Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter June 11, 2021

Ancient Roman Naval Rams as Objects of Phallic Power

Stephen DeCasien ORCID logo

Abstract

Polyvalent meanings behind naval ram displays were prevalent and ingrained in the Roman world, especially at Octavian’s Campsite Memorial for the Actian War. Naval rams and their display alluded to gender and power discourses within Roman society. These discourses included Roman notions of sex, penetration, domination, phallus size, and ideas of achieved hierarchies of masculinity. Analyzing ram displays through Roman perceptions of gender and sexuality, specifically concerning ancient masculinity, reveals that rams functioned not only as weapons of war but also as metaphorical phalloi that embodied and projected immense power. Octavian’s ram display at Actium was used to effeminize Marc Antony through the successful defeat and figurative castration of his fleet, which was done by cutting off the rams from the bows of the warships. By exhibiting the rams as such, Octavian asserted his own impenetrability and masculine virtue, which simultaneously promoted Antony’s penetrability and lack of masculinity. In choosing the largest rams, Octavian implied that his masculine prowess was invincible. The ram display unveiled Octavian’s phallic dominion over all other Greeks and Romans. As Octavian’s naval ram display was the largest and most impressive of the ancient world, he effectively rendered all previous ram dedications subordinate to his own.

Acknowledgment

I am greatly indebted to Dr. Julie Langford and Dr. William M. Murray for their invaluable support and inspiration. A special thanks to the editor of this journal, Dr. Gary Farney, for his constructive comments. I am also grateful for the assistance given by Alixandra Waitman and my former colleagues at the University of South Florida.

Bibliography

Adams, J. N. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. London: Duckworth, 1982.Search in Google Scholar

Adams, J. R., et al. “The Belgammel Ram, a Hellenistic-Roman bronze proembolion found off the coast of Libya: test analysis of function, date and metallurgy, with a digital reference archive.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 42 (2013): 60–75.10.1111/1095-9270.12001Search in Google Scholar

Casson, L. and J. Steffy. The Athlit Ram. College Station: Texas A&M U. P., 1991.Search in Google Scholar

Dover, K. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 1978. Search in Google Scholar

Erickson, B. “Falling masts, rising masters: the ethnography of virtue in Caesar's account of the Veneti.” AJPh 123 (2002): 601–622.10.1353/ajp.2003.0004Search in Google Scholar

Gleason, M. Making Men. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1995.Search in Google Scholar

Hallett, J. “Making manhood hard: Tiberius and Latin literary representations of erectile dysfunction.” In Masterson, Rabinowitz and Robson 2014, 408–421.Search in Google Scholar

Hallett, J. “Perusinae glandes and the changing image of Augustus.” AJAH 2 (1977): 151–171. 10.31826/9781463237202-005Search in Google Scholar

Hallett, J. and M. Skinner, editors. Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1997.10.1515/9780691219547Search in Google Scholar

Henderson, J. The Maculate Muse. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1991.Search in Google Scholar

Johns, C. Sex or Symbol? New York: Routledge, 1982.Search in Google Scholar

Kamen, D. and S. Levin-Richardson. “Revisiting Roman sexuality: agency and the conceptualization of penetrated males.” In Masterson, Rabinowitz and Robson 2014, 449–460.Search in Google Scholar

Kellum, B. “Concealing/revealing: gender and the play of meaning in the monuments of Augustan Rome.” In Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome, edited by M. Golden and P. Toohey, 277–289. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U. P., 2008.Search in Google Scholar

Kellum, B. “The phallus as signifier: the Forum of Augustus and rituals of masculinity.” In Sexuality in Ancient Art, edited by N. Kampen, 170–183. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 1996.Search in Google Scholar

Kleiner, D. “Politics and gender in the pictorial propaganda of Antony and Octavian.” Echos du monde classique 36 (1992): 357–367.Search in Google Scholar

Kromayer, J. “Kleine Forschungen zur Geschichte des zweiten Triumvirats. VII. Der Feldzug von Actium und der sogenannte Verrath der Cleopatra.” Hermes 34 (1899): 1–54.Search in Google Scholar

Lemonnier, P. Mundane Objects. New York: Routledge, 2012.Search in Google Scholar

Mark, S. “The earliest naval ram.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 37 (2008): 253–272.10.1111/j.1095-9270.2008.00182.xSearch in Google Scholar

Masterson, M. “Studies of ancient masculinity.” In A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, edited by T. Hubbard, 17–30. Chichester: Blackwell, 2014. 10.1002/9781118610657.ch2Search in Google Scholar

Masterson, M., N. Rabinowitz and J. Robson, editors. Sex in Antiquity, New York: Routledge, 2014.Search in Google Scholar

Mattingly, D. Imperialism, Power, and Identity. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 2011.Search in Google Scholar

McDonnell, M. Roman Manliness. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2006.Search in Google Scholar

Morrison, J. The Age of the Galley. London: Conway Maritime, 2004.Search in Google Scholar

Murgatroyd, P. “‘Militia amoris’ and the Roman elegists.” Latomus 34 (1975): 59–79. Search in Google Scholar

Murray, W. and P. Petsas. “Octavian's campsite memorial for the Actian War.” TAPhS 79 (1989): 1–172.10.2307/1006504Search in Google Scholar

Murray, W. The Age of Titans. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 2012.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195388640.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Neilson, H. “A terracotta phallus from Pisa Ship E: more evidence for the Priapus deity as protector of Greek and Roman navigators.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 31 (2007): 248–253.10.1111/j.1095-9270.2002.tb01418.xSearch in Google Scholar

Olson, K. Masculinity and Dress in Roman Antiquity. New York: Routledge, 2017. 10.4324/9781315678887Search in Google Scholar

Oron, A. “The Athlit Ram bronze casting reconsidered: scientific and technical reexamination.” Journal of Archaeology Science 33 (2006): 63–76.10.1016/j.jas.2005.06.014Search in Google Scholar

Ostenburg, I. Staging the World. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2009. Search in Google Scholar

Parker, H. “The teratogenic grid.” In Hallett and Skinner 1997, 47–65. 10.1515/9780691219547-004Search in Google Scholar

Phang, S. Roman Military Service. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2008.10.1017/CBO9780511497872Search in Google Scholar

Prag, J. “Bronze rostra from the Egadi Islands off NW Sicily: the Latin inscriptions.” JRS 27 (2014): 33–59.10.1017/S1047759414001159Search in Google Scholar

Prag, J. “Cave navem.” CQ 56 (2006): 538–547.10.1017/S0009838806000528Search in Google Scholar

Richlin, A. The Garden of Priapus. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1992. Search in Google Scholar

Shipp, G. Modern Greek Evidence for Ancient Greek Vocabulary. Sydney: International Scholarly Book Services, 1979. Search in Google Scholar

Skinner, M. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.Search in Google Scholar

Steinby, C. Rome versus Carthage. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2014.Search in Google Scholar

Streuding, J. “Success at Sea: maritime votive offerings and naval dedications in antiquity.” MA Thesis, Texas A&M University, 2014. Search in Google Scholar

Walters, J. “Invading the Roman body: manliness and impenetrability in Roman thought.” In Hallett and Skinner 1997, 29–43. 10.1515/9780691219547-003Search in Google Scholar

Wescoat, B. “Buildings for votive ships on Delos and Samothrace.” In Architecture and Archaeology in the Cyclades, edited by M. Yeloulanou and M. Samatopoulou, 153–172. Oxford: BAR, 2005Search in Google Scholar

Whitmore, A. “Phallic magic: a cross cultural approach to Roman phallic small finds.” In Material Approaches to Roman Magic, edited by A. Parker and S. McKie, 17–31. Havertown: Oxbow, 2018.Search in Google Scholar

Williams, C. Roman Homosexuality. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 2010.Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2021-06-11
Published in Print: 2021-06-26

© 2021 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston