The shipwrecks rewriting ancient history

By 264BC, that rivalry began to centre on Sicily. The west of the island had been controlled by Carthage for centuries, while the east was occupied by Greek communities. A small group of mercenaries, known as the Mamertines, had a foothold in the city of Messana (modern-day Messina). In an ongoing dispute with the Greeks at Syracuse, the Mamertines asked both Carthage and Rome for support. Both obliged, moves that ultimately disrupted the delicate power balance in the region and triggered what would become a 23-year war.

While Rome had a stronger military force, they had largely fought on land, says Oliveri: “At the start of their expansion, they didn’t feel the need to have a fleet of ships and were not prepared for this naval war.” The Carthaginians, in contrast, had a large commercial fleet of ships that they could quickly convert for military use.

For both sides, the bronze rostrums – also known as naval rams – at the ships’ prows were the primary naval weapons. Weighing hundreds of kilograms, they could cause considerable damage when they hit the enemy boat. In some cases, the aim would be to sink the ship. In others, the rostrum would jam the oars so that the enemy ship could not escape as the soldiers took it over and plundered its resources.

The years of war proved to be extremely punishing to both the Carthaginians and the Romans. “It was very costly, both in terms of human life and economically,” says Oliveri. “In the last phase Rome even had to ask for a loan from the most well-to-do families to arm the fleet and build new boats.”

The last battle took place around the Aegadian Islands off the western coast of Sicily, when Romans intercepted ships carrying much-needed supplies to Carthaginian troops caught in a siege on Monte Erice. The exhausted army had no choice but to surrender. “And Sicily became Roman,” Oliveri says.

Oliveri says that many factors – including the strength and direction of the wind – contributed to the Roman victory, and world history may have been very different if the Carthaginians had instead triumphed. “Rome could have been limited to the Italian peninsula, while Carthage would have established more new colonies surrounding the Mediterranean – arriving, to the east, at the edge of the Persian Empire.” If they had not been weakened, they might have even extended their sphere of influence northwards, she suggests – perhaps as far as Britain.

Blood-red rocks

For millennia, the primary account of this world-changing battle had been the work of the Greek historian Polybius, writing in the 2nd Century BC. Unfortunately, he was rather vague on some of the essential details, such as where exactly it took place. “We were handed down a narrative that certainly cited the Aegadian Islands, but it didn’t specify the precise location,” explains Maurici.

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