Viewing a single comment thread. View all comments

RabidMortal t1_jck1nnw wrote

How exactly were these attached to the ships? If the ram got stuck in the target ship, was there any way to detach the ram??


lovebus t1_jck3q1v wrote

Well ideally the other ship would sink and the wood would just break


Archmagnance1 t1_jckl57b wrote

Its unlikely the ship would sink from this alone and if you hit at a shallow angle its not hard to imagine ships getting stuck and the more intact ship would aid in the buoyancy of the rammed ship.

Ships can float with water in them, and the water doesn't like to fill the ship when the pressure difference on either side of the hole is equal. This tends the happen when the water level reaches the top of the hole. If the weight of that isn't enough to overcome the boyancy of said ship / ships in tandem then it stops sinking.

It was still very hard to sink ships in the age of sail with cannons, even when within boarding distance and cannons were angled to shoot down through the bottom of the opposing ship.


Ramguy2014 t1_jcksbqg wrote

So, what strategy was employed with naval rams? Was it used as a boarding aid, or to destroy an enemy ship entirely? If it’s the former, it seems it would be better if it got stuck in the enemy ship, but the latter would require the attacker to be able to quickly detach so as not to get dragged down with it.


eyeCinfinitee t1_jcl5k5h wrote

It sorta depends. While the idea of putting a ram on a ship and just going “bonk” is pretty intuitive, there’s some nuance to it.

Ancient vessels got quite large, and could have crews numbering in the hundreds depending on size and the number of oars. Some larger vessels would such as a quinquereme would likely be able to withstand more than one bonk, which might be catastrophic to a smaller bireme or trireme. By necessity the oarsmen were close to or under the waterline, and as such were rather vulnerable. A breach caused by a ram could flood the lower levels of a galley and force the oarsmen to either abandon their post or drown. It’s similar to a mobility kill in armored warfare, where you knock a tread or a wheel off of a vehicle. Galleys are unusual in the sense that as long as the seas are calm they’re very maneuverable, and if the first bonk was insufficient an experienced crew would be able to reverse and bonk once again.

Most galleys carried a contingent of what we would now call Marines, either to defend the ship in case it got stuck or to attack the crew of the ship it was stuck to. The Romans famously committed themselves to this during the first Punic War. Inexperienced with naval warfare but possessing phenomenal heavy infantry, they used a device called a Corvus to turn naval engagements into infantry engagements.

Fire was another ancient favorite, for obvious reasons, but could be a high risk endeavor. A burning ship could ignite anything nearby, and weapons such as fire ships were almost totally at the mercy of the wind.

Large fleet engagements could also turn into pseudo-land battles, as galleys rammed each other and became interlocked. Crews would fight hand to hand deck to deck, with a very real danger of the ship they were standing in sinking or burning down as the battle progressed.

Of course we don’t know a whole lot about ancient naval warfare, as the article states, and what we do know is the source of serious contention between archeologists and classicists. There are however decent records regarding galley combat from the late medieval and early modern periods, with the arguable high point being the colossal Battle of Lepanto in 1571, but galleys continued to be used as warships as late as the early 19th century, where they squared off (and lost pretty badly) to American and Swedish warships during the Barbary War. I got a little carried away, but I hope this answered some of your questions!


samurguybri t1_jclcmxw wrote

Great response! Thanks.


eyeCinfinitee t1_jcldivt wrote

You’re welcome! Naval warfare has always been fascinating to me, I blame my dad for reading me Master and Commander as a bedtime story when I was a kid.


Astroglaid92 t1_jclhufk wrote

What game in your view has the best naval combat?


eyeCinfinitee t1_jclvojf wrote

When I was a teen I was obsessed with the naval combat in Empire Total War, although I now know that to be pretty flawed. Currently I would say it’s the Ultimate Admiral series. The first game (Age of Sail) is a masterpiece, and Dreadnoughts is excellent if a bit janky. There’s really no good Ancient era naval game, although I’ll never get tired of bonking ships in Rome Total War 2. If you’re in to submarines U-Boat is excellent.

I’m gonna throw in a curveball recommendation as well in the form of Nebulous: Fleet Command. It’s a hard sci-fi naval simulator that is in my opinion the most accurate portrayal of what space combat would be like. It’s akin to a bunch of submarines trying to find each other in the Atlantic. You’re basically playing hide and seek with nuclear missiles and emissions control and battle cruisers instead of children.

I’ve messed around with games like World of Warships but I’m more of a single-player strategy guy.


TheCandelabra t1_jcllbbm wrote

I just ordered that book! I didn't even consider reading it to my kid as a bedtime story, that's genius. Do you remember what age you were when he started reading it to you?


eyeCinfinitee t1_jclrsok wrote

God, I must have been three or four. My grandfather was a commercial fisherman in New Jersey, my family has always been pretty nautical. I grew up on and around boats.


TheCandelabra t1_jclxtrb wrote

Oh wow, that's pretty young. I have to assume most of it would have gone over your head lol.

Have you seen the movie btw? It's top-tier.


eyeCinfinitee t1_jcm2vqm wrote

Hell yeah I have, it’s in my top five favorite movies. And yeah, I agree that I was pretty young for the subject material. My dad read all sorta of random stuff to me when I was little, I got a bunch of Dumas and Tolstoy as well. This isn’t me bragging or pretending I was some sort of wunderkind, I was just a kid with a literature nerd for a dad.


Ramguy2014 t1_jcllu3n wrote

This is fascinating stuff. So it looks like the Corvus is pretty different from these naval rams in that it’s less like an axe head and more like a hook you can march a battalion across.


eyeCinfinitee t1_jcltrbr wrote

Exactly, it’s less a ram in and of itself and more like a naval version of a drawbridge or siege tower. The Romans knew they were ass at naval warfare as they didn’t really have any sort of maritime tradition compared to the Carthaginians or the various Greek polities. In that classic pragmatic Roman way they just went “well we’re bad sailors but really good soldiers, can we make naval combat more like land combat?”.

There’s two main overarching themes there, with regards to Rome. The first is that Rome has a tendency to get involved in a war, get their asses handed to them, and then reevaluate and come back even stronger. It’s a pretty unique feature of the Roman state in this period, the ability to suffer a major reverse and keep plugging along. It’s doubtful that any of their peers could take an L as bad as Cannae and almost immediately field another army. Secondly, the Roman Navy (called the Classis) was a massive afterthought throughout the Roman Republic and into the Imperial period. Service in the navy was something to be avoided at all costs, and didn’t bring nearly as much glory and honor to a Roman man as service in the Legions.


goldfinger0303 t1_jcl57ut wrote

Boarding wasn't as common for most navies until the Roman navy with the corvus. So I would say it's not an aide


MeatballDom t1_jcmaw29 wrote

That's not accurate, as someone else mentioned the grappling hooks were very common, and the entire idea of the corvus being a specific boarding bridge comes only from Polybius, and is not really accepted as the mainstream theory anymore (though of course Wallinga was incredible for the work he did in regards to the theory). Polybius and the corvus is a bit of an enigma as a whole, can get into it a bit more if you want, but overall remember he's writing well after events.

As for boarding before the First Punic War, it was common. Look at depictions of Athenian naval warfare in the 5th century, which we have a good chunk of. Ships get stuck together, marines (ἐπιβάται) could then fight ship to ship. During the Sicilian Expedition we see the Sicilians prepare to use boarding hooks (one of the older, but still acceptable arguments for what a corvus was) and the Athenians already familiar enough of them to counter them with animal hides which would make it difficult for the hooks to grab on.

You also see these strategy employed elsewhere not long after Rome in areas that would not have been familiar with the corvus, typically with groups associated with piracy, the Illyrians, etc. who would deliberately plant traps to allow them closer access to ships to board them and take them over. These seem to have been the norm for them, and plays a major role in the First Illyrian War.


goldfinger0303 t1_jcmz00o wrote

I should've been a little more specific. I'm aware of the battles of the Athenian navy and antiquity in general. However, using the ram as a boarding aide was not common. So the person I replied to who said the ram could be used as a boarding aide is wrong...up until the invention of the corvus.

However this is the first I'm hearing about Polybius not being accepted as mainstream anymore.


MeatballDom t1_jcoi84a wrote

Sorry if you get two notifications, hit send too soon...

Yes, correct, the ram was not primarily used as a boarding device. But other boarding devices did exist that were primarily used for that purpose well before the First Punic War.

Polybius speaks up the beauty of the corvus, it plays a major role in a couple of battles, and then disappears very quickly, it's a bit of an enigma. Though we need to keep in mind that Polybius wasn't even born until 67 years or so after the First Punic War started, and not in Rome until about 95 years after. There's zero expectation that he's going to know the exact actions occurring during each naval battle (and this is the case for most naval battles in antiquity), but he can create a really good narrative. His objective is, after all, to talk about how Rome became the greatest power. He states this outright in his work so it's not exactly some hidden bias.

He also creates this dichotomy of where Rome is apparently only entering the sea for the first time at the start of this war, but also reportedly had naval treaties with Carthage dating back to the start of the Republic. As it is written, it doesn't make much sense. Perhaps he's speaking of Rome as more of a unified state, perhaps, but this story does match similarly to what other Greek historians did with navies (Herodotus and Athens for example). We definitely know there's more going on there though, and from the 70s onward we really start to question Polybius on this. But it wouldn't really be until with Steinby throwing down the gauntlet to challenge historians in 2007, and it picking up steam from about 2017 onwards with Harris and others that we started to really try and figure out what was going on if not what Polybius was describing. Projects like the Egadi's Island project and studies on iconography have helped to slowly morph our understanding but there's still a lot of unknowns; the evidence for this era was just not great. I know there's a few projects in the works at the moment that should hopefully make things a bit more clear though, but cannot comment too much as they are still unpublished.

As for the corvus: Campbell argues it was a grappling hook (he wasn't the first but he's the only one that comes to mind right now), and de Souza and others have discussed how similar hooks were called corvii in later Roman works but long after. I do think Lazenby is correct to say we need to be careful with these later named tools, but there's still plenty of reason to question whether it was a grappling hook in these earlier instances as we know they are using these in Sicily and obvious Sicily has a large impact on seafaring in the region. Polybius described some other siege weaponry almost exactly like he described the corvus later in his work, this may show where some of the inspiration for how he imagined the corvus came from.

This is not to say that we need to bin Polybius, again there's not a lot of evidence from the period and Polybius is incredibly important to our understanding of this period. But we do need to be a bit careful and not take everything he says as gospel. As stated before, Wallinga's work on the corvus and investigating Polybius from a scientific standpoint was a good step forward as well, but the era was still dominated by traditionalists and for the longest time Polybius was gospel.

Writing this quickly on my phone so hopefully not too chaotic, excuse any errors.


War_Hymn t1_jclqlam wrote

Where did you hear that? They used grappling hooks to pull and tethered ships. Its not like Age of Sail ships used a corvus device, but boarding was still common.


goldfinger0303 t1_jcmyijh wrote

You don't board from the front of the ship??? You grapple it and pull it side by side. People weren't hopping over the bow.

The corvus was unique because you could ram, stun the crew, drop the corvus and charge.


Archmagnance1 t1_jcl5kfm wrote

Chicken and egg problem. We don't know how it was attached so we don't know how it was used. We don't know how it was used so we don't know how it was attached.

At least, this is my understanding. Things might have changed since I last looked into it or what I read might have been out of date or flat out wrong.

We do know boarding was quite common for a very long time so I've been of the opinion for a while it was to aid in shock while boarding.


Ramguy2014 t1_jclmh8p wrote

It also seems like (if it truly was cast from solid bronze) these would be incredibly expensive, and fiendishly difficult to recover if they did fall off in the water. I assume that budgeting has been a perpetual concern for governments and militaries, so it would seem the goal would be to hang on to them as much as possible.


lovebus t1_jcll4fx wrote

Idea was to break a hole under the waterline. Barring that they tried to shear the oars off the other ship by swiping their side.


Deirdre_Rose t1_jcm5ast wrote

Other answer isn't quite right. The technique with naval rams was to open the seams in the enemy ship, so they'd flood and sink. The ram is not designed to penetrate into the enemy ship, and the ramming surface was basically as big as they could get it in order to not get stuck in the enemy ship while still hitting with force. So more a hammer than a blade.

There were some marines on deck, but they were basically for emergencies only if the ships got stuck together or boarded somehow.


War_Hymn t1_jclq3ax wrote

>Ships can float with water in them

Wooden boats and ships, yes - if they're empty or lightly ballasted. Most merchant ships of that era will normally have up to 1/4 of their displacement in dense, non-floating stone ballast for stability. Add weight of crew and dense cargo, etc. most wooden hull vessels will sink with a hole below the waterline if nothing was done. Lightly ballasted ships like Greek triremes would be flooded to at least the upper deck.

Ships during the Age of Sail were even worst since you had up to a hundred tonnes of dense metal ordnance and ammunition on something like a double-decker frigate. And because some guns might be mounted on the upper portion of the ship, you need proportionally more ballast to keep the ship stable. Something like the 32-gun French Hermione that displaced 1200 tonnes had about 200 tonnes of iron and granite rock ballast in addition to her ~50-70 tonnes of guns and round-shot ammunition.


Archmagnance1 t1_jcltzby wrote

And it still took a lot of holes and time to actually sink a ship because, shockingly, they are designed to not sink. I don't imagine ships, when rammers were common, were completely helpless and would go completely underwater if they got rammed once.

They were beached at night because they would get waterlogged if left for too long, so a ram might have been to take a ship out of a fight or to take people away from counterboarding to deal with it. Again, not sinking. Its possible given enough time but I personally don't think it was the intention. However, we don't know for sure.

A ship becoming unstable doesn't mean it sinks, or that it will sink fast enough for it to matter for the outcome of a skirmish or engagement.


War_Hymn t1_jcm07wy wrote

>I don't imagine ships, when rammers were common, were completely helpless and would go completely underwater if they got rammed once.

Yeah, but kind of hard to fight and maneuver if your rowing section is submerged in water. And I imagine a 1-2 foot wide hole in a 40-50 tonnes vessel won't take too long to reach that point.


Archmagnance1 t1_jcpo1s6 wrote

I said it somewhere else but I imagine it was more to throw a fair portion of the crew into panic while it's being boarded. After a (hopefully) successful boarding the new owners beach it and after the battle they can patch it up.

Sinking ships as the primary goal is relatively new for the past 130 years or so with the advent of widely available explosive munitions and engagement ranges measured in the kilometers. Even with the powerful guns of the age of sail they still fought at ranges of 400m or less because they didn't have what came to he called fire directors or fire control systems.


pickleer t1_jcn53eq wrote

Those ships sank pretty readily. The oak hulls had some buoyancy but not that much. The anecdotes of mastheads poking out of the water in shallow harbors after sunken ships settled to the bottom are too widely found to be apocryphal.


Painting_Agency t1_jckgt9p wrote

Probably attached with large nails. They don't look like they'd get "stuck" - no barbs or protrusions. The other hull would cave in and be too fragmented to bind the ramming vessel.


Discount_gentleman t1_jcl2cgi wrote

Historically, getting the ram stuck was a serious problem. I have a vague memory of reading that proper tactics dictated back-rowing (i.e. tapping the breaks) just before impact, with the goal being more to deliver a shock that pops every joint in the target, rather than busting through and getting your ram deeply embedded in the target.

However, I've had a few beers since I read that, and so it might be worth checking with a better source.


Painting_Agency t1_jcl4beb wrote

I'm sure there was a whole technique to it, and I believe you beers or no.


Discount_gentleman t1_jcl6mbg wrote

Thanks. Also, the shape of the ram (3 wide flat bars rather than a pointed beak) highlight the goal of preventing it from going too deeply into the target.


Discount_gentleman t1_jclgbdr wrote

Not to riff on this too much, but the design is quite elegant. It is the prow of a warship, so it cuts through the water cleanly, presenting thin lines that the water slides by. But when faced with a solid object like a ship, it acts as a solid rectangle. It hits with all the weight of the ship as a hammer or mallet, not as a spike, designed to shatter but not to penetrate. And back in the day, ships would be more likely held together with mortise and tenon, not nails, and be vulnerable to being snapped. The target would be swamped in just a few minutes from multiple small leaks and become unmaneuverable, knocked completely out of action.


pickleer t1_jcn5tl7 wrote

Thank you! This is the most plausible answer I have read yet, after wondering for decades why a single-pointed spike wouldn't be more efficient. This totally explains the planar-trident shape, water flow, and intended effect.


War_Hymn t1_jclysif wrote

The bronze ram is hollow in the back, it sockets into a thick piece of timber sticking out forward of the hull.

After ramming, they were suppose to back the ship up with oars to allow water to flood into the holed ship, but on some occasions they could get jammed in with the target - which is why most rams were made as short as possible so they won't get stuck as easily.