The Case of the Roman Transom Bow

By Vittorio Bovolin, published November 2017


The discovery of a Roman boat with a transom end during the construction of a Metro line in Naples has reopened the discussion about whether this end is the bow or the stern of the boat. This issue was debated through the twentieth century and still continues today. Discussion so far has mainly been focused on the analysis of iconography representing this type of boat. This article reassesses the subject by applying two separate approaches. The first approach reviews the iconography examined in previous studies and supplements it with other images that may help to give a correct interpretation of the classical images. The second approach takes into consideration the engineering specifications that bows and sterns must satisfy in order to fulfil their functions. This approach has given the author the opportunity to perform some hydrostatic calculations concerning the boat discovered in Naples. The aim of these calculations has been to verify under which conditions the transom end would have kept above the surface of the sea. The results of these calculations show that under all conditions the transom end would have had a very reduced clearance and that with increased loading this would have been reduced to zero, making the transom end plough into the sea. These results contradict the hypothesis that the Roman transom end was the bow and strongly support the conclusion that the transom end was the stern.

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Filed under: Antiquity | Mediterranean
Subjects include: Archaeology | Shipbuilding & Design

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