Great Sea Fights 9: The Egadi Islands 241 BC

March 2022

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A Carthaginian ram recovered from the battle site of the Egadi Islands

The battle of the Egadi Islands – or the Aegates – is one of the most significant naval battles of the ancient world. On 10 March 241 BC the mighty naval powers of Rome and Carthage met off the coast of Sicily. The Carthaginian fleet was ambushed by the Romans in a well-planned and brilliantly executed trap leading to a decisive Roman victory. This was the battle that ended the mighty First Punic War which had dominated both Roman and Carthaginian history for two generations; it marked a turning point in the histories of both empires; it was the moment that marked Rome as having the potential to be far more than a local power in the Mediterranean; and it is the ONLY naval battle that archaeologists have managed to identify. The finds raised from the seabed across this enormous battle site are unique and astonishing. To find out more Dr Sam Willis speaks with Peter Campbell, an archaeologist who has been involved in the project to survey and excavate the battle site for many years.

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    SPEAKERS

    Peter Campbell, Sam Willis

     

    Sam Willis  00:09

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast series and this, our first great sea fight episode of 2022. If you’ve only just come to this series, please do take the time to look back through the archives and check out the wonderful things we’ve been making for you over the past few months. Not only are there numerous audio episodes dedicated to a variety of naval battles across centuries of warfare, in which we interview experts for their analysis, as well as present primary sources for your historical entertainment and education. We have also created a number of brilliant videos that you can check out on the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast’s YouTube page. Now, these include a fantastic animation of an eyewitness’s battle plan of the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, when the Japanese annihilated the Russian battle fleet, a video presenting the fabulous series of tapestries depicting the Spanish Armada of 1588, which are held at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, and a 3D animation of the Shōkaku, a Japanese aircraft carrier that was part of the force that launched the Air Attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Now, one period in history we have yet to cover is the ancient world. And this year, we will definitely be putting that right starting today with the Battle of the Egadi Islands fought on this day, the 10th of March, in 241 BC. That’s 2263 years ago. A battle fought just off the coast of Sicily between Rome and Carthage, a battle which marked a turning point in the histories of both of those empires, and ended the First Punic War. But more importantly, and the reason we are all here today is that it is the only, yes the only, archaeological site of a naval battle from antiquity that has ever been discovered. And this isn’t just a crow about the fact that we’ve found the site of a naval battle, but that the quality of the artefacts recovered are simply astonishing. They not only represent the only ancient naval battle, but also the earliest Roman Republican and Carthaginian assemblage of military equipment. So to tell us more, here is the brilliant Peter Campbell, an archaeologist who says he is committed to seeking answers about our past, present and future. He’s a lecturer in Cultural Heritage Under Threat at Cranfield University, and has been heavily involved in the project to the Egadi Islands for some time. But just before we hear from Peter, I’d like to thank Mad Mark G for the five-star review he gave us on iTunes. Mark says that the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast “offers a wide range of maritime projects, some familiar, some I have met for the first time from far away in time and place, to present and local efforts you might not be aware are around the corner from where you live. Excellent quality, serious yet very accessible for amateur and professional historians alike.” Mark, thank you very, very much indeed for getting in touch and also Steve the Geezer, hello Steve, who said, “this is a fantastic podcast for anyone with an interest in maritime history. A really enjoyable listen I’d recommend for anyone with any level of interest in maritime history, there really is something for everyone.” Again, another five-star review there, Steve, thank you very much indeed. Now, reviews like this on iTunes are hugely important because the more we get, the more likely it is that people will come across our podcast, which will help us achieve our aim of teaching the world about the importance of maritime history. So, if you are listening on a smartphone, please scroll down. Leave us hopefully a five-star rating, write a review, and I promise we will read it out. Enough badgering, here is the brilliant Peter Campbell. I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him about the ancient world and its maritime violence.

     

    Sam Willis  04:30

    Peter, thank you very much indeed for joining me today.

     

    Peter Campbell  04:33

    Thank you, Sam. It’s a pleasure.

     

    Sam Willis  04:35

    So, this wonderful battle. I have to say that I’ve only recently come across this. I think it’s absolutely fascinating. How did you get involved in the project?

     

    Peter Campbell  04:46

    Well, the Egadi project started in 2001 with the carbinieri led a raid against a fisherman. They had gotten information the fishermen had captured some illicit antiquities from the sea floor and they raided his house and found one of these large bronze rams. It’s one of the rarest artefacts from antiquity. And that prompted the Italian government to start an underwater search and so they contacted an American non-profit RPM Nautical Foundation. And then I joined in 2010 while I was a PhD student at the University of Southampton.

     

    Sam Willis  05:30

    What was your PhD on? Was it on ancient battles?

     

    Peter Campbell  05:35

    It was, yeah. So, it looked at a kind of technological change and then focused on ancient navies.

     

    Sam Willis  05:41

    Hmm, that’s difficult to do, isn’t it? You say that you’ve got these rare finds of the bronze rams in antiquity, but am I right in thinking that we haven’t actually found an ancient warship – only bits of one, like a ram?

     

    Peter Campbell  05:57

    That’s right. So in 1980, they found the athlete ram off of Israel. And there was a ram that was found probably off of Egypt by illicit actors who sold it on through black market channels, to the Bremerhaven Museum. But otherwise, there are no other bronze ram, oh and one found off of Greece by some divers. But otherwise, we’ve never found a full warship. We’ve never found a naval battle until the So, Battle of the Egadi Islands.

     

    Sam Willis  06:30

    Yeah, well, very exciting indeed. And you said it was initially found in 2001. That’s a very long time ago. This is a very, very long project.

     

    Peter Campbell  06:40

    It is, yes. It took a while to get the underwater survey started, so the underwater survey started in 2005. And then there’s just a lot of years of just staring at the sea floor and not finding anything at all. It’s incredibly difficult to locate a naval battle, it’s not at all what you would expect. They’re spread over huge areas of sea floor. And traditional ancient shipwrecks have large piles of amphoras and cargo and that sort of thing and so they’re relatively easy to spot. But you have to imagine that these worships were smashing into each other on the surface and then breaking apart on the surface and percolating through the water column. These artefacts are descending 100 metres to the water column, spreading out. So, it’s incredibly dispersed. If you stood at any single location on the battle site, you probably wouldn’t know you’re in the middle of a battle.

     

    Sam Willis  07:33

    Amazing, actually, to think about the number of ships involved. I tell you what, let’s rewind a little bit. Why don’t you tell our listeners what happened in the battle? Let’s get a bit of background.

     

    Peter Campbell  07:42

    So, on March 10th 241 BC, the Roman and Carthaginian fleets met off of the Egadi Islands, which are a small archipelago off of Western Sicily. And it was a decisive battle in favour of the Romans, which led to the end of the First Punic War. Now, the First Punic War had been running for nearly three decades, and was fought between Carthage, which was this ancient established power, which largely controlled the western Mediterranean, and Rome, which was this relatively new upstart which controlled the Italian Peninsula, but not much more. And this was Rome’s kind of first step on the eventual road to Empire. Now there would be two more Punic Wars, but this was Rome’s entry onto the global stage, so to speak. This was when they captured Sicily, which was their first kind of overseas colony. And this is where they exerted their famous military beyond the Italian peninsula.

     

    Sam Willis  08:49

    So, it kind of stopped being a local power?

     

    Peter Campbell  08:52

    That’s right. That’s right. And it was quite unexpected to have them take the stage because this is the Hellenistic Period. So, 3rd century BC, this is when you have a bunch of the great successor states to Alexander, you have Carthage, you have the Phoenicians, so you have a bunch of different groups that are waging these Campbell 08:52 battles, and they have been doing so for centuries. And all of a sudden, Rome, this small Italian city state, arrives on the scene.

     

    Sam Willis  09:23

    And so what happened? How did they get to meet?

     

    Peter Campbell  09:25

    So, they had been fighting for many, many years, and Rome had been crushed in the Battle of Drapanum, which was 8 years previous. And the Roman public was incredibly upset about this defeat and decided they were going to make one last effort to try and win this war. And so, they built a fleet of probably around 200 warships and sent them out to Sicily to start coastal raiding. And when Carthage heard about this, they were kind of surprised by it. They thought the war had largely ended, and they scrambled to get their fleet ready. And on March 9th 241 BC, they sent their fleet across from North Africa to Marettimo which is a small island all the way to the west of Sicily. And the Roman fleet had been waiting. And they’re very clever strategists because they closed off all the possible ports in Sicily, except for one, one landing point. So they knew exactly what the Carthaginians are going to go. The Carthaginians are trying to reach Hamilcar Barca who is the general leading their forces who is based on Mount Erice on the mainland of Sicily. Hamilcar is, was a famous general in his own right, but he was the father of Hannibal Barca, who would be the main Carthaginian general in the Second Punic War. And so the Romans laid the perfect trap. They knew that crossing from North Africa, the Carthaginians would have to stop that Marettimo, and they knew that from Marettimo, there was only one port they could go to on mainland Sicily. And so, the Romans hid their fleet behind the very tall island of Levanzo. And as soon as the Carthaginians had passed the point of no return, making the crossing from Marettimo to mainland Sicily, the Romans cut off their path, formed a battle line, and then the two sides had to engage. And it ended up being a crushing defeat for the Carthaginians.

     

    Sam Willis  11:35

    It sounds like we know a lot about this battle, which is surprising. Do we know about it from contemporary accounts, or are these classical sources that were written half a century later?

     

    Peter Campbell  11:47

    So there’s a number of sources, the best one being Polybius. He was writing approximately 100 years later, however, he was drawing on at least two sources of individuals who were there. Those sources are lost to us, but he seems to be relatively accurate in his account. So, we do know quite a lot, and this is this has been kind of a pivotal battle known for many years and discussed. But now that we have an actual naval battle, and we can compare the results between the actual material culture from the battle and the historical sources, it’s really, really interesting that what we’re seeing doesn’t all add up. And if you look at witness statements from battles, or traumatic events today, they don’t always match up with actual events, and that might be what we’re seeing here (or it’s propaganda by the Romans). Certainly, this was a much closer battle than what we expected from historical sources, where very few Roman losses are described, but we’re finding a lot of Roman battleships based on inscriptions on these bronze rams on the sea floor.

     

    Sam Willis  13:02

    That was probably one of my questions about the difference between the Carthaginian ships and the Roman ships. Were they so similar that they’re difficult to identify from their remains? Or were they significantly different?

     

    Peter Campbell  13:19

    One of the difficult things about archaeology is that nothing is ever easy. And so, one of the big challenges of this site is the material culture, where the Carthaginians and the Romans were so intertwined through trade, both being central Mediterranean cultures, that it’s really hard to distinguish between what’s Roman and what’s Carthaginian. Now the rams are, you would think, quite obvious because the Carthaginian rams have Carthaginian inscriptions and the Roman rams have Roman inscriptions. But in the Battle of Drapanum, 8 years previous to the Battle of the Egadi Islands, the Carthaginians captured a large number of Roman warships, and it seems like they maybe brought those back to Carthage, and then reused them as Carthaginian warships. But so, those Roman inscriptions are still on them so it’s really hard to know from the Rams, you know, were these Roman ships manned by Carthaginian sailors? Likewise, the helmets are Montefortino helmets, for the most part, which are a traditional Roman helmet. But there’s evidence that the Carthaginians were the first to use these during the First Punic War. Similarly, the sword: the swords look like a traditional Spanish Gladius. However, again, these were first used by the Carthaginians in Spain before the Romans adopted them and they became quite popular during the Second Punic War. So, everything is so mixed up, even the amphoras. The primary type of amphoras that we are finding on site are Greco-Italic amphoras, which for many years were assumed to be Roman and manufactured on the Italian peninsula, but kilns have been found on Carthaginian territory that show they were producing Greco-Italic amphoras, and some of them have Carthaginian graffiti carved on them. So, the material culture is so mixed up, you can see that these cultures, while fighting, were just incredibly intertwined and borrowing things from each other and sharing material culture. And they were trading, and so these were, in many ways, a clash between two close civilizations.

     

    Sam Willis  15:29

    Yeah. Well, probably the reason for the clash as well, but also some mutual respect, no doubt. I know a bit about Roman sea power, but Carthaginian sea power is really not anything I know much about at all. Where were their kind of main ports, where were they getting the timber they needed to build their ships and the expertise? Or, what do we know about the history of how they managed to create such a powerful navy?

     

    Peter Campbell  15:52

    So, Carthage was a very old established power by this point, and it had been founded by the Phoenician. So, the Phoenicians had a number of large settlements in the Levant in modern day Israel and Syria and Lebanon, and so all along that coast were big centres like Biblos and Sidon and Tyre. And they went to the western Mediterranean to found Carthage, I believe in the 8th century BC, and this became a large power in its own So, right. It controlled the western Mediterranean for centuries, establishing colonies in Corsica, in Sardinia, in Spain, all along the western Mediterranean, and set up large trade networks. So, they were a traditional seafaring power, they had large navies that fought in very early battles. So, we don’t know exactly where they were getting their timber from, but given their large network of colonies and trade, their warships represent, and their merchant ships, interconnectivity throughout the Mediterranean.

     

    Sam Willis  17:20

    It’s interesting that they grew out of the Phoenicians, so the Phoenicians were a very significant maritime power in their own right.

     

    Peter Campbell  17:25

    Exactly, yep.

     

    Sam Willis  17:28

    Let’s go back to the battle site. So, we’ve got the Willis 17:28 Italian police get a kind of a sniff that someone’s found something important, they’ve found a bronze ram. What happens next? How do they actually locate the site of the battle?

     

    Peter Campbell  17:45

    This is one of the great stories, I think, in maritime archaeology. It’s very easy to point to a map and say: I found this ram off of these islands. But actually, going back and relocating something that’s less than a metre on the sea floor is incredibly difficult. So over many, many years RPM Nautical Foundation, together with the Soverintendenza del Mare, led by Sebastiano Tusa, one of the great Sicilian archaeologists, mapped the bottom of the sea floor. It’s 270 square kilometres, so if you want to think about that in terms of size and scale, that’s 5.5 times the size of Manhattan. So, a massive, massive area, one of the largest maritime archaeological surveys undertaken. And so, you can map the bottom, but modern, marine geophysics don’t necessarily give you the accuracy at that depth – we’re talking from 80 to 100 metres – they don’t give you the accuracy to locate something the size of a ram or an amphora or anything else that’s less than a metre. So the multibeam resolution is half a metre, which is the size of the objects you’re looking for. You then have a map of the sea floor and you can kind of see where the mountains and valleys and all that sort of stuff are, but then you need to search within that. So, it becomes a very tedious process of using robots – ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) – to search the bottom, or more recently divers. Divers from the Society for Documentation of Submerged Sites have been working with us to send divers down and search the bottom. As I mentioned, it’s incredibly dispersed, so you might find an object one day and then just nothing else for the rest of the day. If you look at a site plan that we’ve created, it looks like a big concentration of artefacts, but that’s just due to the scale of the area that we’re searching. The nearest artefacts to each other are usually 30 metres or more apart. So they’re really, really dispersed. You might find a ram, and then you start searching the area and 30 metres away, you find a helmet, another 30 metres away you find an amphora, and then only through digitally mapping the locations do you understand what was happening as this ship broke apart.

     

    Sam Willis  20:11

    Amazing. What’s happening with the artefacts?

     

    Peter Campbell  20:14

    The artefacts are primarily based in the museum in Favignana, the local museum in Favignana, which is a beautiful museum and an old tuna factory. They have a special exhibit just for the Egadi battle that’s really well developed. But the artefacts have also been touring all around the world. So in the UK, they’ve been in the British Museum, they’ve been in the Ashmolean Museum. They’ve been all over the world as far away as Western Australia. So, the Sicilians have done an incredible job of sharing this information and wealth through travelling exhibitions.

     

    Sam Willis  20:53

    That’s really good to hear, isn’t it? And we’ve talked so much about these rams, let’s just talk about how they were used. How was this this battle actually fought? What were the tactics involved?

     

    Peter Campbell  21:05

    So, in naval warfare in this period, the primary method of attack was ramming. These were large rowed warships that had bronze ramps fitted on the front that would impact enemy vessels and smash into them. And people might be familiar with the traditional Athenian navy, which used complex manoeuvres to kind of ram into the side of enemy vessels during the Peloponnesian War, and then back off and watch them sink. But in this period, naval ramming was much more abrupt, so to speak. They would just ram head-to-head, straight into each other. And then after that initial frontal assault, they would then try ramming from the side or from behind to try and sink the enemy vessels. And then they also used things like projectiles. So pilum and spears, or little weighted lead slinger bullets, and probably various types of machines for firing larger gauge weapons, so ballista and that sort of thing, though we haven’t found evidence of that yet. But certainly, the historical descriptions describe all kinds of large machines that were flinging things at a range.

     

    Sam Willis  22:27

    It’s quite frightening the concept of having a large machine which moves, presumably, and throws heavy things on the deck of a warship, because things with height and with weight aren’t great on the deck of ships. It sounds very dangerous.

     

    Peter Campbell  22:41

    Absolutely, absolutely. But you get these descriptions, and they were using catapults of various types and various torsion weapons and things like that.

     

    Sam Willis  22:50

    Wow.

     

    Peter Campbell  22:51

    We found some evidence of bronze fittings that might relate to some sort of weapon like that, but we’re still working on interpreting those.

     

    Sam Willis  22:59

    First question is to give some people a sense of just how big these ships were – do we have a detailed idea?

     

    Peter Campbell  23:09

    That is a very good question, and one of the examples of how, as you find more, you know, less in archaeology, because we thought we had a good sense of the size of triremes, which was kind of the traditional Athenian warship. There’s been a bunch of work looking into the available sources on triremes. And then, if triremes had three banks of rowers, these warships were thought to have five. So, five banks of rowers or five rowers in a unit, depending on how it’s interpreted. But the rams that we’re finding correspond to relatively small ships, more along the lines of threes of triremes than what we would expect from So, larger ones. There’s been some excellent work done on the Actium naval monument from the So, 1st century BC from the Battle of Actium by William Murray, who’s a co-director on the Egadi project, looking at the size of warships there. And these worships were massive. The monument has the nose fittings for large bronze rams that were captured during the battle. And after Augustus won the battle, he took the fronts of these warships and stuck them on the monument. So, we know the relative size of different types of ships because they were all different-sized ships used their. In the Egadi battle, these rams don’t fit anywhere on that monument. So, these must have been quite small ships, probably Trireme-sized.

     

    Sam Willis  24:49

    What sort of length are we talking?

     

    Peter Campbell  24:55

    Ah, that’s what we’re still trying to figure out.

     

    Sam Willis  24:58

    Is it like as long as a tennis court or something?

     

    Peter Campbell  25:02

    So probably around 35 metres, something like that. It’s really difficult though because all the wood has been eaten away. So, we’re only left with the inorganic artefacts: anything that’s metal or stone or ceramic on the sea floor. So, we really just have the nose, because the rams have kind of the reverse of the bow of the ship, so we have to estimate the length of the ship based off this kind of very sparse remain. It’s hard to hard to judge the full length of the ship based on just its nose.

     

    Sam Willis  25:32

    I suppose final question is, do we know how many men were involved in the battle? Have we got a sense of how many ships and how many men? What’s the scale of it?

     

    Peter Campbell  25:41

    Polybius gives some estimates. Though we’re learning that, Polybius, maybe we can’t trust what he says as much as we once thought. But his estimates look like there was around 400 men per ship. We’re still trying to figure out if that’s accurate or not, but he calls the First Punic War the largest naval war that had occurred to date, with the largest number of losses. And there were certainly a number of different battles, where significant amounts of vessels were lost. Certainly, this battle looks like they’re significant losses, probably on both sides. So yeah, you’re talking about very significant loss of life.

     

    Sam Willis  26:26

    Well, it’s a fascinating story. What’s the future of this project? Are people just going to carry on diving and seeing what they can find? Or is it going to come to an end soon?

     

    Peter Campbell  26:38

    Well, there’s many generations of work that could be done on this site. We’re now up to 25 rams that we’ve located, we’ve mapped an enormous area of the battle site and believe we’ve located the centre of the battle. So, now we’re working on further delineating the site to the west, and then conducting scientific analyses of all the artefacts, and interpreting them, and hopefully working on a large publication to present this to the public and the academic community. We’re on a five-year cycle of getting everything published to a very high standard, and then we’ll see what happens next. Certainly, this could continue indefinitely into the future as the only ancient naval battle that’s been found so far.

     

    Sam Willis  27:25

    Brilliant. Well, it’s hugely exciting. And thank you very much indeed for talking to me today, Peter.

     

    Peter Campbell  27:29

    Yeah, thank you.

     

    Sam Willis  27:34

    Thank you all so much for listening. Do please remember to find the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast on YouTube. There you can see the fabulous videos we have been creating. Especially, make sure you look at the one where we use artificial animation to make ships’ figureheads come alive, it’s definitely my favourite. Please also leave us review, as I asked before, on iTunes, it’s really easy. Just scroll down, hit five stars, tell us what you think, and we will read it out. Please follow the Society for Nautical Research on social media, and please, please join the Society for Nautical Research. It really doesn’t cost very much and your annual subscription will help support this podcast. It will help publish the quarterly Mariner’s Mirror journal. It will help support the preservation of our maritime heritage and it will allow you to come to our annual dinner on board HMS Victory. There is simply no better way to spend your spare change and to feel good about yourself at the same time.

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