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Polybius: the First Punic War


Map of ancient Sicily. Map design Jona Lendering. According to the Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118), the First Punic War (264-241) between Carthage and Rome was "the longest and most severely contested war in history". And indeed, it lasted almost a quarter of a century and probably, a million people lost their lives. In the end, Rome had conquered the island of Sicily, and had become a Mediterranean superpower.

Polybius' World History was translated by W.R. Paton.

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A modern reconstruction of a corvus by Martin Lokaj.
A modern reconstruction of a corvus by Martin Lokaj (©*)

Book 1, chapter 22

[260 BCE] IAfter this the Romans approached to coast of Sicily and learning of the disaster that had befallen Gnaeus [Cornelius Scipio Asinus], at once communicated with Gaius Duillius, the commander of the land forces, and awaited his arrival. At the same time, hearing that the enemy's fleet was not far distant, they began to get ready for sea-battle. As their ships were ill-built and slow in their movements, someone suggested to them as a help in fighting the engines which afterwards came to be called corvi ("ravens").

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. 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, so that the whole looked like the machine for pounding corn. To this ring was attached a rope with which, when the ship charged an enemy, they raised the corvi 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 corvi 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 corvus 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. Having, then, adopted this device, they awaited an opportunity for going into action.
to book 1, chapter 23
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