Full Version: Ancient Sea Combat!
You're currently viewing a stripped down version of our content. View the full version with proper formatting.

I found this yesterday and thought, what a marvellous opener for a new topic.

"Basics of Ancient Sea Combat

Posted by Shogun 144 on August 26 2005, 08:05 PM

Combat at sea in ancient times was regarded as the water based extension of the land campaign and was viewed as an auxiliary force. Here we will examine the basics of ancient warfare at sea in the context of the game.

Tactics in sea combat reflected the changing times. Sea warfare changed much during this period; originally tactics consisted of great clashes similar to land battles. However something changed and the ram came into play in naval warfare. A ram was usually a piece of wood clothed in iron mounted on the bow of the ship, and it’s primarily usage would be to puncture the weak spots of the enemy ship, such as the sides and back, and not in the front as the popular picture of Hollywood would suggest. A hit from a ram would often times not sink the ship just cripple it, for this reason ships began carrying marines, soldiers specially trained for boarding actions after ramming on ship (ships also began carrying archers and javelinists about this time). Tactics of this period were wide and varied, but the basics of these were: Two lines trying to out flank the other so they would be able to ram the other in the soft spots, then it dissolved into pandemonium as the ships unable to back up out of their targets get messed up and tangled together, transforming the battle into a messy melee. So you could say that sea warfare at this point had in general two stages: maneuver and melee (this was of course not always the case, some battles were entirely maneuver). The most famous of the ‘ram’ ships was the Bireme and Trireme, which both had two tiers of oars with one man to each oar on the former and two men to each oar on the upper tier with one man on each oar on the lower tier on the latter. One of the most famous uses of the Bireme was with Pompey’s fleet against the Cilician Pirates and one of the most famous uses of the Trireme was with the Athenian fleet at Salamis. Besides rams the other main weapon of this time was fire, while Greek fire is out of the time frame of 0 AD ‘fire pots’ were wide spread. These fire pots were usually suspended over the deck on a beam that would fall when it rammed an enemy vessel. Later on in time the Greek colonists of Syracuse under their King Dionysius I would invent a real beast of a ship known as Quinquereme. The Quinquereme had two tiers of oars with three men to each oar on the upper tier and two men to each oar on the lower tier. The primarily usage that the Syracusans had for the ship was for use as a siege ship against coastal fortresses, Alexander the Great used such ships against Tyre in his march through the Achaemenid Empire. Quinqueremes generally were outfitted with a small castle like tower fore and aft that housed either a ballista or a catapult.

With the rise of the Roman Republic tactics changed. When Rome in its rise to power encountered Carthage, which primarily used Biremes in their navy, they needed a ship that could function as a land battlefield at sea. So they used the Quinquereme design of their Greek neighbors and added their own modifications to it. The Roman modifications were grapples, which were used to hook a nearby enemy and bring it close enough to be boarded by the marines; this is where the Romans excelled. The second modification was the Corvus (Latin: Crow) which was a special boarding plank with machinery placed at the bow of the ship. The plank could be swung over to face an enemy vessel then brought down on the vessel and fixed there with the spike on the underside. Marines would then storm across the Corvus in lines of three or four abreast. The Corvus eventually fell into disuse due to the fact it made the Quinquereme top heavy and hard to keep afloat. The Romans would in the golden age of Augustus abandon the Quinquereme as their primarily ship and adopted the Laburnum. The Laburnum was at heart a Bireme mark II, by this time the Romans had become excellent sailors and ship builders and were thus able to create a good and lasting design. The Laburnum was small and far more maneuverable then all other ships in use at the time. The Laburnum was also able to carry an aft tower for the archers to shoot from. And lastly the Laburnum was sturdier than most ships of that period.

Ship combat could only take place in certain conditions. Generally ships in the ancient world were built rather ‘flimsy’ and thus fleets kept close to the shoreline and islands to avoid sudden storms that occurred in deep water. Because of the limited number of rations that ships carried (at most three days with out sails) ancient fleets would often find a friendly stretch of shore and beach the ships there for the night, this would provide an excellent opportunity for foraging expeditions and field repairs. The enemy could also use this as an opportunity to launch a sneak attack, the most famous example being the Battle of Aegospotomi. As with all things there are exceptions to these, in this case being the Carthaginians and Celts. The Carthaginian ships were sturdier than most, in fact they were able to sail out onto the Atlantic Ocean and come back more or less intact (The Carthaginians explored the coast of Africa and even reached Britain). Celtic trading ships were also sturdier than most, due to the Oak wood used in construction and the iron straps added to reinforce the hull.

In conclusion ancient sea combat was a bloody, often messy, affair. Seen as a secondary force by many (the exceptions being Athens and Carthage) the navies of ancient world received little credit for their contributions to warfare.

User Comments:
micwri :: August 29 2005
A very good detailed description.

Phoenix-TheRealDeal :: November 17 2005
This is a very fine article demonstrating a high degree of accuracy in its details. Kudos to the author for the research and writing of it and kudos for us that it resides in support of 0ad, the game.

This is for those members who's interests are in Ancient Naval Warfare.


M. Spedius Corbulo
Thanks Jim, but I wouldn't agree with the comments you copied. His argument about the bireme is off (he means a quadrireme). Interesting mention of Pompey's campaign against the pirates, but there is actually hardly any detail known about the battle of Coracesium and Pompey's fleet in this campaign. We know a number (200 or 270), but that's about it.
The 'laburnum' (he means Liburna, usually called Liburnian in English) was actually at heart not a Roman development, but a copy of a pirate ship used by the Balkan people across the Adriatic. The liburnian, being a bireme (2 oars, one man each), was certainly smaller than previous generations of ships and was to be the workhorse in the provincial fleets. In the Italic fleets the trireme still dominated and even bigger ships were still available. I'm not sure where he got the idea about towers on a liburnian.
So, interesting but not "a very fine article demonstrating a high degree of accuracy in its details", but as it is a gamesite, perhaps it wasn't meant to be.
Quote:I'm not sure where he got the idea about towers on a liburnian.

Jasper is right, liburnians were only about 20 metres in lenght. It rather looks impossible to have about 4 metres high tower(s) on 20 metres long ship.
See The Age of the Galley by R.Gardiner/J.Morrison (or recommend this book to author of above article)
A number of curious errors, I am afraid. The Carthaginian fleet was certainly not predominantly one of biremes, although that may well have been true of their Phoenecian ancestors; but rather of quinquiremes - and the very famous story of the Romans copying one of these ships which ran aground is the explanation of Romans ships of this type. The author also doesn't clearly distinguish between round ships and galleys - the last comments about trading ships refer, of course, to round ships. Their development was, as far as I know, a completely independent phenonenon from galleys.