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Roman rams – bureaucracy without limits

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Researchers have been looking for relics of Punic Wars for years. Underwater archaeology is very helpful in this. The seabed off the coast of Sicily has been explored for years, in the Aegean Islands (currently Aegadian Islands, or simply Aegadian Islands), where March 10, 241 BCE, during the First Punic War there was a battle between Carthage’s fleet and the Roman fleet. In the course of the work, numerous rams (rostrum) were discovered and excavated, once menacingly mounted on the beaks of Roman and Carthaginian warships. Since they were cast in bronze, the rams did not corrode and remained in excellent condition.

The extracted rams were cast by means of the lost wax method popular in antiquity (cire perdue). The ram pattern was made of wax, then it was covered with plaster or other mass resistant to very high temperatures. The next step was to melt the wax from the mould so formed, then molten metal was poured into it. After the metal had cooled down, the mould was broken. Taran was cast directly on the wooden bow of the warship. The rams had beautiful decorations.

The good condition of the excavated artefacts allows you to read the inscriptions that were embossed on them. Inscriptions are much more common on Roman rams than Carthaginian ones. Their message is also completely different. Carthaginians if they were already writing inscriptions on their rams, they were asking gods for prosperity in the upcoming battles. One of the discovered Punic rams today calls: “We pray to Ba’al that this ram will penetrate the enemy ship and make a big hole”.

Inscriptions adorning the Roman rams, on the other hand, are an example of the legendary Roman bureaucracy and all have similar connotations, e.g. “Lucius Quinctius, son of Gaius, quaestor, approved this ram”. However, records of this type also prove that meticulous quality control was used in ancient Rome.

Receipt certificates on Roman rams extracted from the waters of the Mediterranean off the coast of the Aegadian Islands also allowed us to expand our knowledge of the ancient battle. One of the rams was picked up by the Quaestors of Marcus Publicius, son of Lucius, and Caius Papirus, son of Tiberius. The first of these was probably Marcus Publicius Malleolus, consul in 232 BCE, who could be the quaestor around 250 BCE. This, in turn, brings us to an interesting thought. Namely, since, according to Polybius, only new ships, built shortly before the start, took part in the battle, it is unlikely that a ship with a ram was cast in 250 BCE This, in turn, proves that off the coast of the Egadi Islands, the Punic fleet included ships captured on the Romans in 249 BCE under Drapenum!

So far, at least 12 rams have been found, but the research is ongoing, so we can expect more revelations.

Author: Krzysztof Kaucz
  • Mary Beard, Historia Starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2017
  • Will Mather, A Roman rostrum
  • Polibius, The Histories, Wrocław 1957
  • Photo: Giuseppe Rava from Osprey book: "Republican Roman Warships".

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