Ancient Ocean Wars: 6 Incredible Naval Battles

Ancient Ocean Wars: 6 Incredible Naval Battles

Stephanie Schoppert - June 14, 2017

The seas have always been used for the expansion of empires and the conquering of worlds. Even in the ancient world great navies would clash upon the waters and would determine which empire would continue. Innovations in naval warfare would constantly change the tides from better strategies to fire that would burn upon the water, the seas were always a place of daring battles whose stories continue to be told upon the seafloor.

Battle of Salamis 490 BCE

The Battle of Salamis occurred after the Persian victories at Artemisium and Thermopylae. King Xerxes and his army had taken over much of Greece and captured Athens in the last days of September 490. Meanwhile, the Greek navy stayed on the isle of Salamis which was opposite Athens. The Persians were upset that the Greeks were preventing them from easily using the Athenian port. The Greek navy was outnumbered and could not win an outright battle against the Persians and therefore they needed a plan.

Ancient Ocean Wars: 6 Incredible Naval Battles
Map of the Battle of Salamis.

The story told by Herodotus was that the Athenian admiral Themistocles approached the Persians and acted like a friend. He convinced the Persian navy to enter into the straights of Salamis. Themistocles then had a slave row to show and let the Persians know that the Greek allies should now abandon their position. The Persian army wanted to enter the strait and block both entrances to trap the Greeks.

Once inside the strait things went poorly for the Persians. They struggled to maneuver in the narrow straight and they were not able to retreat. The Persian forces became disorganized and the Greek fleet was able to put themselves in a line and defeat the Persian navy. Nearly a third of King Xerxes’s ships were destroyed before the rest were able to retreat. The Greek navy did not follow the retreating Persian forces.

With a loss of 300 ships for the Persians and only 40 for the Greeks, it was a decisive victory. The remainder of the Persian fleet scattered following the defeat and it forced King Xerxes to put all his plans on hold. He had to delay his land offenses for an entire year which gave the Greek city-states the time they needed to unite against him and finally match his forces. The Battle of Salamis was one of the most decisive naval battles in ancient history.

Ancient Ocean Wars: 6 Incredible Naval Battles
Egyptian depiction of the Battle of the Delta.

Battle of the Delta 1178 BCE

The Battle of the Delta has known recorded on the temple walls of the mortuary temple of pharaoh Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. The battle is said to have occurred between the Egyptians and the Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples were a seafaring confederation of groups that are believed to have sailed around the eastern Mediterranean and invaded Anatolia, Syria, Canaan, Phoenicia, Cyprus and Egypt near the end of the Bronze Age. The invasions by the Sea Peoples were believed as part of the reason for the end of the Bronze Age.

Ramesses had fought the Sea Peoples before and had defeated them on land in Syria. After Syria, he headed back to Egypt where preparations had already been made for an invasion by the Sea People. Ramesses was outnumbered and knew that he would be defeated in a sea battle. He lined his archers on the shore and told them to volley arrows at any ship that attempted to land. Next, he decided that he had to face the Sea People on the water somehow and decided that he would even the odds.

He enticed the Sea Peoples to guide their ships into the mouth of the Nile where his own fleet was waiting to ambush them. The Egyptian fleet forced the Sea Peoples’ ships close to the shore where they were within range of the archers. Archers on land and on ships were able to destroy the Sea Peoples. Their ships were overturned and many of them were killed, captured or dragged to shore where they were killed.

The Egyptian victory at the Battle of the Delta ensure that Egypt did not suffer the same fate as Hatti, Alasiya and other great Near Eastern powers. There is no record that the Egyptians pursued the Sea Peoples after their defeat. Some believe that what was left of the Sea Peoples settled in the Southern Levant after the death of Ramesses.

Ancient Ocean Wars: 6 Incredible Naval Battles
Depiction of the Battle of Actium, by Laureys a Castro in 1672. Wikimedia

Battle of Actium 31 BCE

The Battle of Actium occurred during the Final War of the Roman Republic. The war occurred because Anthony had lost favor with the Roman Senate due to his relationship with Cleopatra. Some felt that he was trying to take control of Egypt while also remaining in command of the Roman legions in the East. The Alliance between Antony and Octavian faltered and Octavian took control of the Senate. Under Octavian, the Senate declared war on Cleopatra which many knew was really war against Mark Antony.

By the end of 32 BCE, Antony knew that a battle was coming. After negotiations and preparation, the two fleets met outside of the Gulf of Actium on the morning of September 2nd, 31 BCE. Antony had a fleet of 500 war galleys and towers full of armed men. Octavian had 400 warships just beyond the straits and they had blocked in Antony. It was only after suffering desertions from allies and a dwindling supply of provisions that he decided to lead his ships out of the straits and into the open ocean where Octavian and his fleet were waiting.

Antony’s ships were in the front while Cleopatra’s ships took the rear. Antony engaged Octavian’s fleet until he saw that Cleopatra was leading her ships away and out to the open sea beyond Octavian’s fleet without engaging them at all. Seeing Cleopatra lead 60 of her ships toward Egypt disheartened not only Antony but the rest of the fleet. Antony fled the battle as well and followed Cleopatra. The fleet that was left behind surrendered to Octavian. Antony’s land forces surrendered a week later.

A year later Octavian and his forces reached Alexandria. Cleopatra fled to her mausoleum for protection, while Antony believing her dead stabbed himself with a sword. After his death, Cleopatra tried to seduce Octavian and when she failed, she committed suicide rather than fall under his dominion. Octavian then killed Cleopatra’s son and annexed Egypt into the Roman Empire.

Ancient Ocean Wars: 6 Incredible Naval Battles
Depiction of the Battle of Lade. Pinterest

Battle of Lade 494 BCE

The Battle of Lade was a naval battle during the Ionian Revolt. The Ionian cities had allied together with the Lesbians in order to revolt against the Persian Empire of Darius the Great. The Greek cities of Asia Minor were angry over the tyrants that had been appointed by Persia. The tyrant of Miletus in 499 BCE was Artaphernes who decided to go on a mission to conquer Naxos in an attempt to curry favor in Miletus. The attempt was a failure and instead of being removed from Miletus, he decided to incite the Ionian people into rebellion.

The rebellion quickly spread and Persian forces spent three years fighting in Asia Minor but were never able to get the decisive victory they needed to put down the rebellion. In 494 BCE the Persian army and navy were sent straight to Miletus, where the rebellion had begun. The Ionian fleet gathered at Lade, an island off the coast of Miletus. The land defense of Miletus was left to the Milesians as the Ionians focused their attention to the sea.

The Persians were not sure they could defeat the Ionians outright and therefore tried to get some of the forces to defect. They were unsuccessful at first but once the fighting began, the Samian fleet accepted the Persian offer. When the Persian and Ionian fleet met, the Samians sailed off to join the Persians which collapsed the Ionian battle line. 11 Samian ships did stay behind refusing to abandon the Ionians. The Chian navy and a number of other ships also stayed behind and faced huge casualties. Eventually, the Chian ships could remain no longer and sailed back to Chios which ended the battle.

The defeat of the Ionian fleet spelled the end of the revolt as well. Miletus suffered greatly with most of the men killed and the women and children enslaved by the Persians. Many Samians were furious with the actions of their generals and decided to settle on the coast of Sicily with the people of Zancle. Milesians that were able to escape also settled there. Darius also sought to punish Athens and Eretria for supporting the revolt and invaded Greece the following year.

Ancient Ocean Wars: 6 Incredible Naval Battles
Depiction of ships during the First Punic War.

Battle of the Aegates 241 BCE

The Battle for the Aegates is also known as the Battle of the Egadi Islands and took place on March 10, 241 BCE. By the time the battle took place the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage had been going on for several years. The years preceding the Battle of Aegates were relatively quiet, partially because Rome did not have a fleet of her own. Her fleet had been mostly destroyed in the Battle of Drepana and the following storm.

Carthage did little to take advantage of the fact that Rome was defenseless at sea. So in 242 BCE, Rome decided to rebuild their fleet and regain the superiority of the seas. Rome was largely broke due to 20 years of war and therefore it fell upon the wealthy nobles of Rome to finance the new fleet one ship at a time. In the end, the nobles built, equipped and crewed 200 ships without any monetary assistance from the government. Carthage knew the Romans were building a fleet and decided to build one of their own with 250 ships, though theirs were likely undermanned.

The new Roman fleet, completed in 242 BCE laid siege to two Sicilian ports and waited for the Carthaginian response. It came in 241 BCE when the Carthaginians set sail for the besieged cities. The Roman fleet decided to sail out to meet the Carthaginians. They stripped their boats of everything but the bare necessities which made them faster and more maneuverable.

The Roman ships were able to quickly meet the Carthaginians and gain the upper hand. They were much more mobile than the loaded down Carthaginian ships which were crewed with inexperienced men. The Romans were able to ram the Carthaginian ships and soundly defeat the larger Carthaginian fleet. The Romans lost 30 ships and had 50 damaged. The Carthaginians lost 50 ships and had 70 captured along with 10,000 of their men.

Ancient Ocean Wars: 6 Incredible Naval Battles
Battle of Red Cliffs.

Battle of Red Cliffs 208 CE

The Battle of Red Cliffs occurred in 208 CE during the Han dynasty. The warlord Cao Cao controlled the northern regions of China and had his sights set on the southern part. To this, he needed to get control of the Yangtze River in order to have access to the rest of the southern region. The Yangtze River region was controlled by Liu Biao of the Jing Province, who controlled the area west of the mouth of the Han river, and Sun Quan controlled the region east of the mouth of the Han river. Liu Bei was another enemy of Cao Cao living in refuge with Liu Biao with his own forces.

Cao Cao was initially successful, forcing Liu Biao to retreat and getting the naval base that he wanted. Liu Biao died from disease soon after and his son surrendered to Cao Cao. Cao Cao then sent a letter to Sun Quan boasting the size of his forces and urging the warlord to surrender. Liu Bei on the other hand wanted to strike an alliance with Sun Quan and defeat Cao Cao. Liu Bei had a force of 20,000 to add to the 30,000 of Sun Quan. Cao Cao claimed to have 80,000.

Sun Quan decided to fight and the allied force headed to the Red Cliffs to meet Cao Cao’s forces. When they arrived, the enemy forces were low on morale and suffering from disease due to the long marches. The Sun-Liu forces quickly pushed Cao Cao to retreat. It was after this that a divisional commander for the Sun-Liu forces saw that Cao Cao had chained all of his ships together.

The divisional commander came up with a risky plan. He prepared a squadron of capital ships and filled them with flammable materials, kindling, fatty oil and dry reeds. He then told Cao Cao he was planning on surrendering and sent the ships toward Cao Cao. Once the men reached the midway point they set the ships on fire and escaped on small boats. The burning ships were carried by the winds to Cao Cao’s fleet and set the ships ablaze. An armed force then capitalized on the situation and Cao Cao’s forces were completely defeated.