Ships in the Gladiator Ring

Naumachia by Giovanni Lanfranco
Naumachia by Giovanni Lanfranco

Ancient Rome saw gladiatorial combat on a regular basis. Battle for entertainment was a regular staple of the era. In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar decided to up the ante. 6,000 prisoners of war were placed in ships to fight against one another in a massive staging of naval battle. This was only the beginning of the naumachiae.

Julius Caesar’s first naumachia was held in a basin dug near the Tiber river. It was large enough to hold full size battle ships with plenty of room on the sidelines for viewers. Where gladiatorial combat was bloody, by sheer numbers of men alone naumachiae were bloodier. But unlike the gladiatorial shows before them, naumachiae were choreographed to depict historical battles. The size, scope, and planning required for such events meant that hosting a naumachia was reserved for very special occasions.

La naumaquia (Combate naval entre romanos) by Ulpiano Checa
La naumaquia (Combate naval entre romanos) by Ulpiano Checa

Making things even more impressive, Emperor Nero built a giant wooden amphitheater to host at least two naval battles. The size of these amphitheaters would be amazing alone, but advanced plumbing mechanisms allowed for the amphitheater to be filled with water and then drained at a moment’s notice. It became a great attraction to see both land and water based combat in one day!

Descriptions of the mechanisms for pumping/draining water did not survive to present day (the only descriptions of this come from people marveling at it, not engineers). Using archaeological evidence at the Verona Area, it can be seen just how it was possible. Using one channel, water could be brought in from an above-ground aqueduct to fill the arena. Then a second channel would open up to drain all the water into the nearby Adige river.

The first aqueduct ever built (aqua alseitina, shown in red) was built for a naumachia.
The first aqueduct ever built (aqua alseitina, shown in red) was built for a naumachia.

Improvements in technology initially were helpful to the naumachiae, but would be the cause of its eventual downfall. While the first three took place about 50 years apart from each other… improvements in technology allowed for more frequent events. Archaeologically, it can be said that the naumachiae continued into the 5th century and possibly further… But historically, few people were writing about them. These once spectacular naval battles had become the mundane, and eventually fell out of popularity.

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