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Battle of Cape Ecnomus, 256 BC animated battle map

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Marcus Atilius Regulus and Lucius Manlius Vulso Longus versus Hamilcar: A Carthaginian fleet under Hamilcar attempts to encircle and destroy a Roman invasion fleet under Regulus and Manlius. Will Manlius and Regulus simply blast through or will Hamilcar achieve a naval Cannae forty years before its land counterpart? Click on images below to view PowerPoint presentation. | Legend |
The Roman victory was not followed by immediate success, as the victors were largely annihilated at the Battle of Tunes and subsequent storm during the withdrawal. Cape Ecnomus did prove to be a part of a growing trend of Roman competency at sea however, with Rome defeating Carthage at Mylae (260 BC) and Aegates Islands (241 BC), losing only at Drepanum (249 BC). This growing competency was largely the result of tailoring technology to their strengths. In this case, the corvus “enabled the Roman soldiers to make victory turn on their valor and swordsmanship, instead of on the seaman-like skill of the Carthaginians in maneuver and the use of the ram” (Rodgers, 1964: 304). 
At this battle, Hamilcar’s intent was to surround and annihilate the Roman fleet, and this plan relied on the assumption that Regulus and Manlius would keep their fleet in a tight mass. Instead, the Roman consuls illogically surged ahead, became separated, and in doing so upset Hamilcar’s plan. Tipps argues that the battle demonstrates the “dangerous unpredictability of the amateur which in battle is so disconcerting to the expert” (Tipps, 1985: 484). Hamilcar had ordered his wings to surround the Roman mass, but there was no mass to surround, and by carrying out this outdated plan, allowed the Roman consuls to smash the Carthaginian center. The Carthaginian wing commanders could have hit the Roman lead squadrons’ flank and rear but this would have exposed their own rear to the follow-on Roman squadrons (Tipps, 1985: 463). The best option would have been for one wing to hit the Roman consular squadrons in flank and rear while the other delayed the follow-on Roman squadrons. Of course, this was well outside the command and control capabilities of the Carthaginian fleet and would have required such a contingency plan to be developed beforehand.
The Roman rear squadrons discovered their commanders’ plan to smash through the Carthaginian fleet in a compact formation was upset by the lead squadrons’ hasty charge. The commanders of these Roman squadrons took good initiative to the changing battlefield by shaking out into some semblance of a line of battle to protect the Roman lead squadrons’ flanks, and then fix the Carthaginian wings until help could arrive. Although Rodgers offers a slightly different description of the battle, he writes that the battle is noteworthy in the context of naval tactics for how the slower Roman ships “were successful in meeting and holding each detachment of the enemy” and how “each consul took his own squadron into a second engagement after victory in the first . . . the highest tribute to their leadership” (1964: 290-1). Battles are chaotic affairs and analysis of the decision-making process of commanders on the ground/sea level induce a further understanding of what happened during the battle and why.
The current scholarship on this battle is very conflicted in their accounts of what happened during this battle due to differing interpretations of Polybius. As one will notice from my above analysis, I’ve opted to rely on Tipps’ convincing account (1985) of the battle; his analysis fits the events and the historical context well. At the same time, I’ve rejected Tipps’ defence of Polybius’ numbers (350 Carthaginian versus 330 Roman ships), and accepted Tarn’s well-known assessment (1907). While the most recent account of the battle uses Polybius’ numbers (Montagu, 2006: 171), the work is a general survey of Greek and Roman warfare and merely describes the event of the battle largely without in-depth analysis on this specific battle. Tipps makes a good argument for why Tarn’s calculations may be incorrect but not enough to prove why Polybius’ numbers should be accepted over Tarn’s own. In an appendix, Tipps describes the influence of Tarn’s estimates on fleet assessments for the time period by identifying works and authors who use Tarn’s estimates as a basis. The staggering amount of authors who have accepted Tarn’s estimates is enough evidence for this animation to use them.

This is the fifth Roman versus Carthaginian battle featured on this site. This may appear disproportionate at first but not when one considers the intensity and duration of conflict between these two ancient Mediterranean powers. However, there are many more conflicts and pairs of historical enemies to cover, so this will likely be the final animation between Rome and Carthage for some time.

I particularly enjoy Tipps’ concept of the “dangerous unpredictability of the amateur” and its relevance to more than battle. Try reading the poker face of someone who themselves don’t know how good their hand is and you’ll understand. 

A note on the actual animation sequence: I’m fairly proud of the way my visual illustration of the corvus turned out. Like I’ve told many people already, you can make PowerPoint do anything you want if you get creative and are persistent.
– Jonathan Webb
Works Consulted
Dupuy, Trevor N. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 BC to the Present, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Montagu, John Drogo. Greek and Roman Warfare: Battles, Tactics and Trickery. London: Greenhill, 2006.
Rodgers, William L. Greek and Roman Naval Warfare: A Study of Strategy, Tactics and Ship Design from Salamis (480 BC) to Actium (31 BC). Annapolis: Stevens & Brown, 1937.
Tarn, W.W. “The Fleets of the First Punic War.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 27 (1907): 48-60
Tipps, G.K. “The Battle of Ecnomus.” Historia Zietschrift für Alte Gechichte 34.3 (1985): 432-465.
Carthaginian quinquereme:
Marcus Atilius Regulus:
Roman quinquereme:

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  1. 3 Comments to “Battle of Cape Ecnomus, 256 BC animated battle map”

  2. Ancients again, yes!
    Thank you very much.

    By SEXTO NOBLE DE KHARÉ on Sep 2, 2012 at 8:03 am

  3. Thanks again for your animation, I want to say that by keeping it stupid and simple you actually make relevant information more available and also easier to grasp.

    I want to say that this battle demonstrates how to trick your opponent into a strategy of double envelopment. By adopting a deep formation with crack troops in the vanguard you can launch “wave” attacks on the enemy center before tackling the flanks with reserve units.

    Alexander Suvorov was a Russian general who loved the column formation because it hid his true intention and maximized the speed of his marches. His enemies could not accurately predict if Suvorov would launch an indirect maneuver because his formation was “formless.”

    By Victor K on Sep 5, 2012 at 11:34 am

  4. Thanks for this. I’ve always found this battle very interesting. I’ve wargamed it in the past and it always throws up tactical challenges

    By James on Jan 28, 2015 at 12:52 pm

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