The Aphlaston: The Heart and Soul of an Ancient Warship
Timothy M. Ryan
Aphlaston - The upward curving stern of an ancient warship. Also called an apluster (or aplustre).
Naval warfare played a vital role in the development of many ancient empires and city-states from as early as the 12th century BC. Athens owed much of its dominance in the 5th century BC to its supreme naval force, and many empires prospered and declined dependent upon this military division. Carthage, for example, was a mighty Mediterranean empire for over 500 years which thrived thanks to its famed naval warships from the 8th to the 3rd centuries BC. It would eventually take an ambitious Roman Republic to build and ultimately overthrow this naval superpower with their own army of warships in the early 2nd century BC.
The importance of naval operations in the ancient world led to many representations on coinage. One naval symbol appears often on these types: the aphlaston. The aphlaston, or aplustre, was a component of the ancient warship that was understood as an abstract form of a bird with multiple beaks facing inward from the stern. This high fan shaped ornament of carved and decorated wood appeared first in its developed form in the 5th century BC. The bird’s eye was usually enlarged which created a shield like appearance at the base of the symbol (see Image 1). A flag pole was attached to the side of it which showed the helmsman the exact direction of the wind. When the galleys surged into war, the sails were always drawn in, leaving the prominent aphlaston as a dominant feature of the craft. It became the hallmark of the warships in the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods. The symbol was understood to have magical powers in its ability to protect or guard the ship.
Image 1: The Aphlaston appears as an overpowering symbol on the reverse of this bronze hemilitron from Lipara, an island near Sicily, struck circa 425 BC. Image courtesy of CNG.
The origin of the aphlaston is uncertain, but a primitive form of this symbol appears on ships of the “Sea Peoples”, a seafaring confederacy of raiders from as early as the second millennium BC. Homer even made references to this powerful symbol in Book 18 of the Iliad:
“As the men fought on like a blazing fire raging,
swift-footed Antilochus came to Achilles
with his news. He found Achilles by his beaked ship,
sensing in himself what had already happened,
speaking with a troubled mind to his own great heart”
The impact that the aphlaston made on sailors must have been profound. It was regarded as a shrine that guided the ship, and is often portrayed on coins as looming over the helmsman of a warship, as if to envelope him in its protective aura (See Image 2). The multiple beaks often seen clearly indicate an attempt to strengthen the protective magic of this idol by multiplying this component.
Image 2: The aphlaston can be seen here on the left side of this quinqereme which appears to envelop and guard the helmsman struck on an AE 24 during the reign of Septimius Severus, 193-211 AD. Image courtesy of CNG.
During the ancient period, spoils of war which were revered and gazed upon with immense pride were the captured aphlasta of enemy warships. This symbol was always highly sought and in turn fiercely defended to the death by the defending sailors. Phormio, the son of Asopius, was an Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War who guided his naval fleet to several victories in 428 BC. It is reported that he captured 18 aphlasta during one naval battle which was celebrated at Athens with a glorious procession where the spoils were displayed in a victory parade preceded by the valiant men who partook in that victory. Let’s take a further look at the use and depiction of the aphlaston on coinage throughout ancient history.
Hannibal Barca was a Carthaginian general during the Punic Wars who occupied southern Italy during the second Punic War in 209 BC. In commemoration of his recent victories we see a prominent aphlasta being presented by Phalantos on a half shekel struck in occupied Tarentum, a colony in southern Italy, circa 212-209 BC. (See Image 3).
Image 3: This AR reduced nomos Half Shekel was struck during Hannibal’s occupation of Calabria, Tarentum in southern Italy Circa 212-209 BC. Image courtesy of CNG.
Cassius Longinus was a Roman senator and general who co-conspired with Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar in 44 BC. After the assassination, Longinus led a campaign in the east to gather support against Marc Antony and Octavian, the successors to Caesar. To help finance his campaign he issued an aureus in 42 BC which commemorates the capture of Rhodes in which he seized eight thousand talents from their treasury and was subsequently hailed king by the captured Rhodians (See Image 4). This type clearly depicts a captured aphlaston with floreate endings which allude to the rose, the civic emblem of Rhodes. Soon after this type was issued Longinus and Brutus met their demise the same year after being defeated at the Battle of Philippi.
Image 4: This aureus was struck in the summer of 42 BC. By Cassius Longinus, and would prove to be his final issue as he soon met his fate against Octavian and Antony at the Battle of Philippi. Image courtesy of CNG.
Lastly, let’s examine a silver drachm struck during the reign of Augustus from 27-20 BC. (See Image 5). It’s believed that during the early Imperial period the aphlaston was often associated with the naval defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. This type supports that claim with the depiction of an aphlaston on the reverse to the left of the cithara, struck just four years after this pivotal battle in Roman history.
The aphlaston has been heavily used on coin types throughout ancient history as an illustration of naval dominance and even guardianship. This crucial component of the warship would be respected and defended for centuries as it was often treated as the “heart and soul” of a naval vessel.
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