The Battle of the Aegates shaped the future of the Roman Empire – and the world (Credit: Getty Images)

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For centuries, historians believed that any physical evidence of the pivotal Battle of the Aegates was long gone. Then came a chance discovery – which led to dozens of shipwrecks.

Dentists are not normally known for changing history. And yet a dentist in Sicily has played a small part in rewriting the history of one of Europe’s most important battles.

In the early 2000s, the late archaeologist Sebastiano Tusa was visiting the home of a dental surgeon in the town of Trapani when he noticed the bronze beak of a Roman ship, known as a rostrum, on full display.

The dentist told him that the artifact had come from a fisherman – who had paid for his dental work with it.

The dentist may not have recognized the rostrum’s significance, but Tusa suspected that it had originated from the famous Battle of the Aegates, which took place between the Roman Republic and the Carthaginians in 241BC. It was, after all, the era’s only known battle to have taken place in the Sicilian waters around Trapani.

The event marked the end of the First Punic War and the beginning of Rome’s dominance over the Mediterranean – an era that would last for almost 700 years.

Previously, historians hoping to understand the Battle of the Aegates had to rely on ancient historical accounts. Assuming, perhaps, that any relics would have long since disappeared, archaeologists simply hadn’t looked hard enough for the physical remains. But the chance finding in that dentist’s house, combined with divers’ anecdotes of other underwater treasures, inspired Tusa and his colleagues to launch dedicated underwater archaeological expeditions in the sea around Sicily – with enormous success.

The team have now unearthed the relics from dozens of shipwrecks – findings that are now painting a detailed picture of the battle. “No other naval battle from antiquity has been documented this well,” says Ferdinando Maurici, archaeologist and the head of Sicily’s Soprintendenza del Mare, a section of the Department for Cultural Heritage and Identity which overlooks the discovery and protection of cultural artefacts found in the sea around the island.

The Roman rostrums are often inscribed with the names of officials, giving historians another piece of the puzzle (Credit: Salvo Emma/Soprintendenza del Mare)

The rise of Rome

The First Punic War started in 264BC. In the previous decades, the Roman Republic had been expanding aggressively and now covered almost all of the Italian peninsula. Around the rest of the Mediterranean, however, Carthage controlled a large swathe of territory.

Beginning as a Phoenician city-state in modern-day Tunisia, Carthage had established colonies on the coast of North Africa, in southern Spain, and in Sardinia. Along the way, it had forged many trade networks with surrounding territories. “It was the economic benefits that pushed Carthage to make new conquests and form new colonies,” explains Francesca Oliveri, a historian and one of Soprintendenza del Mare’s archaeologists.

“Both the governments of Rome and Carthage were rivals for the dominance of the Mediterranean,” says Oliveri. “The Mediterranean basin was full of resources and materials that could serve these ‘superpowers’.”

By 264BC, that rivalry began to center on Sicily. The west of the island had been controlled by Carthage for centuries, while the east was occupied by Greek communities. A small group of mercenaries, known as the Mamertines, had a foothold in the city of Messana (modern-day Messina). In an ongoing dispute with the Greeks at Syracuse, the Mamertines asked both Carthage and Rome for support. Both obliged, moves that ultimately disrupted the delicate power balance in the region and triggered what would become a 23-year-long war.

While Rome had a stronger military force, they had largely fought on land, says Oliveri: “At the start of their expansion, they didn’t feel the need to have a fleet of ships and were not prepared for this naval war.” The Carthaginians, in contrast, had a large commercial fleet of ships that they could quickly convert for military use.

For both sides, the bronze rostrums – also known as naval rams – at the ships’ prows were the primary naval weapons. Weighing hundreds of kilograms, they could cause considerable damage when they hit the enemy boat. In some cases, the aim would be to sink the ship. In others, the rostrum would jam the oars so that the enemy ship could not escape as the soldiers took it over and plundered its resources.

The years of war proved to be extremely punishing to both the Carthaginians and the Romans. “It was very costly, both in terms of human life and economically,” says Oliveri. “In the last phase Rome even had to ask for a loan from the most well-to-do families to arm the fleet and build new boats.”

The last battle took place around the Aegadian Islands off the western coast of Sicily, when Romans intercepted ships carrying much-needed supplies to Carthaginian troops caught in a siege on Monte Erice. The exhausted army had no choice but to surrender. “And Sicily became Roman,” Oliveri says.

Oliveri says that many factors – including the strength and direction of the wind – contributed to the Roman victory, and world history may have been very different if the Carthaginians had instead triumphed. “Rome could have been limited to the Italian peninsula, while Carthage would have established more new colonies surrounding the Mediterranean – arriving, to the east, at the edge of the Persian Empire.” If they had not been weakened, they might have even extended their sphere of influence northwards, she suggests – perhaps as far as Britain.

Divers examine war helmets underwater at the site of the Battle of the Aegates (Credit: Jarrod Jablonski/Soprintendenza del Mare)

Blood-red rocks

For millennia, the primary account of this world-changing battle had been the work of the Greek historian Polybius, writing in the 2nd Century BC. Unfortunately, he was rather vague on some of the essential details, such as where exactly it took place. “We were handed down a narrative that certainly cited the Aegadian Islands, but it didn’t specify the precise location,” explains Maurici.

According to legend, the battle took place near Cala Rossa, a cove on the island of Favignana – the largest of the Aegadian Islands. Cala Rossa is so-called because of the intense color of the rocks, which were said to have been dyed by the blood of the Carthaginians who died in the battle. In reality, it is simply red algae that have colored the rocks. “The story was without foundation,” says Maurici.

Tusa, for one, was unconvinced that Favignana was the site of the battle – thanks, in part, to his visit to the dentist’s house. The dentist told him that the rostrum had been discovered off the coast of Levanzo, an island to the north of Favignana.

This seemed to tally with another diver’s report that around Capo Grosso on the north of the island, you could find around 100 anchors on the sea, all perfectly aligned. “It was as if the ropes had been cut so that the boats could sail away as quickly as possible,” says Salvatore Emma, one of Tusa’s close collaborators and a spokesperson for the Soprintendenza del Mare. Perhaps the Romans had been hiding their fleet behind one of Levanzo’s cliffs – allowing them to launch a stealthy attack as the Carthaginians approached.

Inspired by these reports, Tusa and the Soprintendenza del Mare began rigorous underwater excavations near Levanzo in earnest in the early 2000s. Not only did they confirm the presence and location of the anchors – they’ve started to unearth countless other relics from the famous battle, as well.

Many of their discoveries have only been possible with advanced technology provided by the RPM Nautical Foundation, a non-profit devoted to maritime archaeology around the Mediterranean.

The research takes place on a boat called Hercules, which is equipped with sophisticated multibeam sonar which sends sound waves through the water beneath the boat. By measuring the reflected soundwaves, the team can build a topographical map of the seafloor. To fill in the fine details, an autonomous underwater vehicle or AUV, developed with the University of Malta, travels closer to the bed and highlights any small anomalies on the seabed that might signal the site of a shipwreck.

Once they have identified areas of interest, a small remotely operated vehicle (ROV) travels to the region and captures photos of the underwater environment – information that will help to guide divers to the potential artefacts.

The use of this technology has vastly accelerated the archaeological research. “An ROV can remain underwater all day or longer and with continuous video feed to the control room,” says James Goold, the chair of RPM Nautical Foundation. “We cover up to 5km (3.1 miles) day of searching the seabed [for artefacts] with all of it recorded on video and with continuous exact location reporting.” Human divers, in contrast, can only operate safely for about an hour at a time, and they can’t cover the same distances – so it’s much more efficient to only engage them once a precise location has been identified.

Through this research, the team have so far discovered 25 fallen rostrums. Goold tells me that the wood has disintegrated, leaving only the bronze. Strangely, the divers have found that the hollowed-out insides are often filled with small objects such as coins. This, he says, is the work of octopuses, who have turned the rostrums into temporary dens. They have a magpie-like tendency to pick up treasure – and fill their homes with trinkets. “They are inveterate collectors,” he says. “They’ll take anything they can get their hands – or tentacles – on.”

A rostrum from the Battle of the Aegates is recovered and brought onto the ship Hercules (Credit: Salvo Emma/Soprintendenza del Mare)

The rostrums themselves are often inscribed. For the Roman remains, the inscriptions often include the names of Roman officials such as magistrates, who may have approved the building of the ships – discoveries that are helping historians to understand the bureaucracy and governance of the Republic at that time. The Carthaginian engravings were more likely to invoke the god Baal, with curses against the Romans – although some do also offer the names of important personages, says Oliveri, which might offer us insights into the structure of their society.

Besides the bronze rostrums, the archaeologists have also uncovered around 40 helmets from both sides of the battle. “They are very evocative, because each one could correspond to an identifiable person,” Goold told BBC Future as he showed us a map charting the finds. “We’ve saved sediment from inside some of the helmets to have it tested for DNA – because theoretically, it could have survived.” This could tell us a bit more about the kinds of people who were fighting.

Goold shows us lead projectiles that would have been fired from a sling. Each one weighs as much as a .30-calibre bullet, he says – and could have travelled at up to 100mph (160km/h).

The team also have uncovered large numbers of amphorae that will have carried food supplies and the tableware used by the shipmates, says Oliveri. “We are finding so many things that help to illustrate a little better the world of the 3rd Century BC,” she says. “It’s the first site of a naval battle, in the world, that has been scientifically documented like this, and it will continue to be documented – because the area of interest is very large… It will take at least another 20 years to explore it fully.”

Sebastiano Tusa admires an ancient rostrum recovered from the sea near Trapani (Credit: Derk Remmers/Soprintendenze del Mare)

Tragedy and hope

Sadly, Sebastiano Tusa will not be able to see the final results of his research – and of his intuition. He died in the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in 2019 while travelling to a Unesco conference. Eerily, the crash occurred on 10 March, commonly thought to be the anniversary of the Battle of the Aegates.

This year, the Soprintendenza del Mare opened exhibitions in Favignana and Palermo to celebrate Tusa’s life and work. The day of his death was marked as “Sicilian Cultural Heritage Day“, with free public access to the island’s museums, galleries and libraries.

Tusa’s friends, family and colleagues remember him as a meticulous scholar who drew on many different sources. He listened attentively to the stories of local fishermen and divers, whose observations of the sea environment helped him to identify the island of Levanzo as the starting point of the battle. “He knew how to talk to everyone,” says his wife, Valeria Li Vigni, who initially took over the management of the Soprintendenza del Mare after Tusa’s death, before retiring this year. “And it was this ability, and his tenacity, combined with the historical sources and the archaeological data, that allowed him to confirm his theories about the Battle of the Aegates.”

Tusa’s legacy, then, is not only his astonishing contributions to ancient history. His life and work should remind us to always follow our curiosity, to leave no stone unturned in our search for the truth.

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