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Ancient Roman Naval Rams as Objects of Phallic Power

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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.


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.


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

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