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After the Treaty of Algeron, the Romulans had stayed on their side of the Neutral Zone for a 100 years. Nor were there contacts by subspace radio since the Romulan War.

SPOCK: As you recall from your histories, this conflict was fought, by our standards today, with primitive atomic weapons and in primitive space vessels which allowed no quarter, no captives. Nor was there even ship-to-ship, visual communication*; therefore, **no Human, Romulan, or ally has ever seen the other.

When a cloaked ship attacks Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone, Captain Kirk says nobody knows what the Romulans and their ships look like.

KIRK: After a whole century, what will a Romulan ship look like, Mister Stiles? I doubt they'll radio and identify themselves.

STILES: You'll know, sir. They're painted like a giant bird-of-prey.

Lt. Stiles turned out to be correct. They do have a giant bird of prey painted on them.

enter image description here

How did he know?

Did the Federation actually see enemy spaceships from the Romulan war a century earlier? And that every ship they saw had a bird of prey emblem on it?

I have not seen Star Trek: Discovery or Star Trek: Enterprise, so if you have answers from those TV series, please provide them.

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    "Nobody had ever seen a live Romulan. It was very certain that “Romulan” was not their name for themselves, for such fragmentary evidence as had been pieced together from wrecks, after they had erupted from the Romulus-Remus system so bloodily a good seventy-five years ago, suggested that they’d not even been native to the planet, let alone a race that could have shared Earthly conventions of nomenclature." - Star Trek 1 – Valorum May 30 at 18:08
  • @Valorum I think that you are quoting from James Blish's novelization of "Balance of terror" instead of any strickly canonical source. In "Balance of Terror" Spock mentions the Romulan War was "a century ago", not 75 years, and McCoy mentions "Memories of a war over a century ago?". – M. A. Golding May 30 at 18:27
  • @M.A.Golding - The may simply be mistaken. It was "a long time ago" – Valorum May 30 at 18:30
  • How did he know?!? Spy! Yeoman, arrest that lieutenant! – Paul D. Waite May 30 at 18:46
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Nothing in the quotes you've provided supports the conclusion that this was the first time the Federation had seen Romulan ships.

Nor was there even ship-to-ship, visual communication;

The absence of ship-to-ship visual communication does not rule out ship-to-ship visual contact. I interpret Spock's remark to mean that the Federation and the Romulans were unable/unwilling to utilize their viewscreens for communication, relying on audio only.

therefore, no Human, Romulan, or ally has ever seen the other.

This tells us that no Human has ever seen a Romulan. The Enterprise is not a Human and the Bird of Prey is not a Romulan. This quote tells us absolutely nothing about what any party has seen of the other's ships.

After a whole century, what will a Romulan ship look like, Mister Stiles?

Why would Kirk bring up the time gap if Romulan vessels had not been seen a hundred years ago?

Also, it worth noting that Romulan ships have never been shown to be capable of firing weapons while cloaked. This makes it extremely unlikely that visual contact was never made with a Romulan vessel during the war, as they would have been forced to de-cloak in order to attack.

Empirically, these interpretations are supported by the fact that the pre-Federation Earth Starfleet got a very clear view of two Romulan vessels about a century earlier during Enterprise S2E3 "Minefield".

A 22nd-century Romulan Bird-of-Prey tails the Enterprise NX-01

The Romulan ships in this episode do possess cloaking technology but lack the avian adornment Stiles refers to. They communicate with the NX-01 using audio only.

Therefore, it is most logical to conclude that Stiles's knowledge of the appearance of Romulan vessels is simple historical knowledge based on past direct observations. As to how he could be so certain that the Romulans would maintain the same heraldry over a century later, it seems he made a lucky guess.

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The very next lines in Balance of Terror explain that Stiles knows it through family members who had served in the war a century before:

STILES: You'll know, sir. They're painted like a giant bird-of-prey.

KIRK: I had no idea that history was your specialty.

STILES: Family history. There was a Captain Stiles was in the space service then. Two Commanders and several junior officers. All lost in that war, sir.

KIRK: Their war, Mister Stiles. Not yours. Don't forget it.

The battles in that war had been fought, as Spock explained just moments before, "with primitive atomic weapons and in primitive space vessels".

That would imply no sophisticated cloaking. Those who fought in that war saw the Romulan vessels, though they did not see the Romulans.

Stiles apparently assumes that the bird-of-prey was iconic and the Romulans would not have changed this. He is correct.

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  • DavidW -- thanks for the edit; it does look better. – Basya Jun 2 at 9:20
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Seeing an enemy ship is the most natural part of being in a battle. Why would you not think a ship would be seen? The audience of star trek had world War 2 and Korea in the recent past. In war one sees the enemy.

No one had seen a romulan person prior to the TOS episode. Further the point of the early part of the episode is that Kirk is tearing his hair out because if this ship is NOT a romulan ship then he's risking a war over a mistaken identity.

Also the episode makes it very clear cloaking is new. So again the romulan ships from 100 years ago would have been seen.

So given a new silhouette the only way to identify the enemy is some cultural motif like a bird of prey. Which the audience soon sees.

Unfortunately star trek prequels messed this all up. Enterprise had cloaks a century too soon. And infuriatingly when they introduced romulans the ship had a virtually identical look and silhouette as the TOS style ship.

Except without the bird of prey! Unfortunately most Enterprise series designs would have been more natural in the TNG era. For example a TNG romulan ship still has bird motifs but not orange paint on the hull.

Likewise Discovery gave klingons cloaking devices decades too soon too.

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    "Seeing an enemy ship is the most natural part of being in a battle." Really? It's cloaked so that makes it hard to see. It is hundreds of thousands of kilometers away. That makes it hard to see. "The audience of star trek had world War 2 and Korea in the recent past. In war one sees the enemy." The Iowa class battleships had a firing range of 32 Km, which is over the horizon. That means battleships of World War 2 could hit each other without ever seeing each other. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armament_of_the_Iowa-class_battleship – LincolnMan May 31 at 0:18
  • LincolnMan your retort is wrong. Star Trek battles take place within a hundred kilometers not hundreds of thousands. And the romulan ships should not have had cloaks in the first war. And aside from one off prototypes like in Star trek 6 the ship has to decloak to fire. I'm confident the original poster is confusing the notion of no one seeing a Romulan person with cloaking devices for ships. Regardless there is still no reason to assume the ships would not have been seen in the war. – lucasbachmann May 31 at 6:14
  • "when [the prequels] introduced romulans the ship had a virtually identical look and silhouette as the TOS style ship." You could improve your answer by providing quotes, videos, or images from the prequel series. I did ask for answers from the prequels, so if you have videos from the prequels that show a Romulan ship with an identical look and an image of a giant bird of prey on it like the ship seen in ST:TOS, that would earn my vote. – RichS May 31 at 15:44
  • @lucasbachmann your comment is not totally true. TOS battles typically take place at distances of tens or hundreds of thousands of kilometers, but view screens do have extreme magnification properties. In TOS-R the Gorn ship has visible structure even though it might be a light year ahead of the Enterpise, as discussed in post # 83 at: trekbbs.com/threads/tos-chronology.304218/page-5 – M. A. Golding May 31 at 15:56
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    @LincolnMan Romulan ships were not cloaked during the Romulan War a century before their first cloaking device in "Balance of Terror". In World War II battleships may have sometimes fired at ships over the horizon, but accuracy was limited at such ranges, and battleships have very tall superstructures as well as sometimes emitting smoke that rises high and becomes visible over the horizon. – M. A. Golding May 31 at 15:59
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Even by WWII it was conceivable to fire on an enemy ship without spotting it thanks to long range naval guns. In the TOS episode Balance of Terror Spock remarks: As you recall from your histories, this conflict was fought, by our standards today, with primitive atomic weapons and in primitive space vessels which allowed no quarter, no captives. Nor was there even ship-to-ship, visual communication; therefore, no Human, Romulan, or ally has ever seen the other.

The Earth-Romulan War, despite the distance involved and little contact, doesn't mean they didn't examine the wreckage.........., scrap left from the battlefields would seem to be the only lively evidence indicating what they know about Romulan ships. Plus Spock stated no ship-to-ship, communication. Didn't say anything about ship to ship combat, which would require visual affirmation. Even vessels like the NX class had viewscreens, so while they couldn't see the romulans, they could see the ships.

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    Do you have any canon sources that say the Federation found wreckage of Romulan vessels? – RichS Jun 2 at 19:54

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