Octavian Chronicle #9, Battle of Naulochus-36 BC, tells the whole story.
On September 3, 36 BC, the three hundred ships of Sextus Pompey’s fleet were lined up along the northeast coastline of Sicily, facing north. Behind them, stood the port city of Naulochus. Octavian had three hundred ships under the command of his good friend, Marcus Agrippa. They were lined up directly across from and facing Sextus’ fleet. A great sea battle was about to begin. Sextus had all but lost the land battle for Sicily, so his only chance for victory was to defeat Marcus Agrippa who had never fought a sea battle. Sextus believed he had the upper hand, but he had no idea of Agrippa’s strategy which included a secret weapon he’d personally invented. Had he known, he might not have issued the challenge which Octavian and Agrippa are about to discuss here.
Sextus Pompey was out on the porch of his villa when his land army commander, Tisienus, arrived.
“Have a seat,” said Sextus. “I’m anxious to hear what you have to say.”
“The situation isn’t good. Lepidus is camped nearby to the west with his legions. Cornificius has been able to march north and join his army with Agrippa’s land army at Mylae. Once Agrippa gained control on the north shore, their soldiers have been landing there steadily. By my count, they have a total of one hundred thousand infantry, twenty thousand cavalry and five thousand light-armed troops on land here in Sicily. We’re surrounded, and they’re cutting off our supplies.”
Sextus shook his head and said quietly, “That’s a lot more men than I thought. There’s no way we can defeat them on land. The only chance we have to win is in a sea battle.”
“How can you do that? Why should they fight us at sea when they don’t have to?”
“Caesar may not be able to resist a challenge. So I’m going to ask him to let this war be decided at sea. If he doesn’t, we’ll sail away with our best crews and as much as we can take with us.” Sextus handed a scroll to Tisienus. “Here. Have this delivered to him.”
Tisienus had a faint smile. “I guess you already knew what I was going to tell you.”
“Yeah. I had no idea it’d be this bad when we first started, but now ‘s come to this. I hope he accepts because I’ve had the height of our ships built up so that we won’t have to get as close to their ships to hurl our missiles at them. At Mylae, we had to get so close that we were in easy range of a short throw of their grappling hooks.”
“You can be sure that they’ll have large numbers of their land soldiers on their ships ready to board ours,” said Tisienus. “I agree. You want to avoid their grappling hooks at all costs.”
“That’s my plan,” said Sextus, “avoid their grappling hooks! If we do, I think we can win.”
Later that day, Octavian received Sextus’ message. He walked slowly to Agrippa’s tent while he read the message over a few more times. He walked in and handed it to him. “Tell me what you think. Every time I go to battle at sea, it turns out badly for me.”
Agrippa took the scroll and studied the message carefully, rubbing his chin as he did. Octavian sat down across from his good friend, not saying a thing, not wanting to disturb him while he was thinking. When he finished, Agrippa put the scroll down and said, “After what he’s done to our country, we’ll take Sicily by land whether we win the sea battle or not. I’ll make sure of that! As far as his offer, if we don’t fight him at sea, he’ll sail away and cause us trouble from some other port, so I think we have to accept it and defeat him once and for all.”
Octavian said, “From what our spies tell us he has no idea of the preparations you’ve made. I know you can defeat him. I’ll send a message back to Sextus right now.”
Agrippa said, “Tell him you find it hard to refuse a challenge. Let him think he’s drawn you in and outwitted you. Tell him we’ll meet him north of the city of Naulochus between Mylae and Pelorus. We definitely don’t want to fight him in the strait of Messana.”
“That’s right. He issued the challenge. We’ll pick the place of battle.” When Octavian stepped outside the tent, he saw Cornelius and waved him over.
“What is it, Caesar?”
“I’ll need you to send a messenger to Sextus to let him know we’re going to accept his challenge to fight him in a sea battle.”
“Why would we do that?” Cornelius was surprised. “We have him just about defeated on land!”
“Sextus proposed it,” said Octavian. “I think Agrippa can defeat him. If he does, we’ll be rid of Sextus for good, otherwise he’ll just sail away and cause us problems from some other place.”
“I guess you’re right,” said Cornelius, a frown on his face.