Any tribe in possession of primitive boats is likely to use its craft in war. Canoes provide a good way of arriving suddenly to surprise the enemy.
But naval warfare hardly deserves that name until boats are large enough and sturdy enough to become fighting machines in their own right. In modern times, since the development of artillery, warships have largely been floating gun emplacements – designed to damage or sink each other at a distance. In earlier stages of naval warfare they are more often platforms for hand-to-hand combat. But the first warships also have one special characteristic. They are designed to sink an enemy vessel by ramming it. This development is associated with a great seafaring people, the Phoenicians.
Phoenician design: from 1100 BC
The Phoenician fleet contains two markedly different designs of ship. A squat and tubby sailing vessel, rounded at both ends, is used for carrying goods and passengers. A longer boat, also rounded at the stern but with a sharp battering ram for a bow, is for war; this warship is a galley, propelled by oars, making possible bursts of speed and rapid manoeuvres.
Ramming an enemy ship is the main tactic of naval warfare throughout the Phoenician, Greek and Roman periods. A thousand years after the first Phoenician example, Roman warships have a bronze beak beneath the prow, below water level. They are themselves protected from this form of attack by belts of metal around the vessel.
The only way of increasing the all-important speed of a Phoenician warship is by adding more oarsmen. To some extent this can be achieved in a longer ship, but there comes a point at which extra length brings structural weakness. The solution is to have banks of oarsmen. By 700 BC the Phoenicians are using two banks, one above the other, in the type of vessel known as the bireme. Within the next two centuries a third bank is added, probably by the Greeks, to provide the trireme.
The trireme is the vessel used in the first war to be decided largely by naval power – the conflict in the 5th century BC between the Greeks and the Persians. By the time of the Punic wars, galleys are even larger.
The Athenian navy: 5th century BC
The decision of the Athenians to invest heavily in a fleet of triremes, in 483 BC, is a turning point in the Greco-Persian war and in the development of Greek democracy – since the poorer citizens can now for the first time take part in warfare, as oarsmen in the triremes.
It is not known exactly where the third bank of oarsmen is seated (whether directly above the second, or further into the boat on the same level), but the oars vary from about 7’6′ (2.3m) for the lowest bank to almost double that length at the top. Amazingly two more banks of oarsmen are soon fitted in – again no one quite knows how. It is with larger ships of this kind that a new naval power emerges, fully fledged, in the 3rd century BC.
The first Roman navy: 260-255 BC
During the opening skirmishes of the first Punic War the Romans capture a Carthaginian warship which has run aground. It is of a kind only recently introduced in Mediterranean navies. As a quinquereme, with five banks of oars (rowed by 300 oarsmen), it is larger and heavier than the triremes which have been the standard ship of Greek warfare. Since victory at sea involves ramming other ships, the extra size is important.
Rome’s new navy is to consist largely of quinqueremes, copied from the captured Carthaginian example. The senate orders 100, together with 20 triremes, and sets the astonishing delivery time of two months. Even more astonishing – the order is apparently met.
A few skilled oarsmen are available, from Rome’s allies around the coasts of Italy, but more than 30,000 men will be needed to row these vessels. They are rapidly trained on land, in ship frames constructed for the purpose. Even so, the skills of hand-to-hand fighting at sea, to be carried out by 120 marines on each warship, cannot be quickly learnt.
Instead the Romans pin their hopes on a device which has already featured briefly in Greek naval warfare, but not to much effect. It is designed to give Roman soldiers, trained in the legions, a more stable platform from which to attack.
This device is a hinged drawbridge which can be released to crash down when an enemy ship is alongside. On its underside is a metal point, which will pierce the deck of the vessel and hold it fast while the Roman troops storm aboard. The lethal peck from this sharp beak gives the device its familiar name among the crews. It is a ‘raven’. And it wins them battles.
The first such victory comes as a major shock to the Carthaginians. They have an advantage of thirty ships over the inexperienced Romans when the fleets meet in 260 BC off Mylae (now Milazzo), a few miles to the west of Messina. But the ravens enable the Romans to destroy fifty Carthaginian ships before the rest flee in panic.
The Battle of Actium: 31 BC
Roman warships abandon the raven soon after its first successes against the Carthaginians. The reason is probably their heavy losses in storm conditions. The raven in its upright position may have proved top-heavy.
A more sophisticated method of holding and boarding an enemy vessel is used by both sides in the civil war engagement at Actium. This is a catapult which fires a multiple hook on a line, to grapple an enemy ship and to drag it close for hand-to-hand combat.
Rowing into battle: for 2000 years
The main ingredients of naval warfare remain essentially the same throughout the classical and medieval centuries. Long, narrow ships, powered by banks of oarsmen, circle each other attempting either to ram the enemy or to grapple a ship so that marines can board it and slaughter the crew. Such encounters continue until 1571, when the battle of Lepanto is the last great engagement between warships propelled by oars.
The only refinement in these centuries is a famous Byzantine invention. It proves so devastating that it has retained, even today, the status of a terrifying mystery. It is Greek fire, first used in the 7th century.