A Dentist Who Changed History


  • Weighing hundreds of kilograms, they could cause considerable damage when they hit the enemy boat.
  • “It was very costly, both in terms of human life and economically,” says Oliveri. 
  • “The exhausted army had no choice but to surrender. “

For generations, historians assumed that any physical evidence of the decisive Battle of the Aegates had vanished. Then there was an accidental finding, which led to the discovery of scores of shipwrecks as reported by BBC.

Changing history 

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.

The dentist may not have recognised 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.

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 rise of Rome

In the previous decades, the Roman Republic had been expanding aggressively and now covered almost all of the Italian peninsula.

“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.

In some cases, the aim would be to sink the ship.

The exhausted army had no choice but to surrender. 

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.”

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. 

Cala Rossa is so-called because of the intense colour 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 coloured the rocks. 

“The story was without foundation,” says Maurici.

This seemed totally 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. 

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.

To fill in the fine details, an autonomous underwater vehicle or AUV, developed by 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.

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.

“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. 

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.

“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.”

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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Source: BBC


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