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The Ship Classes of the Egadi Rams and Polybius’ Account of the First Punic War

William M. Murray

In his account of the First Punic War, Polybius describes the Roman and Carthaginian fleets as largely comprised of pentēreis or “fives” (cf. Polyb. 1.63.4-9). We should expect, therefore, that a sample of 10 similar sized rams originating from the naval battle concluding this war (i.e., the Battle of the Aegates Islands in 241 B.C.) would likely come from “fives.” This seems not to be the case, however. Comparative evidence from other known rams suggests that the Egadi weapons located thus far come from ship classes smaller than “fours.” Can Polybius be wrong? If we may judge from the evidence of the Egadi rams, his description of a Roman navy comprised largely of “fives” during the First Punic War certainly seems oversimplified and misleading. We should consider the possibility that both Roman and Carthaginian fleets of the mid-third century B.C. contained a mix of classes more in line with what we observe in Roman fleets toward the end of the third century and the beginning of the second. Such a conclusion accords with Christa Steinby’s assessment (The Roman Republican Navy from the sixth century to 167 B.C. [Helsinki 2007] 75-77) that Polybius presents a flawed picture of the Roman Navy during the First Punic War. Time will tell, but the Egadi rams may well call for a careful reassessment of Polybius’s entire first book, his purpose for writing it, the limitations of his sources, and the use he makes of them.

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The Battle of the Aegates Islands (241 B.C.)

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