ^ Lazenby 1996, p. 165.
  51. ^ Lazenby 1996, p. 144.
  52. ^ Bagnall 1999, pp. 92–94.
  53. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 95.
  54. ^ Bringmann 2007, p. 127.
  55. ^ Lazenby 1996, p. 158.
  56. ^ Bagnall 1999, p. 92.
  57. ^ Bagnall 1999, p. 91.
  58. ^ Bagnall 1999, p. 85.
  59. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 117.
  60. ^ Bagnall 1999, pp. 84–86.
  61. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, pp. 117–118.
  62. ^ Lazenby 1996, p. 49.
  63. ^ Lazenby 1996, pp. 150.
  64. ^ Casson 1991, p. 150.
  65. ^ a b Bagnall 1999, p. 95.
  66. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, p. 124.
  67. ^ Goldsworthy 2000, pp. 123–124.
  68. ^ Lazenby 1996, pp. 153.
  69. ^ Bagnall 1999, p. 96.
  70. ^ Dart & Vervaet 2011, p. 271.
  71. ^ "Rare bronze rams excavated from site of the final battle of the First Punic War""Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1 October 2013. Retrieved 3 August 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link), University of Oxford website
  72. ^ Tusa & Royal (2012)
  73. ^ Dart & Vervaet 2011, p. 272.
  74. ^ Hannay 1911, p. 609.


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Further readingEdit