, from the Ancient
, literally "naval combat") in
the Ancient Roman
world referred to
both the re-enactment of naval battles
and the basin (or more broadly, the complex) in which this took
The first known naumachia
was given by Julius Caesar
in Rome in 46
on occasion of his quadruple triumph
. After having a basin dug near the
, capable of holding actual biremes
, he made 2000 combatants and 4000
rowers, all prisoners of war, fight. In 2 BC
the occasion of the inauguration of the temple of Mars Ultor,
Augustus gave a naumachia based on Caesar's model. As cited in Res
Gestæ (§ 23), he created a basin on the right bank of the Tiber
where 3000 men, not counting rowers, fought in 30 vessels with rams
and a number of smaller boats.
Claudius gave a naumachia in 52 AD on a natural body of water, Lake Fucino, to inaugurate drainage work on the site.
The combatants were prisoners who had been condemned to death.
Suetonius states in (Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Claudius, XXI,
1214), that the naumachiarii saluted the emperor before the combat
with the famous phrase "morituri te salutant"
are about to die salute you"). Although this tradition has
erroneously been attributed as the ritual address of the gladiator
before the emperor, this is the only
known cited use.
The naumachia was thus a bloodier show than gladiatorial combat,
which consisted of smaller engagements and where the combat did not
necessarily end with the death of the losers. More exactly, the
appearance of naumachia is closely tied and only slightly earlier
than that other spectacle, "group combat", which did not pit single
combatants against one another, but rather used two small armies.
There again, the combatants were frequently those on death row and
did not have the specialized training of true gladiators. Caesar,
creator of the naumachia, simply had to transpose the same
principle to another environment.
Through the choreography of the combat, the naumachia had the
ability to represent historical or pseudo-historical themes. Each
of the fleets participating represented a maritime power of Ancient
Greece or the Hellenistic east: Egyptians and the Tyrians for
Caesar’s naumachia, Persians and Athenians for that of Augustus,
Sicilians and Rhodeans for that of Claudius. It required
significantly greater resources than other such entertainments, and
as such these spectacles were reserved for exceptional occasions,
closely tied to celebrations of the emperor, his victories and his
monuments. The specific nature of the spectacle as well as the
historical themes borrowed from the Greek world are closely tied to
the term naumachia. This word, a phonetic transcription of the
Greek word for a naval battle (ναυμαχία / naumakhía), has since
come to also refer to the large artificial basins created for
Caesar’s naumachia, the precise location of which remains unknown,
was no doubt a simple basin dug in the bank of the Tiber.
In contrast, the naumachia of Augustus is better known: in his Res
Gestæ (23) Augustus himself indicates that the basin measured 1800
x 1200 Roman feet (approximately 533 x 355 meters). Pliny (Natural
History, 16, 200), tells us that there was an island in the center,
probably rectangular and connected to the shore by a bridge where
the privileged spectators likely sat.
Taking into consideration the size of the basin and the dimensions
of a trireme (approximately 35 x 4.90 meters), the thirty vessels
used would hardly be able to manoeuvre. Knowing that the crew of a
Roman trireme was approximately 170 rowers and 50 to 60 soldiers, a
simple calculation allows us to see that to achieve the number of
3000 men the vessels of Augustus' fleet would have to have held
more combatants than an actual fleet. The spectacle thus focused
less on the movement of the vessels than the actual presence of
them in the artificial basin, and the hand-to-hand combat which
It was different for Claudius' naumachia. The two fleets each
consisted of 50 vessels, which corresponds to the number of vessels
in each of the two military fleets based at Misenum and at Ravenna.
Lake Fucino was large enough that only part of it was needed,
surrounded by pontoons, and there was room enough for the vessels
to manoeuvre and ram each other. The naumachia of Claudius
therefore truly reproduced naval combat.
According to Sextus Julius Frontinus (De aquis urbis Romæ, 11, 1-2
: opus naumachiæ), the water supply for the naumachia of Augustus
was specially constructed, with the surplus used to water
neighbouring gardens in the Trans Tiberim. This was the Aqua
Alsietina aqueduct, remains of which have been found on the slopes
of Janiculus (the "8th hill of Rome") below the monastery of S.
Cosimato. There are several theories as to the precise location of
the site; the latest of which places it between Via Aurelia in the
north and the church of S. Francesco a Ripa in the southeast, in
the loop of theTiber. The republican viaduct discovered in the Via
Aurelia near S. Crisogono may also have served as a conduit for the
The basin did not last very long. During the reign of Augustus it
was partly replaced (Suetonius, Augustus
, 43, 1) by the
(sacred forest of the Caesars), later
renamed "forest of Gaius and Lucius" (Dion Cassius, 66, 25, 3).
This vast area was probably built upon by the end of the 1st
Naumachia in amphitheatres
A new development occurred during the reign of Nero
: naumachia in an amphitheatre
. Suetonius (Nero
2-6) and Dion Cassius
, LXI, 9, 5) speak of such a spectacle in 57 CE in a
wooden amphitheatre inaugurated by the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty
. We know
nothing of the site other than that it was built on the Campus Martius
. Nero presented another
in 64 CE. This was preceded by hunts and
followed by gladiatorial combat and a great banquet (Dion Cassius,
LXII, 15, 1). We don't know what form these games took. It was
probably the same wooden amphitheatre, given that there is no
mention of its destruction before the great fire of Rome
which happened shortly
inauguration of the Colosseum in 80 AD, Titus gave two naumachiae, one in the
Augustinian basin, again using several thousand men, and the other
in the new amphitheatre (Dion Cassius, LXVI, 25, 1-4).
According to Suetonius (Domitian
, IV, 6-7), Domitian
organised a naumachia
Colosseum, undoubtedly circa 85
AD, and another
one in the year 89
in a new basin dug beyond the
Tiber; with the stone removed serving to repair the Circus Maximus,
which had burnt on two sides. It was probably in the time between
these two naumachia
that Domitian completed the network of
rooms underneath the Colosseum that are visible today, at the same
time precluding future such spectacles in the arena.
The arena at the Colosseum only measured 79.35 x 47.20 meters, far
removed from the dimensions of the Augustinian basin.
in the Colosseum could therefore not have been
as grand as the previous ones. One can imagine a confrontation
between the crews of several reproductions of warships, potentially
life-size or reasonably close to it, but actual maneuvers or even
floating seems doubtful. It is known that stage-props were used to
represent ships, sometimes with mechanisms to simulate shipwrecks,
both on stage and in the arena (Tacitus
, XIV, 6, 1 ; Dion Cassius LXI, 12,2).
Water in the amphitheatres
The concept of actual water being used in the amphitheatres raises
numerous questions. Firstly, these sites were not exclusively for
and had to be available for gladiatorial combats
and other spectacles. The rapid transition between water shows and
earth-based shows seems to have been one of the great attractions.
Dion Cassius underscores this as it relates to Nero's
(LXI, 9, 5); Martial
as well speaking of Titus' naumachia
in the Colosseum
(Book of Spectacles
, XXIV). Study of the only written
sources does not however provide us any clues as to how this was
Archaeology provides no clues, as the basement of the Colosseum has
since been modified. Only two provincial buildings, those at
Verona and Mérida, Spain, are able to provide any technical
The central pit of the Verona amphitheatre was deeper than the
rooms normally found underneath the arena, and served as a basin.
It was connected to two axial conduits. One, circulating under the
West gallery of the arena was not connected to the drainage system
and had to be connected to an aqueduct
order to fill the basin. The East conduit was deeper and designed to
drain water into the Adige
The basin at the Mérida amphitheatre, at
only 1.5 meters, was shallower than that at Verona. Because it is
so shallow - less than the height of a standing man - it cannot be
confused with an underground service room. This basin was equipped
with access stairs and covered with material similar to that used
for swimming pools and Roman baths
was also served by two conduits; the western one of which connected
to the nearby San Lazaro aqueduct.
The dimensions of these basins however rule out even the most basic
: the one at Mérida measures a mere 18.5 x 3.7
meters. Only the most modest of water spectacles could have taken
place here. This leads one to conclude that, even assuming that the
Colosseum had a similar basin before construction of the
would have been performed on only a shallow
layer of water covering the surface of the arena.
Decline of Roman naumachia
The introduction of new technologies initially lead to an increased
number of naumachia
. The first three naumachia
were spaced about 50 years apart; the following six, most of which
took place in amphitheatres, occurred in a space of 30 years. Less
costly in material and human terms, they could afford to be staged
more frequently. Less grandiose, they became a feature of the
games, but could not be considered exceptional. The iconography
bears witness to this. Of some
twenty representations of naumachia
in Roman art
, nearly all are of the Fourth Style
, of the time of Nero
and the Flavian
After the Flavian period, naumachia
disappear from the
texts almost completely. Apart from a mention in the Augustan History, a late source of
limited reliability, only the town records (fastia) of
Ostia tells us that in 109 Trajan
inaugurated a naumachia basin. This site was
discovered in the 18th century on the grounds of the Vatican City, behind the Castel Sant'Angelo.
Subsequent digs have revealed the complete
site plan. It had bleachers and the surface was about one sixth the
size of the Augustan naumachia
. In the absence of any
texts, it has to be assumed that it was only used at the time of
Nevertheless, if late Roman Empire sources and persistence into the
in terms of the toponymy
at the site are taken into consideration, it
still existed into the 5th century. Moreover, the presence of
bleachers on its perimeter is a strong indicator of regular shows.
According to the Ostia municipal records, the inauguration involved
127 pairs of gladiators; leading one to believe that as in the
amphitheatre, the restrictive space at Trajan's basin was not
conducive to large combats involving many untrained prisoners, or
would have required over-simplification of naval combats, leading
to a preference for single combat. In this form, and with a
dedicated site, naumachia
could easily have continued
(though likely at a reducing frequency) for several centuries
without mention in sources, as they would not have been
particularly worthy of mention: they simply lost their grandeur and
In the provinces, the influence of Roman naumachia
easily discernible, but limited and reduced to local and innocuous
naval games and re-enactments. A competition which went under the name of
naumaciva was part of the Panathenaic Games between the Athenian Ephebos from the Flavian period onward.
replaced the regattas
which had taken place
at these games earlier. If Ausonius is to be
believed, (Moselle, 200-2,29), a naumachia was held on the
River between local youth.
naumachia was performed for Henry II of France in Rouen in
1550. Another was held in Milan for Napoleon in 1807.
Parc Monceau in Paris features a
naumachia water feature, surrounded by a colonnade.
A modern naumachia held in the Civic
Arena of Milan in 1807
In 18th and 19th century England, several parks featured mock naval
battles with model ships, which were also referred to as
. Peasholm Park in Scarborough, England, still stages such an event.
Smaller, theatre-based aqua dramas
Naumachia in art and fiction
The book Those about to Die
by Daniel P. Mannix features a
detailed description of a naumachia
during the reign of
emperor Claudius, in which a nearby lake was used to provide an
afternoon's entertainment for the Roman mob. The naumachia of
Augustus is the topic of Jukka
artist Duke Riley staged a naumachia in
2009 at the Queens
Museum of Art.
Kings of Rome: Champions of the Naumachia
is the newest
historical fiction that accurately captures a full scale Naumachia.
Much of the book's detail comes from revelating forensic research
conducted in a gladiator graveyard in Ephesus
book was written by Sterling Nixon and published by Black Rose
- This article is based on a translation of the corresponding article from the French
Wikipedia, retrieved on June 20, 2006.
- F. Coarelli, Aedes Fortis Fortunae, Naumachia Augusti,
Castra Ravennatium : la Via Campana
Portuensis e alcuni edifici nella Pianta Marmorea
Severiana, Ostraka 1, 1992, 39-54.
- L. Cordischi, Note in margine di topografia romana :
"Codeta, minor Codeta" e "Naumachia Caesaris, Bullettino
della Commissione Acheologica comunale di Roma, 1999, 100,
- K. M. Coleman, Launching into history: aquatic displays in
the Early Empire, Journal of Roman Studies 83, 1993,
- J.-Cl. Golvin, L'amphithéâtre romain. Essai sur la
théorisation de sa forme et de ses fonctions, Paris, 1988,
- J.-Cl. Golvin, Ch. Landes, Amphithéâtres et
gladiateurs, Paris, 1990, 96.
- A. M. Liberati, s. v. Naumachia Augusti, in E. Steinby
(éd.), Lexicon topographicum urbis Romae, III, 1996,
- L. Richardson, A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient
Rome, Baltimore-Londres, 1992, 265-266, 292.
- L. Haselberger (dir.), Mapping Augustan Rome,
Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 50,
Portsmouth (Rhode Island), 2002, 179.
- R. Taylor, Torrent or trickle ? The Aqua
Alsietina, the Naumachia Augusti, and the Transtiberim,
American Journal of Archaeology 101, 1997, 465-492.