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Bizzare Naval Tech corner: #1 The Roman “corvus”; how to bring a land battle into a naval environment

  

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#1 The Roman “corvus”; how to bring a land battle into a naval environment

Preface

Hello and welcome to my effort of writing a series of articles on lesser known or bizzare naval weapons/ships/technologies since Ancient Times!

 I know of many people on the forums that are interested a lot in Naval History. While obviously the interest lies mainly in the 19th-20th century, we as mankind are connected to the sea for far, far longer. Military naval technology has existed literally for millennia, with some incredibly unique examples across all ages. As a big history nerd I decided to find some of the more unique, bizzare or interesting examples of Naval Warfare and share them with you fine people. I aim to create a small series of these articles provided there is some interest of course. Pardon my occasional misuse of English, not my mother tongue. Without further ado, let’s move onto our first case, the Roman “corvus”

Introduction

Ancient naval warfare in the Mediterranean was a very “skill intensive” method of warfare. Due to the ships using oars in battle for locomotion and the deadliest weapon of the time being the naval ram, synchronicity (there always existed the danger of the ramming ship getting stuck and being unable to row backwards, being sunk along with the rammed ship), the training of the oarsmen and maneuvers were of paramount importance in ancient  naval battles in the region.

It’s therefore unsurprising that areas with a long history of seamanship and trading in the region would possess some of these advantages over others. For this reason some of the Greek City States, the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians had some of the best trained navies, able to perform complex maneuvers in the heat of battle and best utilize the advantages of the naval ram (hopefully a subject for another article).

When the Romans first engaged with the Carthaginians during the First Punic War (264-261 BCE) this was a very important issue. The Roman military back then was land based and lacked any naval experience and training. In contrast Carthaginians were as we previously mentioned among the strongest naval powers of their time. So, how do you fight at sea a far more experienced opponent with almost no naval experience yourself?

As the subtitle has already hinted, you brought land warfare to sea. Enter the “corvus”, Latin for raven or crow

Design

“Corvus” was simply put a boarding device placed on Roman ships, enabling them to board with ease enemy ships in order for the superior Roman infantry to engage.  So, how exactly did “corvus” look like?  The device got it’s name from the spike that secured the two ships resembling a bird’s beak.

 

In the words of the Greek historian Polybius:

Quote

 

On the prow stood a round pole, seven meters in height and 30 centimeters in diameter. This pole had a pulley at the summit and round it was put a gangway made of cross planks attached by nails, 1.20 meters in width and eleven meters in length. In this gangway was an oblong hole and it went round the pole at a distance of 3½ meters from its near end. The gangway also had a railing on each of its long sides as high as a man's knee. At its extremity was fastened an iron object like a pestle pointed at one end and with a ring at the other end [...]. To this ring was attached a rope with which, when the ship charged an enemy, they raised the ravens by means of the pulley on the pole and let them down on the enemy's deck, sometimes from the prow and sometimes bringing them round when the ships collided broadsides.

Once the ravens were fixed in the planks of the enemy's deck and grappled the ships together, if they were broadside on, they boarded from all directions but if they charged with the prow, they attacked by passing over the gangway of the raven itself two abreast. The leading pair protected the front by holding up their shields, and those who followed secured the two flanks by resting the rims of their shields on the top of the railing.

 

 

corvus.thumb.jpg.b7bd0bc9722204f734aa9eb95ba8dfac.jpg

A simple drawing showing the use of the “corvus”. Notice the pulley system and the rotating base, allowing the device to be used in any direction.

 

Usage

“Corvus” helped the Romans win at least 4 major naval battles against the Carthaginians. The best example would be the battle of Mylae, the first time the device was ever used.

Again from Polybius:

Quote

 

As for Gaius Duillius, no sooner had he learnt of the disaster which had befallen the commander of the naval forces than handing over his legions to the military tribunes he proceeded to the fleet. Learning that the enemy were ravaging the territory of Mylae, he sailed against them with his whole force. The Carthaginians on sighting him put to sea with a 130 sail, quite overjoyed and eager, as they despised the inexperience of the Romans. They all sailed straight on the enemy, not even thinking it worth while to maintain order in the attack, but just as is they were falling on a prey that was obviously theirs. They were commanded by Hannibal [...].

On approaching and seeing the ravens nodding aloft on the prow of each ship, the Carthaginians were at first nonplused, being surprised at the construction of the engines. However, as they entirely gave the enemy up for lost, the front ships attacked daringly. But when the ships that came into collision were in every case held fast by the machines, and the Roman crews boarded by means of the ravens and attacked them hand to hand on deck, some of the Carthaginians were cut down and others surrendered from dismay at what was happening, the battle having become just like a fight on land. 

So the first thirty that engaged were taken with all their crews, including the commander's galley, Hannibal himself managing to escape beyond his hopes by a miracle in the jolly-boat. The rest of the Carthaginian force was bearing up as if to charge the enemy, but seeing, as they approached, the fate of the advanced ships they turned aside and avoided the blows of the engines. Trusting in their swiftness, they veered round the enemy in the hope of being able to strike him in safety either on the broadside or on the stern, but when the ravens swung round and plunged down in all directions and in all manner of ways so that those who approached them were of necessity grappled, they finally gave way and took to flight, terror-stricken by this novel experience and with the loss of fifty ships. 

 

 

1247314629_corvus2.thumb.jpg.c73d2208b235ac4c44858a67a642022d.jpg

Roman troops using “corvus” to engage the Carthaginian ship in a boarding action during the battle of Mylae.

 

As we see by this description, not only was “corvus” instrumental in securing victory for the Romans, but we also observe how arrogance can be your downfall. The belief of the Carthaginians that they had won before the battle even begun only helped secure their defeat and present them with a nasty surprise.

Another battle that deserves some mention is the battle of Cape Ecnomus, possibly the largest naval battle in history with estimates placing the number of warships at 680 (330 for the Romans, 350 for the Carthaginians) and at least 140.000 crew and marines for each side. Again “corvus” proved it’s worth and helped secure an unexpected victory for the Romans.  

Limitations and abandonment of use:

 

Of course, “corvus” wasn’t a wonder weapon without any issues. The device was considered unstable and required calm sea to function properly; in rough conditions there was the danger of both ships sinking. In fact it is believed that because of this instability “corvus” was the reason behind Rome losing large numbers of ships in two separate occasions. This theory has been challenged lately however.

Besides, as the Roman crews gained experience and Rome became a proper naval power,  the use of “corvus” was slowly abandoned, with the battle of Cape Ecnomus being the last naval action where the use of the device was mentioned.

Conclusion:

I wanted to start with this series with “corvus” because it is a prime example of how simplicity can solve even complex military problems. Without “corvus” to enable the Romans to fight in their element, the course of the First Punic War may have been different.

Thank you for reading and I hope you had as much fun and gained as much knowledge as I when I was writing the piece. I would really appreciate it if you voted on the poll if you would be interested in more of this content. Comments are always helpful too. Negative ones with logical criticism help me improve,positive ones make me feel my work is appreciated so please let me know what you think.

Thanks again for reading!

 

Sources used:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvus_(boarding_device)

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Corvus.html

https://www.livius.org/articles/concept/corvus/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cape_Ecnomus

https://www.livius.org/articles/battle/ecnomus-256-bce/

Edited by warheart1992
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It was a brilliant though flawed solution to not being naval oriented until they learned how to go to sea in the same manner as the Carthaginians.

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The Romans basically saw the navy as another way to get their army engaged with the enemy. Anything that made naval warfare more like land wars was a plus for them in that regard. They knew what they were good at and stuck with it.

Partly explains why they had such a problem with pirates for a while. They just didn't have a decent navy up until well into the empire. Instead they had what were basically transports.

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The surprising thing about the Romans was how bad they were in naval warfare, but when they decided to go "All In" they didn't hold back.  Their ship building to replace their stupid early losses was great, and the willingness to keep trying until they even buried Carthage at sea is exemplary.

 

Carthage's navy was only a factor earlier in the First Punic War and by the time the much more cataclysmic Second Punic War came around, there was no great Punic Navy to sweep aside the Roman amateurs at sea.  The Romans completely turned this around.  They didn't have a naval tradition.  To me it's like the Imperial German Navy fighting the Royal Navy in WWI era and somehow wearing down and beating the British at sea and then establishing naval dominance.  It's ridiculous and it should not happen.

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If you want bizarre, here goes.   Took place in 1161 AD. 

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Tangdao

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Caishi

 

One side had paddle wheeled ships, powered by thread mills, armored with iron plates, each armed with a trebuchet, that is used to launch, guess what, bombs.   Things that went kaboom.   The other side had ships that were hastily constructed, armored with animal hide.  As expected this wasn't a close fight.  

 

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9 minutes ago, Eisennagel said:

 

If you want bizarre, here goes.   Took place in 1161 AD. 

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Tangdao

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Caishi

 

One side had paddle wheeled ships, powered by thread mills, armored with iron plates, each armed with a trebuchet, that is used to launch, guess what, bombs.   Things that went kaboom.   The other side had ships that were hastily constructed, armored with animal hide.  As expected this wasn't a close fight.  

 

Hah, thanks for pointing this one out, seems like the definition of bringing a knife to an ICBM fight :Smile_trollface:

Got another article ready which will upload today most likely. Very Asian in flavor too...

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