A ram bow is a design feature that is primarily found on ancient Greek, Roman, and Phoenician ships in the Mediterranean area, but found throughout history and in other areas of the world as well. Also known as a rostrum, a ram bow allows one ship to attack another by crashing into it at high speed. Ram bows have taken many forms over the course of naval history but all operate on the same principle. They gradually fell out of favor around the 15th and 16th centuries, with the advent of cannons as the naval weapon of choice, but remained in very limited use, as a weapon of last resort, as late as the early 20th century.
Also called a naval ram, this type of weapon was mounted at the front of the ship, usually at or just below the waterline. It was normally an integral part of the ship's design, rather than a later retrofit, and often consisted of a heavy bronze projection fitted on the front of the ship, extending several feet from the front of the bow. Bronze was generally used for these rams, as it was slow to corrode in seawater and provided a powerful blow that could punch through hull timbers. Wooden rams were also used, and later ships would have rams made from the same iron or steel as their hulls.
It is believed that the ram bow was invented by the Phoenicians or Greeks, and it is first mentioned in the 7th century BC. In the Mediterranean region, it was the primary weapon of naval combat for centuries, and nearly all warships from this area incorporated some type of ram bow into their design. A ship with a ram bow could smash the hull of an enemy ship or shear off its oars, reducing its maneuverability or leaving it dead in the water.
Other ancient peoples besides the Phoenicians and Greeks used rams on warships, including the Romans and Persians. Ships from ancient times through the 16th century from many cultures around the world employed this weapon. Around the 3rd century BC, as ships grew in size and crew complement, boarding actions became more common than ramming attacks. Ramming, however, remained an important tactic in ship to ship combat until ship-mounted cannons became the primary naval weapon.
During the Age of Sail, rams were rarely installed on ships or used in naval combat. With the introduction of steam as propulsion and ships with armored hulls, however, ramming again became a viable combat tactic, although it never regained the popularity it had in ancient times. Ironclad ships from the American Civil War period were sometimes fitted with rams in an attempt to counter the heavy armor of ships of this period. Naval rams remained in use until the early 20th century, although they became increasingly rare as time passed.