The sea teems with a seemingly endless fleet of warships; a vast battle looms, ships crowd closer and closer to one another. Rows of oars froth up the sea, the frenzied water foreshadowing the impending combat. Standing at opposite ends of the two central ships are the leaders of warring factions. On one deck is the stoic Roman general Regulus, commanding his followers as they attempt to board an enemy ship. Opposing Regulus is the Carthaginian leader Hamilcar Barca, father of the famed general Hannibal. In fanciful reference to Hannibal, the Carthaginian prows are elephant heads armed with imposing ramming tusks.
Gabriel Jacques de Saint-Aubin meticulously described every detail of the foreground ships. He first drew the composition in black chalk and then used pen and ink to further articulate details of the ships, such as their masts and riggings, and the myriad figures. Using a limited palette of deftly applied watercolor--gray, brown, and blue--Saint-Aubin sensitively colored the sea and sky.
The first Punic War (264-241 BC) was a conflict largely fought at sea. Involving over three hundred vessels, the battle depicted here was one of the largest navel battles in history. The smaller Roman fleet defeated the Carthaginian by dividing their forces into four squadrons and waging four separate battles.
This drawing is one of a series of illustrations Saint-Aubin made in the 1760s for an ambitious history of Rome. Engravings after drawings as well as maps were to accompany this multi-volume series which was never completed. In 1789, twenty-nine engraved plates from Saint-Aubin's drawings illustrated a more modest Roman history.