What’s in a word: Rostrum

When you speak in front of people, you “take the rostrum“. Literally, you are “taking the beak”. The what? Why would you do anything so odd when everybody is watching?

It turns out that, like so much else in our lives, our phrase for pulpit or lectern–ie, rostrum–has everything to do with the story that forms the historical backdrop for the main characters in my forthcoming book. Recall that we left off describing the foolish and tragicomic cock-up that led to two world wars and then a genocide. Well, the first of those wars “produced” quite a bit of flotsam, which the Romans called rostra.

We are talking now about the 23-year-long First Punic War between Rome and Carthage that started in 264 BCE. This war was about the island of Sicily. Both the Romans and the Carthaginians rather wanted it. There was a lot of fighting on the actual island, but the most dramatic and spectacular battles were sea battles. In fact, one of these may have been the single largest naval battle in all of history, involving 200,000 sailors and soldiers!

If you’ve been reading The Hannibal Blog for a while, this might strike you as odd. Yes, Carthage was a great naval power, so that makes sense. But Rome was not. In fact, Rome had no navy at all at the start of the war.

Well, the Romans changed that. At one point, they captured a Carthaginian ship, studied it, and copied it again and again, until they had an entire fleet. This was the ‘reverse-engineering’ part.

517px-corvussvgNext came a bit of innovation. They added an ingenious weapon to their ships. This was the “raven” (corvus), a large swivel bridge that the Romans brought crashing down onto an enemy ship when they pulled up alongside of it. The two ships were then tied together as a large floating platform, and the Roman soldiers stormed across. In effect, the Romans had thereby found a way to turn sea battles into land battles, and they tended to win land battles.

Now to those rostra, or beaks: It’s what the Romans called the prows of galleys. After their first big naval victory, the Carthaginian ships were sinking or floating in the water in pieces, so the Romans fished out the prows, brought them to Rome and stuck them onto the speaker’s pulpit in the Forum, as in the image at the very top of this post.

It was the equivalent, you might say, of an Indian hanging the scalps of his enemies above his tent.

And so, ever since, speakers in Rome and elsewhere have been taking the beak.

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5 thoughts on “What’s in a word: Rostrum

  1. Was your man Hannibal among those defeated at sea by the Romans? He didn’t have such good luck at sea, did he?

  2. No, Hannibal was not in this war, although his father was (more about that soon). Hannibal was born at the end of this war, and then of course became the central figure in the next war, which he started.
    But Hannibal, as an old man in the employ of a Hellenistic king in the East, did lose a naval battle against allies of the Romans. So yes, he was a land guy.

  3. Thanks for this rostrum post. Love the historical background and connecting imagery. Love the simplicity in tone. I sometimes see myself as a sawfish for artistic and philosophical perspectives. I’ve used this imaginative technique as I migrate through turbulent mental streams to calm seas of life. The rostrum(beak) of the sawfish is a tool(weapon) for carving its existence, catching food, growing, flourishing… political metaphors for the taking. lluminating!

    Adam Brown

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