In the Forum of ancient Rome, there was a special platform that was used by Roman orators as the venue for important speeches. The platform in question reportedly received its name—The Rostra—in the aftermath of Rome’s wars with the Latin League and its allies in the 4th century BCE. Although the Roman-Latin conflict that century spanned decades, the greatest and most consequential clash between the two sides occurred between 341-338 BCE.
During those years, the Romans destroyed and dismantled the Latin League, winning two major battles in 340 BCE, and followed it up with an impressive divide-and-conquer campaign in 338 BCE that led to the Roman occupation of the Latin cities. Allies of the Latin League at that time faced the same fate, and this is an important point for the history of the Rostra. One such ally of the Latin League was the Volscian city of Antium—a long rival and enemy of the Romans. Like the Latin cities, Antium was defeated and occupied during the course of the 338 BCE campaign. With Antium at their mercy, the Romans decided to make sure that the Volscian city would never again pose a problem.
In order to defang and pacify Antium, the Romans sent a great number of colonists to counterbalance the Antiate population, but the preexisting Antiates were also granted Roman citizenship. Rome reportedly took the extra precaution, though, of barring the people of Antium from sailing into the sea, and they emphasized this decree by seizing the city’s entire fleet. On these commandeered warships and their relationship to the Rostra, the Roman historian, Livy (c. 59-17 CE), wrote, “Some of the ships from Antium were laid up in the dockyards at Rome, while the rest were burnt, and it was decided to use their prows or beaks to decorate a platform set up in the Forum; this sacred place was named the Rostra, or The Beaks” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.14). Such, then, is the traditional origin story for the Rostra, or at least its name. The title was derived from the bronze beaks, salvaged out of the seized fleet of Antium, that were used to adorn the platform in the Roman Forum.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Roman Man-of-War, 200 B.C., from the Military Series (N224) issued by Kinney Tobacco Company c. 1888 , [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.