Corvus (boarding device)
The corvus (meaning "crow" or "raven" in Latin) or harpago (probably the correct ancient name) was a Roman military boarding device used in naval warfare during the First Punic War against Carthage.
In Chapters 1.22-4-11 of his History, Polybius describes this device as a bridge 1.2 m (4 ft) wide and 10.9 m (36 ft) long, with a small parapet on both sides. The engine was probably used in the prow of the ship, where a pole and a system of pulleys allowed the bridge to be raised and lowered. There was a heavy spike shaped as a bird's beak on the underside of the device. The spike was designed to pierce the enemy ship's deck when the boarding-bridge was lowered. This allowed a firm grip between the vessels and a route for the legionaries to cross to the other ship.
In the 3rd century BC, Rome was not a naval power, and had little or no experience in war at sea. Before the first Punic war, the Roman Republic had not campaigned outside the Italian Peninsula. The Republic's military strength was on land, and her greatest assets were the discipline and courage of her soldiers. The boarding-bridge allowed her to use her marines against the superior Carthaginian naval skills. The Romans' application of boarding tactics worked; they won several battles, most notably those of Mylae, Sulci, Tyndaris, and Ecnomus.
Despite its advantages, the boarding bridge had a serious drawback: it could not be used in rough seas since the stable connection of two working ships endangered each other's structure. Operating in rough seas, the device became useless and was abandoned. According to Bonebaker, Professor of Naval Architecture at Delft, with the estimated weight of one ton for the boarding bridge, it is "most probable that the stability of a quinquereme with a displacement of about 250 m3 (330 cu yd) would be seriously upset".
Some other historians[who?] believe that its weight on the prow compromised the ship's navigability and the Romans lost lost entire ships due to storms in 255 and in 249 BC, largely due to the instability caused by the device. These losses were probably the main reason for why Romans made the boarding-bridge attachable and detachable after the war. As Roman naval tactics improved and the Roman crews became more experienced, the boarding-bridge was no longer used in battle as much. It is not mentioned in period sources after the battle of Ecnomus and apparently the Battle of the Aegates Islands that decided the first Punic war was won had only minor impact on it.
- Wallinga p.73-75
- Wallinga p.77-90
- Wallinga, Herman Tammo (1956) The boarding-bridge of the Romans, J.B. Wolters Groningen, Djakarta
- Goldsworthy, Adrian (2004). The Fall of Carthage. Cassel Publications. ISBN 0-304-36642-0.
- Gonick, Larry (1994). "The Cartoon History of the Universe II". Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-26520-4.