The best seafarers and ship builders of the ancient world were the Phoenicians. The famous Lebanese cedar tress covering the slopes of mountains of their native land was a perfect material for construction of strong seaworthy ships. The Phoenicians made important contributions to the marine science, having been credited with the division of a circle into 360 degrees and having reliable celestial reference points.
The destruction of the Minoan civilization around 1400 BC and the decline of the Egyptian empire left the Mediterranean open to newcomers, especially to the Phoenicians and to the emerging Greek kingdoms. The Phoenicians had been at sea for some time before the Greeks and were already well established and experienced sailors. The Phoenicians were traders rather than warriors whereas the Greeks were concerned with territorial expansion and therefore used sea power as an instrument of conquest. These different priorities naturally affected the types of boats favoured by the two emerging maritime powers. However the area now known as the Levant had been a meeting place for warring races for millennia. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the ships used by the Phoenicians incorporated features drawn from variety of sources.
The earliest evidence for Phoenician ships comes from an Egyptian relief of around 1400 BC at the tomb of Kenamon at Thebes which shows Phoenician ships unloading in an Egyptian port. The vessels have much in common with contemporary Egyptian ships, especially in the mast, rigging, sickle shaped hull and straight rising stem and stern posts, and deck beams projecting through the hull just below the sheerstrake. In these respects they are comparable with the general appearance of the ships of Queen Hatshepsut but they differ from Egyptian ships in three significant details. Firstly the hulls are shorter than the equivalent Egyptian ships and were therefore probably more seaworthy. Secondly there is a wicker fence along the sheerstrake to protect the deck cargo, a feature which is described by Homer in his account of the building of Odysseus' ship on Calypso's island but does not appear in Egyptian ship iconography. Thirdly the ships on the tomb of Kenamon do not have a visible hogging truss which implies that the method of construction was mechanically more sound than that of Hatshepsut's ships and may have included a proper keel.
Another representation of a Phoenician ship comes from the palace of Sargon at Nineveh and shows a vessel loading timber, presumably cedar, and is dated around 700 BC. The timber cargo was partly stowed on deck and the rest was towed as a raft behind the ship. Evidence for this practice comes from the Bible where Hiram, King of Tyre, writes to Solomon about the supply for timber form his temple in Jerusalem: "My servants shall bring them down to Lebanon unto the sea; and I will convey them by sea in floats unto the place that thou shalt appoint me."
The ships depicted on Sargon's tomb are unremarkable symmetrical oared vessels with high rising stem and stern posts decorated with figureheads in the shape of horse heads and a less pronounced sickle shape than the first millennium ships depicted on the tomb of Kenamon. The use of oared vessels would be appropriate for this kind of trade in timber where manoeuvrability would be at a premium. For more general trade, especially in bulk goods, round sailing ships would always have an advantage over galleys. The C8th Phoenicians appear to have maintained both options. A second relief at the palace of Sargon's son Sennacherib shows two types of Phoenician galley. Firstly asymmetrical two banked galleys with low bow, high curved stern, comparatively straight sheer line and an unambiguous upcurved ram. The second type is symmetrical and does not have the ram. Both types are clearly biremes and both clearly have a deck, with passengers and pavisade, superimposed above the rowers. Surprisingly the symmetrical round hulled ships, which might be expected to be sailing vessels, are shown without mast or rigging whereas the asymmetrical warships are rigged for sailing. Another C8th picture of Greek and Tyrian warships in combat depicts third variant which appears to be a symmetrical round hulled oared vessel with a ram added to the stem. The features found in these Phoenician biremes are also found on contemporary Greek galleys.
Phoenician Merchant Ships
The Phoenicians' most significant contribution was the "round boat" a broad-beamed ship that depended principally on sails rather than oars and provided a much larger cargo space than the narrow galleys. Phoenician round ships traveled the Mediterranean and beyond.
Above is a Phoenician trade ship of about 1500 BC. This is a rather capacious vessel with strong stem posts (firm beam in prow and stern extremities of the ship) and two stern oars. The mast bore a direct sail on two curved beams. To the prow stem post they fastened a large clay amphora for a storage of potable water.
A later ship is depicted above dating to around 850 BC. Pictures of this type of ship can be found decorating antique vases of VIII century BC. The hull of the boat was low in height and the low strong mast bore a large rectangular sail, quilted for strength with leather belts. The hull was quite often filled with water transported usually amphora densely corked and filled by wax or asphalt. The upper deck was used to transport valuable consignments. The vessel was paramilitary and so the bow was bound with iron protecting the hull in case of impact with the hull of the enemy ship.
Phoenician War Ships
Phoenician shipbuilders are also credited with developing bireme and trireme galleys in which the oars were arranged in two or three banks. Multibanked galleys are a matter of scholarly dispute. Some authorities, who doubt that the quinquiremes of the Greeks and Romans actually had five banks of oars, suggest that the term means merely that five rowers were assigned to each oar.
This is rather narrow, strong ship is of the type used from 1500-1000 BC. The upper combat deck is lifted on racks as a platform. Massive scull and prow oars essentially distinguished these vessels from similar boats of that time. These considerably increased manoeuvrability allowing the ship to turn 180 degrees rapidly. In combat these oars could be strongly firmly clamped to the hull so as to be used as battering rams. The mast was removable. Two ranks of oars allow us to refer this ship type of ship as a bireme. Length of the ship was from 25 up to 35 meters, and the width about 4 to 5 meters.
The bireme (a ship with two banks of oars), introduced by the Phoenicians
in about 700 BC, became the leading warship of the 8th century BC. These
vessels became very large, some reputedly having as many as 40 banks of
oars, but smaller vessels were again common by the 1st cent. B.C. The narrow
prolate hull of this Phoenician bireme of around 100 BC consisted of two
floors and the upper one was again for the helmsmen and warriors. For greater
stability of the ship the Phoenicians lowered the crinolines (platforms
where oarsmen sat). A massive bronze covered battering ram was the main
weapon of this narrow high speed bireme. The traditional removable rig
was typical. A decorative poop extremity of stern was abruptly bent, similarly
to a tail of a scorpion, and the balustrade of the battle platform was
covered with the shields of warriors for reinforcement. Phoenicians were
considered as the best seamen of the time and many ancient states frequently
used them as mercenaries. The length was about 30 meters with a width of
some 5 meters.
The trireme (a Roman trireme pictured above) reached its highest point of development in the eastern Mediterranean during the 5th century BC. Light, fast, and maneuverable, it was the principal naval vessel with which Persia, Phoenicia, and the Greek city-states vied for mastery of the seas from the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC through the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404. Its unprecedented propulsive power was achieved by the arrangement of 170 oarsmen in three tiers along each side of the vessel, 31 in the top tier, 27 in the middle, and 27 in the bottom. The hull was a thin shell of planks joined edge-to-edge and then stiffened by a keel and light transverse ribs. Such light construction enabled the trireme to displace only 40 tons on an overall length of approximately 120 feet (37 m) and a beam of 18 feet (5.5 m); no ballast was used. The trireme is said to have been capable of reaching speeds greater than 7 knots (8 miles per hour, or 13 km/h) and perhaps as high as 9 knots under oars. Square-rigged sails were used for power when the ship was not engaged. The principal armament of the trireme was a bronze-clad ram, which extended from the keel at or below the waterline and was designed to pierce the light hulls of enemy warships. In addition, the ship carried a complement of spearmen and bowmen who attacked enemy crewmen or attempted to board their vessels. By the end of the 4th century BC, armed deck soldiers had become so important in naval warfare that the trireme was superceded by heavier, decked-over ships with multiple rows of oarsmen.
Ships of that time were built primarily of combustible materials (wood, cloth, hemp, and pitch), and so fire was a devastating weapon against them. Ancient mariners devised several ways to set enemy ships on fire. The simplest was to fire flaming arrows or ballista bolts on an enemy ship. Next most useful were flaming grenades, something like modern Molotov cocktails, filled with a combustible liquid like oil. Most intricate were flaming firepots suspended from the bow of a ship by a pole. When the pole was positioned over the deck of an enemy ship, the pot was dropped, so shattering it and spreading the burning liquid over the deck of the enemy vessel.
Phoenician Naval Engagements
Given the choice between war and trade the Phoenicians in most cases chose trade however they did from time to time manage to get drawn into battle with some of the most famous battles in antiquity either involving Phoenicia directly or Carthage its colony in the Punic wars.
The Battle of Lade (Miletus) 495 BC
Greek states had been under Persain rule for some 50 years when a great confrontation took place between the Greeks and the Persians. The first phase of that confrontation was the "Ionian revolt" of the Asiatic Greeks against Persia and it was during this revolt that a large naval battle between the Ionians and a Persian fleet of Phoenician ships took place.
Herodotus records an Ionian fleet consisting of 80 ships from Miletus, 100 from Chios, 60 from Samos, 70 from Lesbos, 12 from Priene, 17 from Toes, 8 from Erythrae, 3 from Phocaea, and 3 from Myus making a total of some 353 ships.
The Ionians waited at Lade for the Persians but the Persians delayed any action so put fear and pressure on the Ionians as they began to get news of the massive force that was being assembled against them. Soon squabbles broke out amongst the Ionians and once this happend the Persians made their move, some 600 Phoenician ships advanced towards the Ionian fleet. Asr the battle got underway, 49 vessels from Samos seem to have either switched sides and join the Phoenicians in the Persian fleet or seem to have fled. Later, the Lesbians seeing what the Samians had done, pull out totally though the battle was in full swing.
The battle was a catastrophe for the Ionians. The Phoenician victory was total, the Ionian fleet was wiped out with very few Phoenician losses. The Persians then besieged Miletus which was almost unguarded and soon the Persians manage enter and destroy the city. The men are either enslaved or slaughtered. The women and children are deported. So the city that was once the power centre of the Ionian revolt was brought to its knees.
The Battle of Salamis 480 BC
The Battle of Salamis was one of the first great naval battles in recorded history and was during the Greco-Persian Wars in which a Greek fleet defeated much larger Persian naval forces in the straits at Salamis, between the island of Salamis and the Athenian port-city of Piraeus. By 480 BC the Persian king Xerxes and his army had overrun much of Greece, and his navy of about 800 galleys bottled up the smaller Greek fleet of about 370 triremes in the Saronic Gulf.
It is known that the Persians did not have a standing fleet themselves. They had mostly fought in Asia Minor, and a fleet was never needed. The Persians had focused on their land armies and neglected their navy. The Persian fleet therefore mostly consisted of Phoenician ships, but strangely enough they also used Asiatic Greek ships and sailors. It is not exactly known how many ships took part in the battle but according to Herodotus, the Phoenicians provided 300 vessels.
The Greek commander, Themistocles, lured the Persian fleet into an ambush on the narrow waters of the strait at Salamis, where the massed Persian ships had difficulty maneuvering. He sent his best slave to Xerxes to tell him that the Greek navy was retreating to the Isthmus of Corinth to form a combined force with the army. To give Xerxes the impression that they were actually retreating to Corinth Themistocles sent the Corinthian squadron of his fleet to the north at dawn. Xerxes commanded his fleet to enter the strait in order to hunt down the fleeing Greek fleet. However, when the Persian fleet entered the strait the trap closed: the Aeginetans and Megarians rushed out of the bay of Ambelaki where that had been waiting out of sight and attacked the Ionian ships which formed the rear of the Persian fleet. As battle raged, the Greek main force suddenly appeared on the battlefield causing confusion among the Persian fleet.
The heavier ships of the Persian fleet lost manoeuvrability in the confined straits and soon found themselves surrounded by the Greeks. The Phoenician battle-array fell apart when their admiral got killed.
The Greeks sank about 300 Persian vessels while losing only about 40 of their own. The rest of the Persian fleet was scattered, and as a result Xerxes had to postpone his planned land offensives for a year, a delay that gave the Greek city-states time to unite against him.
Herodotus tells us that 'The Phoenician ships were the best sailers in the fleet, and the Sidonian the best among the Phoenicians. The contingent of each nation, whether to the fleet or to the land army, had at its head a native leader'. The Greek historian awarded the prize of valour to the Athenians for the Greeks and "to the Sidonians for the barbarians".
Battle of Mylae 260 BC
Roman expansion soon brought them into conflict with the great maritime power of the age, Carthage. The Carthaginians, rich from trade, were able to support huge fleets by the standard of the time. This allowed them to take a virtual monopoly on trade in the western Mediterranean. The Romans, since the earliest times, had not been known as great seafarers. During the war the Roman legions met with early successes on the landward parts of Sicily, but at the same time the superior Carthaginian fleets ravaged the coasts of both that island and the Italian peninsula. It soon became apparent that mastery of the seas was of paramount importance if Rome were to progress further. The Roman Senate now ordered the construction of 120 warships.
The Romans trained the crews on rowing machines during the sixty day period it took to construct the fleet. In the spring of 260 BC, the Roman fleet had been completed and outfitted, and set off down the coast of Italy toward Sicily. However, they were still no match for the Carthaginians in seafaring skill. Gaius Cornelius Scipio, who had been chosen to command the fleet, sailed to Messana with 17 ships in order to prepare for the arrival of the rest of his command. He then proceeded to seize the Lipari Isles, about 30 miles northwest of Messana. The Carthaginians learned of the Roman presence there from their base in Panormus, and dispatched 20 ships under Boodes to engage Scipio. Boodes came upon the Romans unawares, and the inexperienced Roman crews abandoned their ships and their commander, leaving them to be captured by the Carthaginians. Duilius, previously in command of the land forces, upon hearing of the capture of Scipio, instead assumed control of what was left of the Roman fleet.
After this victory, the Carthaginian admiral, Hannibal (not the one with the elephants), sailed toward Italy with 50 ships, with the intention of observing the Roman fleet. While rounding a cape, the Cathaginian fleet unexpectadly came across the Roman fleet and after a small fracas the Cathaginians broke away.
The Romans had found, in the course of these skirmishes, that they lacked the seamanship and necessary skill to outperform the Carthaginians. The Romans had to come up with a solution that enabled the Romans to benefit from their experience with land warfare. This solution was the "crow" or "raven", corvus in Latin, a 35 foot long bridge mounted on a swivel so that it could be turned and dropped on an adjacent enemy vessel. A large spike at the end of the corvus bit into the other ship, locking the two craft together. Then the Roman marines, who were in a larger proportion to the crew than on Carthaginian ships, would storm across and engage the enemy, thus turning a sea battle into a 'land battle' where the deadly Roman infantry skills could be put to use.
The first major engagement of the war occurred off Mylae, west of Messana and south of Lipari. Admiral Hannibal had been plundering the shore near there, hoping to draw the Romans out to battle. He was confident that superior Carthaginian tactics and proficiency in rowing would make for an easy victory. His ships advanced toward the Roman line but the Romans had equipped their quinqueremes with the corvus and packed them full of marines. The Punic ships, including the flagship of Hannibal, upon coming into range, fell prey to the corvus. The Punic ships where boarded by the Romans. The Carthaginian admiral escaped in a small boat, but he had lost 50 ships by the end of the battle.
Battle of Drepanum 249 BC
In 250 BC, the Romans sailed to Sicily with 240 ships loaded with troops to besiege the Carthaginian town of Lilybaeum, on the western tip of Sicily. The town had excellent natural defenses, and could not be taken by outright assault. The Romans laid siege to it by land, and blockaded the harbor with 200 ships. The Carthaginians sent a relief force of 10,000 men on 50 ships. The admiral in charge of this force, Hannibal (not the one with the elephants), employed an unusual but successful tactic. He moved toward the harbor with sails up. In naval battles, sails were almost always taken down, to improve maneuverability and because of the risk of the mast snapping from the impact of ramming. With favorable wind, he was able to sweep right by the Romans, who were afraid to risk the impact caused by such relatively high speeds, and were also limited by their slower ships which would have had some difficulty catching the Carthaginian ships.
The Punic garrison inside Lilybaeum was greatly heartened by the successful reinforcement. Later that year, another blockade run was made, again by a Hannibal, this one nicknamed "the Rhodian." His ship was considerably faster than the Romans', and he made several successful trips into and out of the harbor. However, the Romans captured a slower vessel and sunk it in the harbour mouth. With this tactic they were able to capture the Rhodian and his vessel. With the swift ship they had less trouble with blockade running. The siege would drag on for nine more years.
Meanwhile, the main Carthaginian fleet under Adherbal waited at Drepanum, sending out swift ships to again harass the Sicilian and Italian coasts. In 249 BC, one of the current consuls, Publius Claudius, set out with 10,000 fresh men to augment the crews and 123 ships to surprise Adherbal. Claudius was a rash and inexperienced commander. Before the battle, it was reported to him that the sacred chickens, from which the omens would be taken, refused to eat. He responded, famously, that if they would not eat they could drink, and ordered them thrown overboard. This set the tone of the day. The consul planned to take the enemy unawares in the harbor at Drepanum. He succeeded with this part of his strategy.
The next part, however, was to sail into the harbor to attack. Adherbal swiftly readied his ships and advanced to meet the attack. Claudius, commanding from the rear of the Roman line, upon hearing of this, relayed the order forward to withdraw. By this time, his front had entered the narrow harbor entrance, and many ships became entangled and confused. Adherbal made quick work of them. Claudius, meanwhile, was leading the retreat.
The Carthaginians caught up with him, and he backed his ships against the shore so as only to fight the Carthaginians from one direction. The results were disastrous. The Carthaginians sunk 97 Roman ships and captured 93, with 20,000 prisoners. Diodorus, a Greek historian, says that the Adherbal lost only several ships, which originally numbered less than half of the Roman fleet.
Battle of the Aegates Islands 242 BC
The Romans realized that the only way they could defeat Carthage, a Phoenician colony, once and for all was by ending Carthaginian dominance of the sea. Cash strapped Rome, via private funding efforts mainly from donations by the citizens of Rome, managed to raise a fleet of 200 quinquiremes which was placed in command of Gaius Lutatius. He appeared off the coast of Sicily in the summer of 242 BC and the surprised Punic fleet was forced to sail home, allowing the Romans to take the harbour at Drepana, where they installed siege-works and blockaded the city, and the area around Lilybaeum. Meanwhile the Romans drilled their forces in naval combat every day.
Carthage, seeing that they would have to provision their besieged city, loaded their ships with grain and sought to relieve the beseiged. The fleet was commanded by Hanno whose plan it was to sneak into Eryx, unload the food supplies, take on troops, and then seek out the Roman fleet. This failed. Lutatius got word of the arrival, embarked his best troops and sailed to the island of Aegusa near Lilybaeum to intercept.
At daybreak the Romans saw that the strong breeze favoured Carthage and that the seas were rough. The Romans were unsure whether to engage but in the end decided that this would be preferable to fighting the same force later after it could be strengthened by Carthage. So upon seeing the Phoenicians the Romans put to sea quickly maneuvering their fleet into a single line facing the enemy.
Seeing this, the Carthaginians lowered their masts and closed. The Romans benefited from removal of all heavy equipment from their vessels and their training now paid off whereas the laden Carthaginian galleys were difficult to maneuver. Again the corvus and the deadly infantry skills of the Romans came in handy. The result was that the Carthaginian experienced a heavy defeat. Fifty of their galleys were sunk outright and seventy captured.