The Spectacle of Naumachia: Rome's Brutal Naval Gladiator Battles
For centuries naval gladiator battles, known as naumachia, enthralled crowds with their realistic recreations of famous sea battles, complete with all the chaos, bravery, and brutality of the original conflicts. Gladiators and prisoners of war were forced to fight to the death aboard replica warships, providing a bloodthirsty spectacle for the thousands of spectators in attendance. But naumachia wasn’t just about violence - it was also a display of the technological prowess of the Roman Empire, with impressive waterworks and grandstands that could accommodate up to 30,000 people. The logistical challenges of staging these grand spectacles were immense, but the allure of the spectacle was too great to resist.
Birth of the Naumachia
Today, re-enacting battles is a popular pastime for many military history buffs. But the Romans took it one step further. The first naumachia, or gladiator naval battle, was held in 46 BC by Julius Caesar .
Caesar was on a high. He had just returned fresh from battle, having crushed the followers of his ally- turned-rival, Pompey the Great . He was looking to celebrate and show the people of Rome just how powerful he was. To do so he had a basin dug near the river Tiber that was wide enough and deep enough to hold two fleets of biremes, triremes, and quinqueremes (Roman battleships).
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In this man-made lake over 2000 combatants and 4000 rowers (composed of prisoners of war) would be made to fight to the death in the ultimate reconstruction of a naval battle . Rome had never seen anything like it before, with the Roman historian Suetonius remarking how people from all over Italy flocked to witness the spectacle.
Caesar staged a bigger, complex show called naumachia. ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
This wasn’t the first time a Roman leader had thrown a major spectacle in the ultimate act of self-promotion. Roman citizens were already used to gladiator fights known as munus and exotic animal hunts, known as venatio.
These events brought in thousands of spectators from every social class and were used not just as a way to keep the public happy, but as a demonstration of power. The naumachia was on a different scale entirely.
Caesar’s first gladiator naval battle was likely the most complex event that had ever been held in ancient Rome up to that point. The event was a careful combination of a genuine fight to the death and a battle reenactment.
Rather than being a free for all, it was a carefully staged blow-for-blow reenactment of the battle between the fleets of Tyre and Egypt, Rome’s traditional enemies. Later battles followed a similar trend and were based on historic battles between Athens and Persia, and Rhodes and Sicily.
Those taking part were known as naumachiarii and wore the uniforms of the side they represented. These unlucky souls were usually prisoners of war or convicts who had already been sentenced to death. Professional gladiators could also ask to join in on the fun and there’s even a record of a senator leading one of the sides during a naumachia. The battles they took part in were real and were full of blood, mutilations, and drownings that made normal gladiator battles seem boring in comparison.
Despite their immense popularity, after Caesar’s first gladiator naval battle only around 12 more large naumachias were held. This was for two reasons. They took an insane amount of planning to pull off correctly, and they were immensely expensive.
This meant they tended to be held to celebrate major events. For example, in 2 BC Augustus held a massive naumachia to celebrate the inauguration of the Temple of Mars Ultor (the Roman God of War). That event was a reenactment of a famous battle between the Greeks and Persians and featured over 3000 combatants who fought in over 30 large ships and several smaller ones.
To save costs some later naumachias were held on natural bodies of water. In 40 BC, for example, Sextus held a slightly less impressive naumachia on the Strait of Messina. The battle that he chose to re-enact was one of his own victories, a naval battle against Octavian (the future Augustus).
Perhaps the grandest naumachia was held in 52 AD in honor of Emperor Claudius . This one was held on Fucine Lake in central Italy and represented a famous battle between Sicily and Rhodes. It was held to celebrate the completion of drainage work in the area (how exciting) and was designed to dwarf the last great naumachia, held by Augustus.
The fight featured over 100 boats and an impressive 19,000 combatants, all of whom were convicts. According to the historian Suetonius just before the battle was supposed to begin the fighters cried “We who are about to die salute you!” with a pleased Claudius responding “Or Not”.
This led the prisoners to believe they had been pardoned, and so, they refused to fight. A supremely annoyed Claudius was then forced to send his imperial guard in to get the fighting started.
The battles took place in manmade lakes, natural bodies of water and even flooded amphitheatres, including the Colosseum. The Roman public of every social level attended. The scene was even bloodier and exciting than regular gladiator fights. (Giovanni Lanfranco /Public Domain )
Building the Naumachia
While some emperors chose to save money by hosting naumachia on existing bodies of water, most chose to build their own. Natural bodies of water had two major downfalls, they weren’t as conducive to watching and they simply weren’t as impressive.
As such a happy middle ground was needed. Caesar’s naumachia had been held in a large man-made lake in the Campus Martius that was filled in as soon as the battle ended. Impressive? Yes. But also, hugely wasteful.
When Augustus held his own naumachia, he had a similar artificial lake built on the bank of the Tiber River. After the event was over, rather than filling it in, Augustus kept the lake and it became known as the Naumachia Augusti . Until the end of the first century AD the lake was repeatedly used to hold similar events.
Other emperors took a different approach. Rather than using an existing body of water, or using Augustus’s Lake (which risked sharing the limelight with their predecessor), some later emperors chose to build and then flood amphitheaters.
The first Emperor believed to attempt this was Nero. In 57 AD he had a stone and wooden amphitheater built in the Campus Martius which he then promptly flooded. Little else is known about the naumachia held there in 57 AD but it's believed he used the same venue again in 64 AD for a second battle.
The Magnificent Colosseum in Rome. ( sommaria/Adobe Stock)
What we do know is that contemporary historians were amazed by the fact that after the naval battle, the amphitheater was drained, allowing the battle to be followed up by a wild animal hunt and then gladiator games. All on the same day. Try doing that to a lake. Unfortunately for Nero, he didn’t get to use the theater a third time, it burned down shortly after its second use, during the great fire of Rome .
Of course, the most famous example of an amphitheater being used for naumachia was the Colosseum itself. Historians believe that for its inauguration in 80 AD Emperor Titus held two naumachias. One was held in the lake built by Augustus and a second was held in the Colosseum itself.
Due to the size restraints of the Colosseum, it is unlikely that the naval battles held there were as grand as those held by Caesar or Augustus. While the site was big enough to hold several ships and their crews, they would have been unable to do much more than float there and pick each other off. Historians believe that to help alleviate this problem stage props were used to represent ships. These were linked to mechanisms that could simulate exciting events like shipwrecks.
The Colosseum’s time hosting naumachia was short-lived, however. While initially it could be easily filled and drained using a series of canals and pools, this became impossible after Emperor Domitian had a network of rooms and tunnels built under the Colosseum, known as the Hypogeum.
Centuries ago, this tunnel was used to transport gladiators or animals to the arena floor through an ancient ‘elevator’ located on the floor stones. (Dennis Jarvis / CC BY SA 2.0 )
Around the same time that the Colosseum’s tunnels were being built, Domitian arranged two more naumachias. The first was held sometime before 85 AD, before the tunnels were completed, and the second was held in 89 AD. For the 89 AD event, he had a new basin dug near the river Tiber, using the stone that was removed to repair the Circus Maximus. Two birds, one stone.
The Decline of the Roman Naumachia
Sources mention several more naumachias. We know that Trajan held one to celebrate his conquest of Dacia (Romania) during the height of Rome’s expansion. This event took place in a pool near Vatican Hill. Another was held in 248 AD, by Emperor Marcus Julius Philippus, during his celebration of Rome’s thousandth anniversary.
After Philip’s naumachia, the events abruptly came to a halt (at least according to the historical record), with no more being recorded during the Roman period. But why?
It could be that their popularity had simply peaked and as such, the events simply stopped being special. The first three ever naumachia were all held roughly 50 years apart, making them unique.
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The next 6, which were all held in amphitheaters, took place within a 30-year period. This new generation of naumachia was less expensive in material and human terms but also less grandiose. As such they simply became a feature of the games, rather than exceptional events in their own right.
Some historians believe that while naumachia fell out of the historical record following 248 AD, they were still being held. It’s just that they were simply no longer worthy of mention. It is also likely that as Rome weakened in the third century, the events simply became too costly to hold.
Naumachia After Rome
Both history and trends are cyclical. What was once popular will always, given enough time, become popular again. This is as true for naumachia as it is for flared jeans and tie-dyed shirts.
A key trait of the Renaissance period was a renewed interest in everything to do with antiquity. Suddenly the naumachia was remembered as the epitome of the Roman public’s love of spectacle and the megalomania of a once great empire’s leaders.
Amazingly, despite these negative connotations, it was decided it was a good idea for the ancient tradition (albeit in a less bloody fashion) to be revived. The first new naumachia was performed in 1550 in Rouen, France, for the benefit of Henry II of France. Another was then held in the courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence in 1589, this time to honor the marriage of Arch-Duke Ferdinando I de Medici and Christine of Lorraine.
Around 100 years later, King Philip IV of Spain amused himself by watching a naumachia at the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid. Spain then held another naumachia in 1755 in the city of Valencia, this time to canonize a local saint.
Several naumachias were also held in England and Scotland throughout the centuries. These began as relatively impressive affairs (not by Roman standards of course). By the 18th and 19th centuries, these had been scaled down considerably with several parks hosting mock naval battles that they dubbed naumachia.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. Thanks to the effect of films like Gladiator there is once again a renewed interest in everything Roman and bloody. This means many people are once again becoming interested in naumachia. In 2009 a naumachia was held by the New York artist Duke Riley at the Queens Museum of Art.
As with all historical traditions, the naumachia tradition must be viewed in the context of its time, with an understanding of the cultural, social, and political factors that shaped it. Today, we can marvel at the spectacle of naumachia as a testament to the incredible achievements of the Roman Empire, but we can also learn from its darker aspects and strive to create forms of entertainment that celebrate the ingenuity and creativity of humanity without glorifying violence or exploitation.
Top image: A representation of naumachia. 1894 painting by Ulpiano Checa. Source: Public Domain