What was the Battle of Drepana (249 BC)?

Introduction

The naval Battle of Drepana (or Drepanum) took place in 249 BC during the First Punic War near Drepana (modern Trapani) in western Sicily, between a Carthaginian fleet under Adherbal and a Roman fleet commanded by Publius Claudius Pulcher.

Pulcher was blockading the Carthaginian stronghold of Lilybaeum (modern Marsala) when he decided to attack their fleet, which was in the harbour of the nearby city of Drepana. The Roman fleet sailed by night to carry out a surprise attack but became scattered in the dark. Adherbal was able to lead his fleet out to sea before it was trapped in harbour; having gained sea room in which to manoeuvre he then counter-attacked. The Romans were pinned against the shore, and after a day of fighting were heavily defeated by the more manoeuvrable Carthaginian ships with their better-trained crews.

It was Carthage’s greatest naval victory of the war; they turned to the maritime offensive after Drepana and all but swept the Romans from the sea. It was seven years before Rome again attempted to field a substantial fleet, while Carthage put most of its ships into reserve to save money and free up manpower.

The Battle

By dawn the Romans were close to Drepana but were experiencing problems. In the dark it had proved difficult to keep station. This was exacerbated by the recent incorporation of the 10,000 new oarsmen, who were not trained nor experienced at working with the existing crews. As a result, morning found the Roman ships spread out in a long, disorganised line. Pulcher’s ship was towards the rear, possibly so he could discourage straggling. The Carthaginian commander, Adherbal, was taken completely by surprise when his lookouts reported the approach of the Romans. However, his ships were ready for sea, and he immediately ordered them to take on board the garrison as marines, and to follow him out to sea. The Roman fleet consisted of more than 120 ships; some sources give as many as 200. The Carthaginians had between 100 and 130 vessels. All of the warships, on both sides, were carrying full complements of marines.

The more advanced of the Roman ships had reached the mouth of the harbour and were in a position to attempt to block it. However, Pulcher, seeing that surprise was lost, ordered them to fall back and concentrate in battle formation. This order took some time to transmit and resulted in some ships responding to it and turning into the paths of others still pressing forward and fouling them. So poor was the Roman seamanship that several ships collided, or sheared the oars off friendly vessels. Meanwhile, Adherbal led his fleet past the confused Roman vanguard and continued west, passing between the city and two small islands to reach the open sea. Here they had room to manoeuvre and headed south, forming a line of battle that was parallel to the Romans. The Carthaginians managed to get five ships south of Pulcher’s flagship, echeloned towards the shore, and so cut off the entire Roman fleet from its line of retreat to Lilybaeum.

The Romans, meanwhile, had formed up in a line facing west, with the shore behind them, which prevented them from being outflanked. The Carthaginians attacked, and the weakness of Pulcher’s dispositions became apparent. The Carthaginian ships were lighter built and more manoeuvrable, and their crews were more experienced and accustomed to working together. The Romans lacked the corvus to even the fight. On the other hand, the Carthaginians were probably outnumbered. The Carthaginians had the additional advantage that if an individual ship was getting the worse of a melee, it could reverse oars and withdraw; if the Roman vessel followed up, it left both of its flanks vulnerable. The Romans, with the shore close behind them, had no such advantage, and they attempted to stay in a tight formation for mutual protection. The battle was hard-fought and ground on through the day. The quality of the legionaries serving as the Roman marines, and their tight formation, made boarding difficult. But the Carthaginians handily outmanoeuvred the Romans, picking off exposed ships to ram, and steadily gaining more and more of an advantage. Eventually Roman discipline cracked; several ships were intentionally run aground so their crews could flee, and Pulcher led a successful breakout by 30 Roman ships, the only ones to survive the battle.

The result was an utter Roman defeat, with 93 of their ships captured, an unknown number sunk, and 20,000 men killed or captured. It was Carthage’s greatest naval victory of the war.

Aftermath and Legacy

Shortly after the battle, Adherbal was reinforced by Carthalo with 70 ships. Adherbal brought Carthalo’s command up to 100 and sent him to raid Lilybaeum, where he burnt several Roman ships. A little later, he harried a Roman supply convoy of 800 transports, escorted by 120 warships, to such good effect that it was caught by a storm which sank all the vessels except for two. The Carthaginians further exploited their victory by raiding, ineffectively, the coasts of Roman Italy in 248 BC. The absence of Roman fleets then led Carthage to gradually decommission her navy, reducing the financial strain of building, maintaining and repairing ships, and providing and provisioning their crews. They withdrew most of their warships from Sicily, and the war there entered a period of stalemate. It was seven years after Drepana before Rome attempted to build another substantial fleet.

Pulcher was recalled and charged with treason. He was convicted of a lesser charge – sacrilege over the chicken incident – narrowly escaped a death sentence and was exiled. Pulcher’s sister, Claudia, became infamous when, obstructed in a street blocked by poorer citizens, she wished aloud that her brother would lose another battle so as to thin the crowd.

The war eventually ended in 241 BC after the Battle of the Aegates, with a Roman victory and an agreed peace. Henceforth Rome was the leading military power in the western Mediterranean, and increasingly the Mediterranean region as a whole. The Romans had built over 1,000 galleys during the war; and this experience of building, manning, training, supplying and maintaining such numbers of ships laid the foundation for Rome’s maritime dominance for 600 years.

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