Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 03, Part 2 of 3

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

The signal for the onslaught, was given by a silver Triton that rose from the lake and blew on a golden conch shell.

This mechanical contrivance must have taken some doing, but it was nothing compared to many of the tricks that the Romans were able to dream up. If they had expended the same amount of skill and ingenuity in improving their weapons, Rome might never have fallen.

At the conch-shell signal, the two fleets approached the royal dais: drums beating, trumpets blowing and the crews saluting with their weapons.

The triremes were about a hundred feet long, each equipped with an iron beak or ram in the bow. In the bow, a long beam was reared up with a spike on one end and the other end fastened to the foredeck by a heavy hinge.

This was the corvus or "crow." When the corvus was dropped on an opposing galley, the spike sank into wood and held the two ships together. It could then be used as a gangplank for boarders.

The ships carried a single square sail which was effective only if the wind was dead astern. Julius Caesar records how astonished he was when he saw the Venetii ships tack but for some reason or other it never occurred to the Romans that this maneuver might be handy for a sailing ship and they never changed their galleys' rig.

As a result, the galleys depended almost entirely on their oars. The rowers were not in the holds of the galleys but sat on a sort of superstructure projecting over the ships' sides. This was to give the men greater leverage with the oars, because moving one of those big ships even with fifty rowers must have been a tough job.

There was one man to an oar and they sat at different levels so the oar blades wouldn't interfere with each other. In the stern sat a man who gave the rowers the time with a drum and two overseers with whips walked up and down platforms running fore and aft to make sure everyone was doing his best.

The ships were built long and narrow for speed and were very unseaworthy craft, although they were ideal for a battle on a lake.

They were almost identical with the Greek galleys of a thousand years before. All the Romans added, except for the corvus, were foot ropes for the men to stand on while reefing the sail, and shrouds so they could climb the mast. The Greeks had to use a ladder.

The combined fleets passed in review and as they came within hearing distance of the royal dais, the men gave the traditional cry of "Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die greet thee!"

Claudius shouted back gaily, "That depends on you, my friends," meaning that if a man put up a good fight he wouldn't be killed.

However, the crews yelled, "Good Caesar! If it depends on us, we won't bother to fight." Then the two fleets sailed away together, the crews shouting congratulations to each other.

The mob howled protests and Claudius, jumping off his throne, ran down to the shore, yelling insults at the crews and swearing to have the soldiers set fire to the ships and burn them alive if they didn't fight.

Claudius was crippled (he may have been a polio victim) and was also weak in the head. He used to go into insane rages and this was a typical one.

The crowd laughed themselves sick at his antics, but finally the crews got the idea and, dividing into two fleets, made ready for the battle.

Agrippina led the emperor back to his throne where Claudius, seeing the crowd laugh, began to laugh too, and got hysterical.

When the royal family finally got Claudius calmed down, he gave the signal for the fight by dropping his handkerchief.

Instantly the war trumpets of both fleets blared out and the galleys began to move, the drummers building up the stroke as rapidly as possible, because it was of vital importance for the ships to have the maximum amount of momentum when they met.

Roman Events: Those about to Die Chapter Three, Part 3 is next.

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