Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 03, Part 3 of 3

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

When galleys fought, they first tried to ram each other with the iron beaks in the prows. If this maneuver succeeded, the rammed galley sank within a few minutes and nothing more needed to be done.

If the ramming failed, then each galley tried to plow through the oars of the enemy. As the oars were forced back, the handles crushed the rowers at their benches and the disabled galley could then be rammed at leisure.

If this maneuver also failed, then there was nothing for it but to board with the aid of the corvus and slug it out man to man.

On the first onslaught nine of the Rhodian galleys were sunk by ramming and three of the Sicilian. Many of the Rhodian galleys had lost one or more banks of oars and could not maneuver. They managed to crowd together at one end of the lake and the Sicilian fleet surrounded them and attacked by boarding.

The fight, which had started at ten in the morning, went on until three in the afternoon. The Sicilian triremes put up a desperate resistance, Tacitus saying: "The battle, though between malefactors, was fought with the spirit of brave men."

Several of the Sicilian single-banked galleys, however, did their best to keep out of the fight At last "when the surface of the lake was red with blood," the last of the Sicilian fleet surrendered.

Three thousand men were killed. The fight had been so exciting that Claudius pardoned the survivors on both sides except for the crews of the three Rhodian galleys who had been rammed, because he thought that they hadn't charged into the fight fast enough, and the crews of six of the Sicilian single-banked galleys, who had been malingering.

This exhibition was such a success that four months later, Claudius gave another show. As he was fresh out of prisoners (all the Roman jails had been swept clean to provide crews for the galleys), he had to be content with a less elaborate production.

This time he had a bridge on pontoons stretched across the lake, widening in the middle to a platform about a hundred yards wide. Two armies of about five thousand men each were raised from prisoners of war, newly arrived jailbirds, and slaves.

One was dressed up like Etruscans and the other as Samnites. Each side was given the appropriate arms, all the Etruscan weapons having to be made especially for the event as the Etruscans had ceased to exist as a nation three hundred years before. However, some of the old Etruscans' double-headed battle-axes and bronze lances were still in museums and these were carefully duplicated by the Roman smiths.

While the bands played, the two armies marched across the bridge from opposite sides of the lake and met in the middle. Claudius had given orders that no one was to be allowed to swim ashore. If he fell off tile bridge, he had either to drown or climb back.

At first the Samnites seemed to be winning, pushing the Etruscans back and holding the wide central part of the bridge. But the Etruscans rallied and finally drove the Samnites off the span.

All the Etruscans, and a few of the Samnites who had shown outstanding courage, were given their freedom.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Four, Part 1 is next.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents