In 264 BC the Romans occupied the strategic city of Messanaon Sicily,
triggering the First Punic War, the longest of their titanic struggles with Carthage. This was Rome’s first venture outside the recently conquered Italian
peninsula, and it presented her with a prospect certainly daunting to a society
that lacked any naval tradition whatsoever: she now confronted the owner of the
largest and most skilled navy in the westernMediterranean.
By 261 BC the Senate realized it could not finally settle
affairs in Sicily without challenging Carthaginian control of the
sea. Drawing upon Italian timber
resources and the shipbuilding skills of the Greek cities in the southern
peninsula, the Romans constructed within a year a fleet of perhaps 160
warships, most of them the new heavier quinqueremes. Crews were meanwhile trained, and new
boarding tactics and equipment, more suitable to the less experienced Italian
sailors, were developed. The Roman plan
was to negate the Carthaginian edge in maneuvering and ramming by using their
grappling and boarding techniques to turn the engagements into “land”
The plan worked.
In the first major naval encounter, the battle of Mylae in 260 BC, C.
Duilius handily defeated a Punic fleet of over a hundred, capturing or sinking
almost half the enemy ships. In fact,
during the next five years the Romans won four more victories at sea, only to
suffer major losses to storms in 255 BC and 253 BC. Boarding techniques could not compensate for
lack of skill when confronting the weather.
This was the situation when P. Claudius Pulcher, one of
the two consuls for 249 BC, took command of the Roman fleet blockading the fortress
of Lilybaeum on the west coast of the island.
Claudius immediately decided to improve the blockade by attempting to
surprise and destroy the smaller Carthaginian squadron stationed a short
distance to the north at Drepana. The
consul was a headstrong man, perhaps thinking of the political rewards to be
gained from a decisive naval victory, but the plan made sense, particularly in
light of the reinforcements already sailing to join the fleet at Drepana.
But Claudius’ staff apparently appreciated the limits of
his naval skill, and unable to talk him out of the operation they informed him
at the last minute that the omens were negative. The sacred chickens with the fleet would not
eat, a bad sign. Claudius promptly
responded by having them thrown overboard, remarking “If they will not
eat, let them drink.” He then
sailed north to Drepana, where he was soundly defeated by the Punic admiral
Adherbal, losing almost a hundred of his 120 vessels inRome’s single serious naval defeat of the war.
It is just possible that the story of the chickens is
apocryphal, invented later to account for Claudius’ disaster by attributing it
to an angry heaven. But then again it
may well be true, in which case the message to all commanders is clear: ignore
the sacred chickens at your risk.