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One of the naval Roman battering rams being hoisted from the sea near Ustica Island, Italy.	Source: RPM Nautical Foundation

Divers Find Four Naval Roman Battering Rams From the 241 BC Punic War


Four ancient bronze Roman battering rams, the kind used at the front of a battleship, have been discovered by divers near Ustica Island, north of Palermo, Italy. These rare artifacts of ancient naval warfare are perfect examples of Roman engineering skills and one of the reasons why they beat the Carthaginians in 3rd century BC battles.

A team of underwater divers exploring the seafloor east of Sicily were examining the stuffed holds of sunken cargo vessels, when the four giant, corroding monsters of ancient naval warfare emerged from the silt. It is believed the four Roman battering rams (also known as Roman rostrums) were used on Roman ships at the famous Battle of the Aegates that ended the First Punic War.

A side view of one of the naval Roman battering rams (or Roman rostrums) found near Ustica Island, Italy. The left side would have been attached to the front of the warship and the right side would have been the end that sunk enemy ships. (RPM Nautical Foundation)

Roman Battering Rams Were Used Against Carthage Fleet

It was Greek historian Polybius, and Diodorus of Sicily, who recorded the Battle of the Aegates occurring around the Aegadian Islands on March 10, 241 BC. At this momentous battle Roman warships sank 50 ships of the Carthaginian fleet and seized another 70. The battle ended with Carthage, the capital city of the ancient Carthaginian civilization, on the eastern side of the Lake of Tunis in what is now Tunisia, surrendering Sicily to the Romans.

The site of the battle was first identified in 2010 by the Italian archaeologist Sebastiano Tusa after a fisherman recovered a battering ram from the famous conflict. Now, divers from the Sicilian Marine Archaeology Unit and the RPM Nautical Foundation have recovered four more Roman battering rams from the site. Originally attached to the bows of four Roman warships these fearsome ancient bronze battering rams each weigh around 200 kilograms (450 pounds).

This is another of the Roman battering rams found near Ustica Island, Italy. (RPM Nautical Foundation)

The Romans Learned About Better Ships From The Carthaginians

Valeria Livigni, from the Marine Archaeology Unit in Sicily, told The Times that the four recently recovered Roman battering rams were found among the wrecks of three merchant vessels containing loads of ceramic jars. Livigni said one of the three cargo ships had more than 200 jars still piled up on board “including some that contained traces of wine”.

While the exact spot has not been released, the archaeologists said the finds were made “among the Aegadian Islands, near the island of Ustica and off the coast of Isola delle Femmine.”

The devastation of the Carthaginian fleet by the Romans during the Battle of the Aegates was so significant that it ended the First Punic War. This was the first of three wars fought between Rome in Italy and Carthage for control of the western Mediterranean in the early 3rd century BC.

Realizing a seaborne attack would be the only way to conquer Carthage, in the year prior to the conflict Romans engineers had copied Carthaginian ship designs for their fleet. Though the ships may have been adaptations of Carthaginian designs the Roman copies were not heavily laden with cargo during the battle. And the naval Roman battering rams were way better than the ones made by the Carthaginians.

This is what a Roman warship used in the Battle of the Aegates against the naval forces of Carthage would have looked like. Note the battering ram (or Roman rostrum) on the left at the front of the ship. (Australian National Maritime Museum)

Overall, The Roman Battering Rams Were Superior!

Each of the four Roman battering rams has three grotesque blades on each side that were custom designed to splinter the hulls of Carthaginian vessels. Livigni told the Times that the Carthaginian rams were “less well made than the Roman rams.”

Where Roman rams have inscriptions from judges verifying they were made according to engineering standards, Carthaginian rams often have inscriptions dedicated to their god Baal. The appearance of this chief weather deity, who controlled fertility and agricultural success at Carthage, is telling. It would seem that while Roman commanders depended on rules of construction and engineering standards, their enemies leaned on luck and fortune given by their deities.

At the battle, it is believed lighter Roman vessels rowed into position before engaging the poorly manned Carthaginian fleet, which was laden down with heavy loads of supplies destined for the sieged ports of Drepana and Lilybaeum(modern Marsala). RPM Nautical Foundation's David Ruff told the Times that both Romans and Carthaginians tried to “ram each other broadside” and that the lighter and better manned Roman ships out maneuvered their enemies. After the sea battle, Sicily was once again under Roman control. These four naval Roman battering rams, therefore, are artifacts from an event that entirely changed the face of the future the ancient Mediterranean world.

Top image: One of the naval Roman battering rams being hoisted from the sea near Ustica Island, Italy.  Source: RPM Nautical Foundation

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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