Ancient naval battles were quite risky; they involved massive investments in money in building ships and trained manpower for rowing and marines. Contrary to popular belief, rowers were rarely slaves, but skilled laborers, trained in precision maneuvers. Losing a battle at sea often meant that even your wounded were lost from a sunken ship and ships that were captured gave the enemy a very expensive war tool.
For this reason, naval battles, though rare, tended to be among the most decisive engagements from the Persian invasion all the way to WWII. Here are some of the more decisive ancient naval battles. For an overview of trireme, combat look here
480 BCE: Salamis
Salamis has a solid position as one of the most influential battles of all time including land battles. Faced with the overwhelming numbers and resources of the Persians, the Greeks fought two delaying actions on land at Thermopylae and at sea at Artemisium. Both engagements were impressive holding actions that had great success despite ultimate defeats. They served to show that the Greeks could outfight the Persians, but also showed the resolve and resources of Xerxes.
Planning to fortify the narrow Isthmus of Corinth on land, Athens was left in the open and almost the whole population took to the sea. As Athens burned a trap was set to lead the much larger Persian navy into the narrow and winding strait of between the island of Salamis and the Greek mainland.
As the Greeks positioned themselves in an inlet perpendicular to the Persian entrance, they launched at the vulnerable sides and took an immediate advantage. Though outnumbered as much as 3 to 1, the Greeks decimated the Persian navy. As a result, Xerxes himself left the invasion in the hands of his generals and soon the Greeks won other great victories at Plataea and Mycale greatly aided by the damages caused at Salamis.
241 BCE: Battle of the Egadi/Aegates Islands
Though many of the battles are relatively unknown, the first Punic War between Rome and Carthage was a titanic struggle that would decide the ruler of the Western Mediterranean. The struggle was mainly for control of Sicily and while land battles were fought, the war largely revolved around vast naval battles.
The Romans were new to large-scale naval combat while the Carthaginians were descendants from the sea-mastering Phoenicians and had proud naval traditions. Initially met with several defeats, the Romans invented the spiked Corvus bridge to link to enemy vessels and let their superior swordsmanship shine. This proved costly however as the heavy bridges led to the loss of over 100,000 men through storms alone.
Both sides were financially exhausted near the end of the over 20-year war and when the Roman government announced that they simply couldn’t finance another navy, the wealthy elite of Rome stepped up and paid for a 200 ship navy to make the last push for victory. To ensure their best chances for victory the Corvus was removed for better mobility and the crews drilled relentlessly even before the ships were finished.
The bold move paid off as the now sea hardened Romans fought a fierce battle among the Aegates islands off Western Sicily. Their training and added mobility allowed them to get the better of and destroy a larger, 250-ship Carthaginian navy, using traditional naval tactics of ramming and boarding.
The victory isolated the Carthaginian land forces and Sicily and forced a peace. Arguably the most important battle allowing Roman dominion of the Mediterranean the battle elevated the largely land-based Romans to a major naval power. The Carthaginians were severely restricted during the second Punic War by the Roman’s dominance of the sea, resulting in the successful Hannibal only being resupplied by sea once. Furthermore, the establishment of naval traditions allowed for the later fight against piracy once the Romans began adding more territory.
Continues on Page 2