How Wooden Ship Building Technology Changed the Western World

I thought today I would share one of my favorite tales from the Ancient world and how a beached ship literally changed the Roman Empire and the Western World.

During the First Punic War (2654 - 241 BC) the Romans were fighting the Carthaginians for control of the Western Mediterranean. Carthage was the premiere naval power of it's day, dominating and controlling trade. Rome had it's eyes on Sicily and its valuable port cities and farmlands.

Muir, Ramsay; Treharne R. F.; Fullard, Harold (1969). Muir's Historical Atlas. London: George Philip and Son. OCLC 1090019533 p. 11, map B.

Muir, Ramsay; Treharne R. F.; Fullard, Harold (1969). Muir's Historical Atlas. London: George Philip and Son. OCLC 1090019533 p. 11, map B.


There was one catch - the Carthaginian Navy was vastly superior and the romans relied heavily on allies to ferry their troops to Sicily. It was decided that Rome would build a Navy - but their designs would need to be able to compete with the more technologically advanced North African ships and the Carthaginians could turn out the ships quickly in massive numbers to replace losses. Essentially they were in over their heads as they had not designed a ship of this class and had no idea how to proceed.

Eric Gaba - Own work Based upon a drawing Reference : Jean Taillardat, La Trière athénienne et la guerre sur mer aux Ve et IVe siècles, 1968, in : Jean-Pierre Vernant, Problèmes de la guerre en Grèce ancienne, Éditions de l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, coll. Points, 1999

Eric Gaba - Own work Based upon a drawing. Reference : Jean Taillardat, La Trière athénienne et la guerre sur mer aux Ve et IVe siècles, 1968, in : Jean-Pierre Vernant, Problèmes de la guerre en Grèce ancienne, Éditions de l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, coll. Points, 1999

An amazing stroke of luck turned things around for the Romans. While ferrying their troops over to Messina onboard ships from allied nations the convoy was attacked by the Carthaginians. In their eagerness to attack and board the Roman ships one of their larger decked ships ran too close to shore and ran aground. This ship was immediately captured by the Romans.

The ship was then disassembled and used as a pattern from which all new ships of the Roman navy would be constructed. As the ship was disassembled it was noticed that each part of the ship was marked and numbered during construction by the Carthaginians. Although it is something we take for granted today with Flat-Pack items from brands like Ikea - 2200 years ago this was cutting edge technology! It allowed the Romans to quickly produce an initial 100 ships and begin to push back Carthage and their dominance of the Mediterranean sea and Trade.

 

Originally from the German Wikipedia - Baumeister: Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums 1888, Volume III, page 1611 A late 19th-century erroneous interpretation of the oar arrangement of an ancient quinquereme.

Originally from the German Wikipedia - Baumeister: Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums 1888, Volume III, page 1611

This seemingly simple single event lead to the Romans building over 1000 Galleys over the 14 year course of the First Punic war and contributed to the Romans defeating the Carthaginians. Sicily would be annexed by Rome and the Romans would gain control of the Mediterranean for the next 600 years. The weakening of Carthage and their hold on trade in the area would eventually result in the destruction of the hated Foe of Rome and the infamous "Salting of Carthage".

Without that one ship from Carthage running aground and being captured by Rome they would never have been able to challenge Carthage for dominance. The western world which would follow - built from the ashes of Rome would look much different today 2200 years later!

For further reading:

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