The Sea-fight

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Memory slips away, age, time, events pass mostly into oblivion; commentaries therefore must be made ready in good time to obviate so great an evil. Not to rearrange the thoughts of writers in commonplace books, which will be doing again what has been done, but from a fresh reading of books set down an abstract in free style, to include all that is difficult and worthy of note; whatever the author himself, the memory of like things, or natural genius supplies. For an example among others, that Sea-fight drawn by me from a reading of Bayfius, Reviis, and Scheffer.

When the purification was concluded, the prayers offered, and sacrifice made to Neptune and the Winds and the Storms, the Roman fleet, fully equipped, under the command of Cornelius moved out of the harbour amid the cheers of the crowd standing on the shore. But they had hardly passed the harbour-mouth when the first look-out, watching for a wind and sounding the shallows, saw the Greek fleet in full order under its admiral Mentor.

There were on the Greek side two seven-bankers of almost unmanageable bulk, four sixers, many triremes, tubs, sharks, one-and-a-halfers, five bankers, and a huge number of cutters, pirate-boats, calvary-transports, besides stay-sail ships, and look-out boats.

The ships of great size and number which made up the Roman fleet were five-bankers, four-bankers, triremes, and long swifts, cut from the state forests and built of seasoned timbers, besides freighters, scouts and brigantines, while no slight force of ships had been left in the harbour, docks and shipyards.

The fleets as they approach array their armour, draw in sail, let down the masts; the trumpeters sound the signal for battle and the crews on both sides raise a cheer.

First the Roman van attacked the Greek flagship and the Commander in Chief at the head of his line strenuously joined battle with the enemy. They engaged first with a cast of spears, then with spades, hooks and swords. The Romans, eager to mark a great day in the war, press on to the slaughter, thicken their blows, strike hand to hand.

When they failed to break the strength of the defence in the turrets and decks, the Commander gave a general signal to assault the enemy with rams and brazen beaks. Thereafter bitter was the fighting: there was a rapid closing in amongst the triremes. A Tarentine assaulting a Rhodian from the flank stripped its oars, shattered its braces and framework, shivered the hold, broke the belly, and sent to the bottom the lowest benches of oarsmen.

A second Greek ship, its ensign a horse, its figure-head Neptune, coming up suddenly in her support rammed the enemy's prow with a great effort, split the right footwalk between rudder and shattered the bows, crushed the gangway, hatches and benches, broke up all the carved and wrought decoration of the poop, and took off the flag-staff with its pennon and the tiller with the stern-work. The oars were broken, and the cuirassiers struck down the mid and top oarsmen through the ports.

But while she spoils the Romans, their second-in-line comes up quickly with a great onrush. Striking the enemy's prow with her bronze trident beak she pierced her between ram and cut-water, smashing ensign, catheads, and figurehead, loosened the beak with its gunwale and eye, so that marines and sailors fled into the hold, sailors and soldiers took refuge in the poop. But with this fatal blow, water came in through the gap and quickly sank the trireme while pumpers and carpenters struggled in vain.

But while the fight goes on without advantage to either side, when swing-beams, iron grapnels, crows, hooks, even stones had been tried in vain, the Romans threw in lighted missiles, burning torches, shells full of pitch and coal. When these struck the hold of the flagship they burnt up the yards, the neck and whole mast right up to the mast-head. All the cords, supports, forestays, sailyard braces, yard-ropes, loosing-ropes, and sheets were more easily destroyed in the blaze.

Thereafter all was in confusion, any task was taken by anyone who was there. The rigger, the boatswain ran down among the oars, the sailors huddled among the belly-timbers. But the effort was useless. Only those who fell overboard were safe. For the fire seized not only the deck-works, but reached the mast and crow's nest too, and burned up the whole crew like a pyre.

The rest of the fleet, driven off by the fire and eager to escape, raised their foresails and fled in confusion. Three Samian ships torn, split, undergirt, and seaworthy, with wild rowing and no attention to the master's orders, helped by the onshore winds make for the nearest beach.

Some of the light warships, with fast stroke and against the wind,slip at last into Piraeus, where they are welcomed with swimming eyes and looks, and report the bitter turn of events and the terrible news from the sea.

The Roman Commander, his victory achieved, allotted prizes to the troops who had borne themselves well and punishments to the cowards. There followed floggings, draggings through the hold, duckings in the water, assaults by spitting, cutting-off of hands, exile, transportation to the islands, death, as the guilt of each false-fighter demanded.

Captains who had distinguished themselves were awarded coronets with ships' prows, troops received a bounty, allies and foreigners were accorded rights of citizenship, honourable discharge, exemption from tribute, or burial in a notable place.

The Senate approved a citation of honour and a naval triumph for the Admiral, and welcomed him as he came in the triumphal car. He was preceded by trumpeters, lute-players, models of the defeated ships, and prizes from the fleet, prows and sterns carried in wagons, and captured wealth. Entire ships' prows were set up on the Parade Ground. Finally triumphal arches and prowed columns were built, and Cornelius was awarded as great honours by the Senate as Duillius had received long before.

Eleven Greek triremes were taken, four completely burnt, seven sent to the bottom. By the fortune of war a single state-barge was taken and towed along to please and amuse the crowd at the triumph.There was plentiful loot and no light booty besides a train of prisoners. And then the whole shore was littered with clothes, armour and corpses. The Romans lost four triremes, many were damaged, and no small proportion of the volunteers were killed; the number of sailors who suffered, besides followers, servants, and mercenaries, was less than at the defeat of Fabius.

The battle was undecided with the moon at the full, very little daylight, the wind favouring the Greeks, about the hour which proved calamitous to the mightiest of the Greek fleet, and their overthrow came as the day drew to its close.

The fight was near Giant's Hand not far from Woman's Rock and in the storied sea, where Sirius displays the marvellous enchantment.

The cause of this war was that of all wars, excess of prosperity. As wealth spreads spirits rise, and lust and greed of power appear; thence men lose their sense of moderation, look with distaste on the prosperity of others, revolve disquiet in their mind, and throw over all settlement, for fear lest their enemies' wealth be firmly established, they put their own to risk; and finally (as happens in human affairs) fall into slavery when they seek to impose it, and earnestly courting good fortune, experience disaster.

Source British Museum MS Sloane 1827