Despite their importance and the existence of numerous classical references, the 3rd century BC site located off the Egadi Islands is the first and so far only major sea battle site that has ever been located underwater. Historical significance of the site lies in the fact that the Battle of the Egadi Islands was the decisive naval engagement of the First Punic War, which set Rome on the path towards total control of the Mediterranean. The archaeological significance of the site is enhanced by the large assemblage of warship rams that have been recovered to date. Eleven rams have so far been identified from Egadi. Prior to this project only three waterline rams were known from the whole of the Mediterranean and, despite the many large fleets that plied the Mediterranean in Antiquity, none of the previous rams were found in context with associated artefacts as is the case on the Egadi site.
The Battle of the Egadi Islands 241 BC
According to classical sources the Battle of the Egadi Islands was fought on March 10th 241 BC between a Carthaginian fleet of around 250 quinqueremes and 200 Roman quinqueremes. Although it had more warships the Carthaginian fleet was defeated – the Roman ships were reportedly modeled on a particularly fast captured vessel and were manned by the best available Roman crews. The stormy conditions on the day favoured the Romans, and they won decisively, disabling or capturing about 120 Carthaginian vessels, for the loss of only about 30 Roman ships. In total between fifty to sixty ships were reportedly sunk during the battle which lasted around four hours. The sources state that only the fact that the wind shifted to the east, enabling the remnant of the Carthaginian fleet to hoist sails and flee, saved it from complete destruction. The victory for the Romans can be regarded as the beginnings of the Roman Republic’s militaristic path to Empire over the next 200 years.
To date ten bronze warship rams have been discovered on the site, providing an unparalleled collection that is rewriting our knowledge of ancient naval warfare. Though the site is located in deep water (ranging from 90 – 100m deep), researchers have recovered Roman and Carthaginian armour, helmets, swords and amphorae, as well as some of the rams, from the battle site.