Where Rome held mighty naval reenactments

We may know that the Colosseum once had a retractable floor – impressive engineering for such a 2,000 year old building! The Romans were certainly renowned for their superb engineering. But that’s not all, before building the retractable floor, they built the Colosseum in such a way that they could flood the ground for simulations of naval battle reenactments.

The word for these staged naval combats was “naumachia“. In ancient Rome, the word referred to both staged naval battles and the pool or arena in which they took place. These were very large and deadly matters.

History of The Bloody Roman Naumachia

The first known naumachia was held by Julius Caesar in 46 BC in Rome and was held to celebrate his quadruple triumph (Caesar used to win his battles). To stage these naval battles, he dug a basin near the Tiber.

First Naumachia: By Julius Caesar in 46 BC.

The basin could contain real Roman biremes, triremes and quinqueremes. The massive event involved 2,000 fighters and 4,000 rowers (all were POWs) and they were forced to fight (the bad old days before the Geneva Convention).

Numbers: 2,000 fighters and 4,000 rowers

44 years later, Augustus gave another even bigger and grander show for the inauguration of the Temple of Mars Ultor. Mars was the god of war and the most important god of the Roman army – so his celebration was always going to be bloody.

The Staged Battle staged a battle between the Greeks and Persians. The basin measured 400 meters by 600 meters and straddled the Tiber. It was claimed that this festival included 3,000 men fighting – plus the thousands of rowers with 30 ships with rams and some smaller boats.

Numbers: 3,000 fighters and rowers

Probably the most epic of these battles was given by Emperor Claudius in AD 52 – this time in Lake Fucine (and it was to celebrate the completion of the Roman tunnel and the drying up of the lake – it was the longest tunnel for thousands of years).

He is said that this battle included 100 ships and some 19,000 combatants (all death row prisoners).

Numbers: 19,000 fighters

Related: Skipping the Colosseum: You Should See These Ruins in Rome Instead

Naumachia Were much bloodier and more expensive than gladiator fights

These naumachiae or naval re-enactments were much bloodier than gladiatorial combats. In gladiator fights, it was not certain that losing gladiators would die. While gladiator fights were teams, bands or individuals pitted against each other. Naumachia more like full-fledged armies fighting to the death, those who participated in these battles generally lacked the specialized training of gladiators.

Coaching: Fighters in naval battles did not receive the same training

They were very expensive and reserved only for special occasions related to the emperor (such as victories or particularly important feats of engineering).

The battle with the tanks in the Colosseum involving around fifty fighters in the 2000 film Gladiator is just small fry. Watching this scene looks bloody, but it was nothing on the scale of what the Romans could do.

Related: Only Four Roman Amphitheaters Are Still In Use Today (And The Colosseum Isn’t One Of Them)

The Naumachia In the Colosseum

So when the Colosseum (itself built with the sacking of Jerusalem in AD 70) was inaugurated, Emperor Titus gave two naumachiae. These employed several thousand men, one of the events was held in the Augustinian basin and the other in the new Colosseum.

Size of the Colosseum: Measuring just 79.35 x 47.20 meters, it was a bit small for such large goggles

Reduced: The limited size meant the Colosseum could not hold large engagements with warships

Mystery: It’s still a mystery how the Colosseum was waterproofed

In AD 80, the Colosseum hosted mighty naval battles that drew spectators from Rome and visitors from across the Roman Empire. They came to see gladiator fights, animal fights and chariot races around the arena. At the end of this blood-soaked Roman entertainment, the water flowed into the estate’s basin. The stage would be submerged in approximately 5 feet of water.

The stage would then be set for the greatest spectacle – staged naval battles! Janelle Peters’ Ted-Ed did a great little video how it happened and what is known about it.

There were probably more held by Emperor Domitian. One took place around AD 85 in the Colosseum and another in AD 89 in a pool outside the Colosseum.

But shortly after the naumachia took place at the Colosseum, the floor of the area was reworked and a network of rooms was completed under the Colosseum (still visible today). After that, nothing naumachia were possible in the Colosseum.

It is debated whether the ships in the Colosseum even floated – Ted-Ed claims that special flat-bottomed ships were built for this so they could.

Although the floor of the Colosseum has been completely reworked since then, signs of the tail end of the engineering taken to flood the Colosseum are still visible today.

Next: Rome’s Colosseum Could Return To Its Former Glory With Retractable Flooring

Comments are closed.