We think of modern smart weapons as extraordinarily accurate, targetable, and specialized. Examples include bombs that follow laser beams to specific locations or missiles and rockets capable of changing track while locked onto a target. But what armament would be considered a smart weapon in ancient Rome? It’s this question of accuracy, doggedness, and usage that interests me.
Gladii and javelins, wielded by Legionaries, were accurate and capable of locating the enemy. When formed into Century units, they produced a weapon’s system that was both intelligent and targetable. However, rather than being specialized, light and heavy infantrymen were the core of the Roman army. While history showed the efficiency and deadliness of the Legions, they weren’t the smart weapon we are seeking.
Standoff artillery seemed a likely candidate. There were torsion and tension machines for launching rocks and bolts. Archers, as well, might be considered in this category. While accurate to a point, the destination of missiles shot from artillery was determined in part by the laws of physics and the weather. Ballistae, catapults, and bows had a specific use and, were capable of reaching out and touching an enemy. However, ancient projectiles lacked the ability to follow a target once launched.
What did follow a target was the cavalry. Mounted troops were accurate but, the multifunctional units could be messengers, an attacking force, used for containment, or any number of other duties. An excellent contender, however not an ancient smart weapon.
After eliminating land-based systems, let’s examine warships. At the start of the First Punic War, 264 B.C., the Roman Navy was small and lacked experienced seaman. Twenty-three years later at the end of the war, the Republic’s navy was equivalent to the Carthage Fleet.
In 261 B.C., the third year of the First Punic War, the Roman Senate realized it faced a formidable sea power in the Carthaginian fleet. Seeking naval parity, they funded the building of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes. The addition of these new warships would expand the Republic’s sea assets by a factor of six. Within this Senatorial decree lay clues to the ancient smart weapon.
The large quinqueremes harnessed the power of 300 oarsmen for speed and to manage the mass of the warships. With five banks of rowers, the ships were formidable battle platforms. Loaded with infantrymen for boarding enemy ships, some ‘fives’ were equipped with a movable ramp. Known as the corvus, or raven, the ramp dropped and created a bridge between fighting ships. Thusly, the quinqueremes delivered infantrymen to the enemy during sea battles. Plus, the quinqueremes carried archers and ballistae for raining down arrows and sweeping their adversary’s deck with iron bolts. Adding to the litany of offensive weapons was a hefty bronze ram jutting from the bow, just below the surface of the water. Looking at the qualifications, there was little wonder why the Senate agreed to construct 100 quinqueremes. Although amazing warships, the variety of weapons eliminated them from contention as our ancient smart weapon.
At first, the inclusion of 20 triremes by the Roman Senate appeared odd. Quinqueremes were superior for hauling Legionaries, deploying ancient artillery, and speeding over distances. Slower and a little unbalanced, the triremes, with three banks of oarsmen, seemed to be a waste of money. Compare the expense of building a trireme at 130 feet in length by 20 feet wide with the differential cost of constructing a quinquereme at 148 feet and 24 feet wide. The expense of building the additional length and width was negligible. Then why build triremes? Because they did one thing very well. In fact, one could argue the ‘threes’ were created for a specific use.
Success in ancient warfare at sea came from boarding and ramming. The nimble triremes didn’t carry enough Legionaries to be a boarding threat unless the Centurion/Captain freed up some of his rowers. However, the triremes were quick. While the quinqueremes had a higher sustainable speed, from dead in the water to a top speed of 7 knots, the triremes were the better sprinters. Fast and maneuverable, the trireme excelled at bringing its bronze ram to bear on enemy ships. As if a sea missile, the warship came in at the attack angle, gutted the enemy’s sideboards, then circled around seeking another target. With a tight turning radius and the ability to dodge and close with any size ship, triremes were ramming machines.
Displaying extraordinary accuracy with an ability to follow its target and being created for a specific purpose, the hunter-killers of the ancient seas were the ‘threes’. I submit to you that the one system qualifying as an ancient smart weapon was the trireme warship.
J. Clifton Slater
I am J. Clifton Slater and I write Military Adventure both Future and Ancient.
The question of how the Legionaries heard commands while in combat came to me while doing research for my historical adventure series. The Clay Warrior Stories are books set in the framework of the First Punic War. They are epic tales designed to make you want to strap on a shield, grab a gladius, and join a Century’s battle line.
Available on Amazon.com in paperback, Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited.
Clay Warrior Stories
Set in the backdrop of the 1st Punic War, the books tell the tales of a hot-headed young swordsman in the growing Republic.
The Clay Warrior Stories are Available at Amazon.com in paperback, on Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited.