Sicily – Culture, Conquest and Battering Rams

Last week I enjoyed a nice afternoon off, checking out the British Museum’s “Sicily: Culture and Conquest”. I highly recommend it – the displays are fascinating, though somewhat crowded (as always). The exhibition focusses mainly on the Greek and Norman periods of Sicilian history, so go with that in mind if you’re expecting lots of lovely Roman, Punic or later Mediaeval artefacts too.

There is one Roman-era object that I was particularly thrilled to see, and I don’t think the display made clear just how exciting it is. (And so, of course, I had to start explaining it to everyone around me.) So here’s why this was actually the most exciting object in the exhibition.

rostrumrostrum 2

This is a battering ram (a rostrum*, or “beak”) from the front of a Roman ship. Not only is this a cool object in itself, but because of its location and the date of the inscriptions on the rams, the team who discovered it in 2011 realised that this – and half a dozen other rams found at the same time – could be dated to the Battle of the Aegetes Islands in 241 BC, one of the major sea-battles of the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Before this, only two battering rams had ever been recovered – now we have 11.

Not only does this make the battering ram one of the only direct pieces of evidence from a very important war in Rome’s early history, but this becomes one of the earliest “official” inscriptions in the history of Latin. (There are Latin inscriptions dating back as far as the seventh century BC, but the number of examples from before the third century BC longer than one word is barely in double figures.) The alphabet is clearly early – you can see for example, that the shape of the letter P doesn’t have a closed loop, making it look much more like a Greek <Π> (pi) than a Roman <P>. That’s not Greek influence – it’s just how some earlier Roman alphabets look. The inscription reads:

M. POPULICIO. L.F. Q.P.

C. PAPERIO. TI.F.

M(arcos) Populicio(s) L(ucii) f(ilios) q(uaestores) p(robaverunt) C(aios) Paperio(s) Ti(beri) f(ilios).
Marcus Publicius, son of Lucius (and) Gaius Papirius, son of Tiberius, quaestors, approved (this ram).
[trans. Jonathan Prag]

Even cooler – one of the other battering rams was from a Carthaginian ship, and had an inscription in Punic. You can see a picture of it, and its slightly more poetic inscription, in a book called Carthage: Fact and Myth.

The British Museum’s tumblr page has a bit of a fuller explanation of the battering ram and the First Punic War; there’s also a nice explanation of the discovery of the rams by the University of Nottingham team over on the Daily Mail.

If you’d like to find out more about the inscriptions on all of the rams from the battle, and see more pictures of the rams, you can read Francesca Oliveri’s article here, or for more detail on all the inscriptions and their letters shapes, you can read Jonathan Prag’s article here.

*In case you’re wondering what’s going on with this word, rostrum means “beak” in Latin, and also refers to the battering rams on the fronts of ships, which look like beaks. The platform in the Roman forum for speakers to stand on when making a speech was called the Rostra (“beaks”, from the plural of rostrum) because it was decorated with the beaks from the ships of the Antiates, which were confiscated by the Romans in exchange for citizenship (according to Livy). In modern English, we tend to turn it back into the Latin singular form “rostrum” when we talk about a speaking platform, but you hear both “rostra” and “rostrum”, I think.

Images from the British Museum.

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