What was the Battle of Lipari Islands (260 BC)?

Introduction

The Battle of the Lipari Islands or Battle of Lipara was a naval encounter fought in 260 BC during the First Punic War. A squadron of 20 Carthaginian ships commanded by Boödes surprised 17 Roman ships under the senior consul for the year Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio in Lipara Harbour. The inexperienced Romans made a poor showing, with all 17 of their ships captured, along with their commander.

The Romans had recently built a fleet in order to contest the Carthaginians’ maritime control of the western Mediterranean and Scipio had impetuously ventured to the Liparas with the advance squadron. The battle was little more than a skirmish, but is notable as the first naval encounter of the Punic Wars and the first time Roman warships had engaged in battle. Scipio was ransomed after the battle and known thereafter as Asina (Latin for “female donkey”). The Romans went on to win the two, larger, naval encounters that followed and establish a rough sea-going parity.

The Battle

It was the long-standing Roman procedure to elect two men each year, known as consuls, to each lead their military forces. The patrician Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, the year’s senior consul, was given command of the fleet. He put to sea with the first 17 ships produced. As the first-ever Roman warships they spent some time training in home waters before sailing to Messana. There they prepared for the main fleet’s arrival and supported the logistics of the Roman army at the sea crossing to Sicily.

While Scipio was at the Strait of Messina he received information that the garrison of the city of Lipara was willing to defect to the Roman side. Lipara was the main port of the Lipari Islands and was a constant threat to Roman communications across the Strait. Though his crews were still inexperienced and the newly designed and built ships were still undergoing their sea trials, the consul could not resist the temptation of conquering an important city without a fight and sailed to Lipara. It has been suggested by some ancient sources that the offer to surrender Lipara was a ruse inspired by Carthage to encourage the Romans to commit their ships where they could be ambushed, but the sources do not give much detail and are usually pro-Roman.

The Romans entered the harbour at Lipara. The Carthaginian fleet was commanded by Hannibal Gisco, the general who had commanded the garrison at Agrigentum, and was based at Panormus (modern-day Palermo) some 100 kilometres (62 mi)les from Lipari. When he heard of the Romans’ advance to Lipara he despatched 20 ships under Boödes, a Carthaginian aristocrat, to the town. The Carthaginians arrived at night and trapped the Romans in the harbour. Boödes led his ships in an attack on the Romans inside the harbour the next morning. Scipio’s men offered little resistance. The inexperienced crews were no match for the well-drilled Carthaginians and were rapidly outfought. Some Romans panicked and fled inland and the consul himself was taken prisoner, along with many of the other Roman senior officers. Some later accounts have Scipio treacherously captured while parleying, but this is probably a Roman fabrication. All of the Roman ships were captured, most with little damage. The battle was little more than a skirmish, but is notable as the first naval encounter of the Punic Wars and the first time Roman warships had engaged in battle.

Aftermath and Legacy

Scipio was later released, probably ransomed. His easy defeat earned him the pejorative cognomen Asina, which means donkey in Latin. This cognomen was all the more insulting because “asina” was the feminine form of the word donkey, as opposed to the masculine form “asinus”. In spite of this Scipio’s career prospered and he was consul for a second time in 254 BC.

Shortly after the Lipara victory, Hannibal Gisco was scouting with 50 Carthaginian ships when he encountered the full Roman fleet. He escaped, but lost most of his ships. It was after this skirmish that the Romans installed the corvus on their ships. The corvus was a bridge 1.2 m (4 ft) wide and 11 m (36 ft) long, with a heavy spike on the underside, which was designed to pierce and anchor into an enemy ship’s deck. This allowed marines to more easily board enemy ships and capture them.

Later the same year Scipio’s fellow consul, Gaius Duilius, placed the Roman army units under subordinates and took command of the fleet. He promptly sailed, seeking battle. The two fleets met off the coast of Mylae in the Battle of Mylae. Hannibal Gisco had 130 ships, and the historian John Lazenby calculates that Duilius had approximately the same number. Using the corvus the Romans captured 50 Carthaginian vessels and dealt the Carthaginians a sharp defeat.

The war was to last for another 19 years before ending in a Carthaginian defeat and a negotiated peace. Thereafter Rome was the leading military power in the western Mediterranean, and increasingly the Mediterranean region as a whole. The Romans had built more than 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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