Battle of Cape Ecnomus, 256 BC

Massive naval battle during the First Punic War. Even if the numbers of men present on each side are reduced from those given in our sources, this may still have been the biggest naval battle, in terms of the numbers of combatants, in all of history. Both Rome and Carthage fielded huge fleets, and each fleet carried a large force of soldiers. The battle was a result of Rome's decision to launch an invasion of Africa, to directly threaten Carthage. The most reliable sources give the Romans 330 ships and Carthage 350. Including marines, the Roman fleet is said to have carried 140,000 sailors and marines, the Carthaginian 150,000, although that figure is less reliable. The Roman figure included nearly 40,000 soldiers, intended either to act as marines in a naval battle, or as the invasion force in an attack on Carthage. The Punic leadership made the decision to oppose the Romans off the coast of Sicily, rather than wait until they reached African waters, and their fleet formed up on the south west coast of Sicily. Meanwhile, the Roman fleet was sailing west along the south coast, having picked up the best parts of the army. The Roman fleet was commanded by both consuls for the year, Lucius Manlius Vulso and Marcus Atilius Regulus, a sign of the importance this fleet had for Rome.

The Roman fleet formed up in an unusual formation that proved to be very effective. The fleet was divided into four squadrons. The first two, led by the consuls, formed two sides of a triangle, with the consuls ships at the front, and their squadrons arrayed away behind them. The third squadron formed the back line of the triangle, and the final squadron formed another line at the back. This gave the Roman fleet a very flexible structure. In contrast, the Carthaginian fleet was formed in a simple line. Their plan appears to have been to break up the compact Roman fleet and engage in a series of smaller engagements. To do this, the Carthaginian commander ordered his centre to pull back, drawing the first and second Roman squadrons forward. Meanwhile, his left wing attacked the Roman third squadron, and his right the final, fourth Roman force. However, the Carthaginians had still not worked out a response to the corvus, and seem to have done much worse in individual combats than the Romans.

The Carthaginian plan resulted in three separate battles. The Roman third squadron was hard pressed until it was forced up against the coast, where the Carthaginians were unwilling to attack for fear of the corvus. The fourth squadron was also hard pressed. However, the deliberately weakened Carthaginian centre was defeated by the consul's squadrons. Regulus took every free ship back to aid the rest of the Roman fleet, inflicting a crushing defeat on the Punic fleet. They lost close to one hundred ships, mostly captured, and inflicted very little damage on the Roman fleet. The Roman victory left them free to attack Africa, and came close to ending the war.

cover The Punic Wars, Adrian Goldsworthy. An excellent work which covers all three Punic wars. Strong on both the land and naval elements of the wars.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J., Battle of Cape Ecnomus, 256 BC,

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