A Guide To The Roman Corvus

Key Point: The Roman Corvus was a boarding device used by the Roman navy during the First Punic War. It was a spiked boarding bridge that could be dropped onto an enemy ship, allowing Roman soldiers to board and engage in hand-to-hand combat.

In this article, we will discuss the Roman Corvus. What the Corvus is, why it was invented, and how it was used. So, by the time you finish this article, you will know what there is to know about the weapon that helped Rome win the war against Carthage.

Now, as always before we continue I will give you the definition of what a Corvus is. So, what is a Corvus?

The Corvus was a wooden bridge, with a pike at the end, that the Ancient Romans attached to their warships. The Corvus was lowered on the deck of the enemy ships connecting it to the attacking ship. That allowed the Roman soldiers to cross over to the enemy vessel and engage in hand-to-hand combat.

In essence, it was a way for Roman soldiers on ships to engage with soldiers on enemy ships in hand-to-hand combat. Now let’s get a little more detail about the Corvus. Starting with …

The Origin Of The Corvus

The Corvus was invented by the Ancient Romans. More specifically by the Roman admiral Gaius Duilius. So, what was the purpose of the Corvus, and why did they have the need to invent it?

Why The Corvus Was Invented

Well, the young Roman republic had a problem. And a big one. They were engaged in a fight for control of the Mediterranean with a naval power, Carthage. The Carthaginians were kicking Romes behind in the seas, while Rome could hold its own and actually win in land battles. So, one side was good at naval battles, while the other had superior soldiers.

So, the Romans decided to even the odds. They made the Corvus for the sole purpose of allowing their soldiers to attack the Carthaginian’s warships. The premise was simple. Turn the engagement into hand-to-hand combat. That was something the Romans were good at.

So, they made a large wooden bridge they placed at the end of their warships. Which enabled the Roman soldiers to board Carthaginian ships. And do their job.

How It Worked

Here is a brief description of how Corvus worked from the book I used as a source while writing this:

This pontoon, 18ft long and 4ft broad, was attached to a pillar of wood set up by the bowsprit, from which it was dropped when the two ships came in contact.” – pg 32, Republican Roman Warships 509 – 27 B.C.

The Corvus was constructed from a long plank of wood that was fitted with a metal spike at the end. The plank was mounted on a swivel mechanism that allowed it to be raised or lowered onto an enemy ship. The purpose of the spike, I mentioned, was to anchor the enemy ship, and stop it from escaping. The Roman soldiers would then cross over to the enemy vessel and engage in close combat.

So, at this point, you are probably wondering: How effective was this really? Good question. Let’s examine that!

How Effective Was The Corvus?

For a weapon with such a simple concept, it was surprisingly effective. It gave the Romans an equal footing with the Carthaginians during the first punic war. And actually gave them a few naval wins during the war.

Famous Battles Where It Was Used

The most notable battles where the Corvus was used were the Battle of Mylae, and the Battle of Ecnomus, in both battles the Romans won a decisive victory against the Carthaginians. Which just goes to show how much of a game-changer this weapon was for the Romans.

This begs the question. Why was the Corvus eliminated from the use by the Romans if it was so effective?

Why Did It Stop Being Used?

Despite it being quite effective, the Corvus had a few downsides. Which played a part in it being eliminated from use in the Mediterranean. The disadvantages of the Corvus were:

  • size and weight
  • the cost of building it

If you and I take a look at the first point. Size and weight. carrying a giant wooden bridge with a metal spike at one end of the ship made the ship heavier and slower. And on top of that, all that weight on one end of the ship also made it unstable in rough seas. Which increased the chances of the ship capsizing during storms.

The second part was the cost. It cost money to build a ship that was specifically designed to carry a Corvus. And frankly, after the Punic wars, the Romans didn’t have that many naval powers to fight against. So, investing money into building a weapon that was as effective as a larger ship and better-trained crewmen was not that practical.

So, the Roman Corvus fell out of use for those particular reasons.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. If you wish to continue learning about naval weapons I suggest taking a look at my article on the Roman trireme, right here.

Sources: Republican Roman Warships 509–27 BC (New Vanguard)

Take care!