imagine them as an early form of naval exercise although it is likely that at times no actual battle was engaged in what we might consider more of a rowing contest.
The later naval battles involved filling an arena with several feet of water. The “Gladiators” would be placed in flat bottomed boats mimicking proper ancient roman ships
and the different vessels would then attack each other. As with Gladiatorial combat it was frequent to stage an actual historical event in which the Romans themselves had participated at some point in their history.
Julius Caesar and Augustus organise Roman naval battles by the Tiber
One of the earliest naval battle shows was organised by Julius Caesar in 46BC in a specially dug lake in the Campo Marzio area whilst his successor Augustus dug out a basin on the side of the Tiber. The antique map, left, seems to place it closer to the Pons Sublicius.
Emperor Claudius celebrated his civil engineering works with naval war games including 20,000 men
A particularly well remembered event was organised by emperor Claudius. Claudius had decided to undertake an enormous civil engineering project to drain the Fucine lake. The project required 30,000 workmen 11 years to dig the drainage channels required. Before finally letting the water out in 52AD of the lake he organised an enormous celebratory open-air naval battle involving 100 ships and almost 20,000 men. Soldiers around the rim of the lake ensured no-one escaped the battle whilst the public was seated on the surrounding shores watching and enjoying the show.
Caligula celebrated life and fun with two ships the size of a Boeing aircraft out on a small lake
In a similar vein, a couple of Roman ships dating back to the time of Caligula (just before Claudius) have been found buried in the mud at the bottom of a lake in the Alban hills near Rome. It is thought that these ships, found in an exceptional state of preservation, were actually intended for this kind of exhibition. Although the two ships were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War a perfect reconstruction allows them to be visited today.
The most celebrated Naumachiae were those organised under the reign of Emperor Domitian
– who amongst other things completed the Colosseum. Suetonius tells us that in 80AD Domitian employed enough vessels for these games to form two complete armadas. On that particular occasion it seems Domition also offered a show of women dancing swimmers.
Crazy Heliogabalus outdid them all with Roman naumachiae floating in wine
The most extravagant of these events is probably only a myth written by Lampridius. It relates that the young emperor Heliogabalus or Elagabalus (218-222AD) organised a naval battle in a channel filled with wine rather than water. My personal guess is that it was probably the colour of blood…
The Colosseum: | Amphitheatres in Ancient Rome| Structure of the Colosseum | The games at the Colosseum | Capital punishment | Organisation of the animal shows | Shows with Wild Beasts | Naval war games Naumachiae | Why the Colosseum? | Gladiators and Christians | Rise and Fall of the Gladiators | Pictures of the Colosseum |