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Between the Battle of Mylae in 260 bc (when Rome defeated Carthage off the north coast of Sicily) and the Battle of Myonnesus in 190 (when Rome defeated the Seleucid navy off the west coast of Asia Minor), the Romans established naval domination over the whole Mediterranean. Scholars generally believe, for quite good reasons, that this process of naval aggrandisement began abruptly, the Romans having previously taken no interest in the sea. That, after all, is what Polybius quite clearly says.

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All translations from the Greek and Latin are my own.

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1 ‘Suddenly’ is the characterization given in Leigh M., ‘Early Roman Epic and the Maritime Moment’, CPh 105 (2010), 265. Burnett A. and Crawford M. H., ‘Coinage, Money and Mid-Republican Rome’, AIIN 60 (2014), 263, n. 68, hold that Rome's naval activities before the First Punic War were ‘rather minimal’ – the normal view. I am attempting in this article to make a case somewhat marred by Steinby C., The Roman Republican Navy. From the Sixth Century to 167 b.c. (Helsinki, 2007). de Souza P., ‘Polybius on Naval Warfare’, in Howe T., Garvin E., and Wrightson G. (eds.), Greece, Macedon, and Persia (Oxford, 2015), 189–90, is sceptical of Polybius’ primary claim but does not examine Rome's earlier behaviour.

2 Oakley S. P., A Commentary on Livy, Books VI–X. Volume III. Book IX (Oxford, 2005), 394.

3 Thiel J. H., A History of Roman Sea-Power before the Second Punic War (Amsterdam, 1954).

4 Oakley (n. 2), 394.

5 Fr. 31 Cornell.

6 This would have required a well-organized workforce of many thousands of men. Forsythe G., The Historian L. Calpurnius Frugi (Lanham, MD, 1994), 361–2, speculates about the origins of Pliny's figures.

7 That is to say, the treaty described in Polybius 3.24.

8 Harris W. V., ‘Roman Warfare in the Social and Economic Context of the Fourth Century b.c. ’, in Eder W. (ed.), Staat und Staatlichkeit in der frühen römischen Republik (Stuttgart, 1990), 500.

9 Thiel (n. 3), 48–9.

10 Oakley S. P., A Commentary on Livy, Books VI–X. Volume II. Books VII–VIII (Oxford, 1998), 681, n. 1.

11 See Harris W. V. and Iara K. (eds.), Maritime Technology in the Ancient Economy. Ship-Design and Navigation (Portsmouth, RI, 2011).

12 Here I can quote a writer of this period, Theophrastus (Hist. pl. 5.7.1): ‘fir, mountain pine and cedar are the standard ship-timbers. Triremes and long ships [i.e. warships] are made of fir because it is light, while merchant ships are made of pine because it does not rot. Some people, however, make their triremes of pine also, because they are short of fir….These woods are used for the main timbers, but for the trireme's keel oak is used….They make the cutwater…and cat-heads, which require special strength, of ash, mulberry or elm’.

13 For a succinct account of the probably differences between triremes, quadriremes, and quinqueremes, see de Souza P., ‘Naval Forces’, in Sabin P., van Wees H., and Whitby M. (eds.), The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare (Cambridge, 2007), i.357–61. Syracuse and Carthage seem to have led the escalation in ship size, leaving the Romans and others behind.

14 See N. Pilkington, The Carthaginian Empire, 550–202 bce (forthcoming).

15 I leave aside here questions about the topography of Forentum and Nerulum (Livy 9.20).

16 Harris (n. 8), 500–1.

17 See Oakley (n. 2), 345–6.

18 duo imperia eo anno dari coepta per populum…unum, ut tribuni militum…alterum, ut duumviros navales classis ornandae reficiendaeque causa idem populus iuberet (‘Two commands began that year to be conferred by the people…one, so that the military tribunes…the other so that the people were to appoint two commissioners to take charge of the preparing and repairing of the fleet’).

19 Livy 40.18.7–8, etc. Appian, Sam. 7, is equally irrelevant on this point, pace Oakley (n. 2), 395. See further below.

20 But Rome's main interest in this three-year series of campaigns was in the Tiber Valley; for the events in question, see Harris W. V., Rome in Etruria and Umbria (Oxford, 1971), 50–1, and Oakley's commentary on the Livy passages in question.

21 Oakley (n. 2), 396, does not convince me that this expression can normally refer to Roman citizens.

22 See Bradley G., Ancient Umbria (Oxford, 2000), 107–17.

23 The other sources are Livy 45.25 (he sees the relationship as one of amicitia) and Cassius Dio fr. 68.

24 Schmitt H. H., Rom und Rhodos (Munich, 1957), 36–7.

25 Jovino M. Bonghi, Ricerche in Pompei. L'insula 5 della Regio VI dalle origini al 79 d.C. (Rome, 1984), 280. For other evidence published after Schmitt, see Frederiksen M. W., Campania (London, 1984), 108.

26 Crowther C., personal comm. (cf. Harris W. V., ‘Quando e come l'Italia divenne per la prima volta Italia?’, Studi Storici 48 (2007), 316–17); Badoud N., ‘Rhodes et les Cyclades à l’époque hellénistique’, in Bonnin G. and Quéré E. Le (eds.), Pouvoir, îles et mer. Formes et modalités de l'hégémonie dans les Cyclades antiques (VIIe s. a.C – IIIe s. p.C.) (Bordeaux, 2014), 120, n. 40. For the latter's comprehensive work on the chronology of Rhodian inscriptions, see Badoud N., Le Temps de Rhodes (Munich, 2015).

27 Kontorini V., ‘Rome et Rhodes au tournant du IIIe s. av.J.-C. d'après une inscription inédite de Rhodes’, JRS 73 (1983), 31–2.

28 For the intensification of piracy in the second half of the fourth century, see Ientile M. Giuffrida, La pirateria tirrenica. Momenti e fortuna (Rome, 1983), 7990 .

29 See Wiemer H.-U., Krieg, Handel und Piraterie. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des hellenistischen Rhodos (Berlin, 2002), esp. 111–17.

30 The man commemorated had made an expedition to ‘]lian’ (line 4). The inscription dates from the third century, but opinion is divided between the first and the second half: see Wiemer (n. 29), 131.

31 IG XI.148, line 73.

32 As claimed by Berthold R. M., Rhodes in the Hellenistic Age (Ithaca, NY, and London, 1984), 237, n. 15.

33 Another plausible occasion of Roman–Rhodian cooperation is the little-known campaign of 302, in which a Roman consul or dictator expelled the Spartan prince Cleonymus from Thurii and places in the Sallentine peninsula (which is a geographical contradiction that has given rise to extensive commentary) (Livy 10.2). This is, of course, speculation (though there was certainly no love lost between Sparta and the Rhodian democracy). But the whole incident is deeply obscure. Moreover, Livy's two versions of the story differ: in one the consul seems to have operated on land only (10.2.2); in the other it may be implied that the dictator arrived with ships (10.2.3).

34 I leave aside here the help that Rome gave to Thurii c.285 (Livy, Per. 11; Plin. HN 34.32). But see the passage of Appian referred to in n. 35.

35 App. Sam. 7.1 says that one Cornelius was sent with ten decked ships to inspect Magna Graecia. According to Dio (fr. 39.2), Tarentum was plotting war against Rome, so a Roman ‘nauarch’ was sent on a mission to the Greek city (fr. 39.4, 39.5). The Tarentines successfully attacked this Roman force and then, according to Appian, proceeded to expel the Roman garrison from Thurii.

36 Who these other allies may have been is not clear: the nearest town with an attested treaty obligation to provide Rome with warships was Paestum (Livy 26.39 and 27.10, where, however, there is some confusion, since Paestum was by the dates in question a Latin colony).

37 Thiel (n. 3), 32.

38 ‘…no matter which requires help, the Carthaginians are to provide the ships for transport for the outward journey and the return, and each side shall provide supplies for its own men. The Carthaginians shall provide the Romans with help by sea too, if there is need, but no one shall compel the crews to land against their will.’ There is no need to discuss the textual problems here.

39 The most likely explanation of the historical context of this treaty is that the Carthaginians feared a Roman peace with Pyrrhus’: Walbank F. W., A Historical Commentary on Polybius. Vol. 1 (Oxford, 1957), 349.

40 Thiel (n. 3), 32.

41 Admittedly, in 264 a Roman consul chose to trust Tarentines, Locrians, Eleans, and Neapolitans to carry his troops across the Strait (Polyb. 1.20.14).

42 Harris W. V., ‘The Development of the Quaestorship, 267–81 bc ’, CQ 26 (1976), 92106 .

43 And I did not exploit it enough in War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, 327–70 bc , corrected edn (Oxford, 1985).

44 See also Florus 1.15.

* All translations from the Greek and Latin are my own.

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