Staging War

Naumachiae and Land Battles

As the resources of Rome grew, so too did its leaders’ ability to stage large scale combats on land and sea for the people of Rome. Although these featured Roman soldiers in the beginning, these were replaced with prisoners-of-war and condemned criminals. The naval recreations are called (singular naumachia).

The naumaquia (Naval battle between Romans).

For his quadruple triumph in 46 BCE, Julius Caesar put on a variety of shows, including the first known naumachia:

Combats with wild beasts were presented on five successive days, and last of all there was a battle between two opposing armies, in which five hundred infantry, twenty elephants, and thirty cavalry fought on each side. To make room for this in the Circus Maximus, the goals were taken down and in their place two camps were pitched over against each other. The athletic competitions lasted for three days in a temporary stadium built for the purpose in the region of the Campus Martius. 4 For the naval battle a pool was dug in the lesser Codeta[1] and there was a contest of ships of two, three, and four banks of oars, belonging to the Tyrian and Egyptian fleets, manned by a large force of marines. Such a crowd flocked to all these shows from every quarter, that many strangers had to lodge in tents pitched in streets or along the roads, and the crush was often such that many were crushed to death, including two senators.

Suetonius, Julius Caesar 39

It is said that money to the amount of 60,500 silver talents was carried in the procession and 2822 crowns of gold weighing 20,414 pounds, from which wealth Caesar made allocations immediately after the triumph, paying the army all that he had promised and more. Each soldier received 5000 Attic drachmas, each centurion double, and each tribune of infantry and perfect of cavalry four times that sum. To each plebeian citizen also was given an Attic mina. He gave also various spectacles with horses and music, an infantry combat, 1000 on each side, and a cavalry fight of 200 on each side. There was also another combat involving both cavalry and infantry. There was an elephant fight, twenty against twenty, and a naval engagement of 4000 rowers, where 1000 fighting men fought on each side.

Appian, Civil Wars 2.102

In his Res Gestae, his public autobiography, Augustus gave an account of the various shows he had put on for the people, including his naumachia, which was held in a new, specially excavated location, which continued to be used by later emperors:

I gave the people a spectacle of a naval battle, in the place across the Tiber where the grove of the Caesars is now, with the ground excavated in length 1,800 feet, in width 1,200, in which thirty beaked ships, biremes or triremes, but many smaller, fought among themselves; in these ships about 3,000 men fought in addition to the rowers.

Augustus, Res Gestae 23

Cassius Dio gives a fuller description of Augustus’ games.

These matters settled, Augustus dedicated this temple of Mars [Ultor], although he had granted to Gaius and Lucius once for all the right to consecrate all such buildings by virtue of a kind of authority that they exercised in the traditional manner. And they did, in fact, have the management of the games on this occasion, while their brother Agrippa took part along with the boys of the first families in the equestrian exercise called “Troy.” Two hundred and sixty lions were slaughtered in the Circus. There was a gladiatorial combat in the , and a naval battle between the “Persians” and the “Athenians” was given on the spot where even to‑day some relics of it are still pointed out. These, it will be understood, were the names given to the contestants; and the “Athenians” prevailed on this occasion. Afterwards water was let into the Circus Flaminius and thirty-six crocodiles were slaughtered there.

Cassius Dio, Roman History

The largest naumachia was that of Claudius held in 52 CE to celebrate his draining of the Fucine Lake (neither the naumachia nor the draining went that well): it involved 19,000 men.

Claudius conceived the desire to exhibit a naval battle on a certain lake; so, after building a wooden wall around it and erecting stands, he assembled an enormous multitude. Claudius and Nero were arrayed in military clothing, while Agrippina wore a beautiful chlamys[2] woven with threads of gold, and the rest of the spectators whatever pleased their fancy. Those who were to take part in the sea-fight were condemned criminals, and each side had fifty ships, one part being styled “Rhodians” and the other “Sicilians.” First they assembled in a single body and all together addressed Claudius in this fashion: “Hail, Emperor! We who are about to die salute you.” And when this in no way helped save them and they were ordered to fight just the same, they simply sailed through their opponents’ lines, injuring each other as little as possible. This continued until they were forced to destroy one another.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 60

The Numachia of Emperor Nero

Nero also gave naumachiae:

In the course of producing a spectacle at one of the theatres Nero suddenly filled the place with sea water so that fishes and sea monsters swam about in it, and he exhibited a naval battle between men representing Persians and Athenians. After this he immediately drained the water, dried the ground, and once more exhibited contests between land forces, who fought not only in single combat but also in large groups equally matched.

Cassius Dio, Epitome of Roman History 61

He also turned the site of Augustus’ naumachia to some interesting uses:

Reluctant, however, as yet to expose his dishonour on a public stage, he founded the so‑called Juvenalia for which a crowd of volunteers enrolled themselves. Neither rank, nor age, nor an official career prevented a man from practising the art of a Greek or a Latin actor, down to attitudes and melodies never meant for the male sex. Even women of distinction studied indecent parts; and in the grove with which Augustus fringed his pool for naumachia, little trysting-places and drinking-dens sprang up, and every incentive to voluptuousness was exposed for sale. Distributions of coin, too, were made, for the respectable man to expend under compulsion and the prodigal from vainglory. Hence debauchery and scandal throve; nor to our morals, corrupted long before, has anything contributed more of uncleanness than that herd of reprobates. Even in the decent walks of life, purity is hard to keep: far less could chastity or modesty or any vestige of integrity survive in that competition of the vices. — Last of all to tread the stage was the sovereign himself, scrupulously testing his lyre and striking a few preliminary notes to the trainers at his side. A cohort of the guards had been added to the audience — centurions and tribunes; Burrus, also, with his sigh and his word of praise. Now, too, for the first time was enrolled the company of Roman equestrians known as the Augustiani; conspicuously youthful and robust; wanton in some cases by nature; in others, through dreams of power. Days and nights they thundered applause, bestowed the epithets reserved for deity upon the imperial form and voice, and lived respected and honoured – as if earned by virtue.

Tacitus, Annals 14.15

Two of the three Flavian emperors, Titus and Domitian, also gave naumachia.

Most that Titus did was not characterized by anything noteworthy, but in dedicating the hunting-theatre and the baths that bear his name he produced many remarkable spectacles.[3] There was a battle between cranes and also between four elephants; animals both tame and wild were slain to the number of nine thousand; and women (not those of any prominence, however) took part in dispatching them. As for the men, several fought in single combat and several groups contended together both in infantry and naval battles. For Titus suddenly filled this same theatre with water and brought in horses and bulls and some other domesticated animals that had been taught to behave in the liquid element just as on land. He also brought in people on ships, who engaged in a sea-fight there, impersonating the Corcyreans and Corinthians; and others gave a similar exhibition outside the city in the grove of Gaius and Lucius, a place which Augustus had once excavated for this very purpose.[4] There, too, on the first day there was a gladiatorial exhibition and wild-beast hunt, the lake in front of the images having first been covered over with a platform of planks and wooden stands erected around it. On the second day there was a horse-race, and on the third day a naval battle between three thousand men, followed by an infantry battle. The “Athenians” conquered the “Syracusans” (these were the names the combatants used), made a landing on the island and assaulted and captured a wall that had been constructed around the monument.[5] These were the spectacles that were offered, and they continued for a hundred days; but Titus also furnished some things that were of practical use to the people. He would throw down into the theatre from aloft little wooden balls variously inscribed, one designating some article of food, another clothing, another a silver vessel or perhaps a gold one, or again horses, pack-animals, cattle or slaves. Those who seized them were to carry them to the dispensers of the bounty, from whom they would receive the article named.

Cassius Dio, Epitome of Roman History 66[6]

So many honours were voted to Domitian that almost the whole world (or all of it he ruled) was filled with his images and statues made of both silver and gold. He also gave a very costly spectacle, about which we have noted nothing that was worthy of historic record except that girls competed in the foot-race. After this, in the course of holding what purported to be triumphal celebrations, he arranged numerous contests. In the Circus [in 89 CE], for example, he exhibited battles of infantry against infantry and again battles between cavalry, and in a new place he produced a naval battle. At this last event practically all the combatants and many of the spectators as well perished. For, though a heavy rain and violent storm came up suddenly, he nevertheless permitted no one to leave the spectacle; and though he himself changed his clothing to thick woollen cloaks, he would not allow the others to change their attire, so that not a few fell sick and died. By way, no doubt, of consoling the people for this, he provided for them at public expense a dinner lasting all night. Often he would conduct the games also at night, and sometimes he would pit dwarfs and women against each other.

Cassius Dio, Epitome of Roman History 67

The last recorded naumachia was that given by Philip the Arab in 247 CE to celebrate Rome’s 1000th birthday.


Media Attributions

  1. This was located in the Campus Martius; it was later filled up by Augustus as the water became stagnant and a site for mosquitos to breed. 
  2. A type of cloak. Agrippina was Claudius’ wife and Nero’s mother.
  3. These celebrated the opening of the Colosseum in 80 CE.
  4. This is the one he mentions in the Res Gestae.
  5. The Athenians lost the battle for Syracuse in 414 BCE (rather badly, in fact), so this contradicts history.
  6. Cassius Dio lived from 164-229 CE. His 80 book history is only partially extant; he is also clearly writing considerably later than the reign of Domitian and Titus.


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Spectacles in the Roman World by Siobhán McElduff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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