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Article on pp 792‑793 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

NAUMACHIA was the name given to the representation of a sea-fight among the Romans, and also to the place where such engagements took place. These fights were sometimes exhibited in the Circus or Amphitheatre, sufficient water being introduced to float ships, but more generally in buildings especially devoted to this purpose. The first representation of a sea-fight on an extensive scale was exhibited by Julius Caesar, who caused a lake to be dug for the purpose in a part of the Campus Martius, called by Suetonius the "Lesser Codeta" (Dion Cass. XLIII.23; Suet. Jul. Caes. 39); this lake was afterwards filled up in the time of Augustus on the account of the malaria arising from the stagnant water in it (Dion Cass. XLV.17). Augustus also dug a lake (stagnum) near the Tiber for the same purpose, and planted around it a grove of trees (nemus) (Suet. Aug. 43; Tacit. Ann. XII.56, XIV.15). This naumachia was the first permanent one; it continued to be used after others had been made, and was subsequently called the "vetus naumachia" (Suet. Tit. 7; Dion Cass. LXVI.25; Ernesti, ad Suet. Tib. 72). Claudius exhibited a magnificent sea-fight on the lake Fucinus (Tacit. Ann. XII.56; Suet. Claud. 21; Dion Cass. LX.33). Nero appears to have preferred the amphitheatre for these exhibitions. Domitian made a new naumachia, and erected a building of stone around it, in which the spectators might sit to see the engagement ( Dion Cass. LXVI.8; Suet. Dom. 4, 5). Representations of naumachiae are sometimes given on the coins of the emperors. (Scheffer, de Militia Navali, III.2 pp189, 191).

The combatants in these sea-fights, called Naumachiarii (Suet. Claud. 21), were usually captives (Dion Cass. XLVIII.19) or criminals condemned to death (Dion Cass. LX.33), who fought as in gladiatorial combats, until one party was killed, unless preserved by the clemency of the emperor. The ships engaged in the sea-fights were divided into two parties, called respectively by the names of two different maritime nations, as Tyrians and Egyptians (Suet. Jul. 31), Rhodians and Sicilians (Suet. Claud. 21; Dion Cass. LX.33), Persians and Athenians (Dion Cass. LXI.9), Corcyraeans and Corinthians, Athenians and Syracusans, &c. (id., LXVI.25). These sea-fights were exhibited with the same magnificence and lavish expenditure of human life as characterised the gladiatorial combats and other public games of the Romans. In Nero's naumachia there were sea-monsters swimming about in the artificial lake (Suet. Nero, 12; Dion Cass. LXI.9), and Claudius had a silver Triton placed in the middle of the lake Fucinus, who was made by machinery to give the signal for attack with a trumpet (Suet. Claud. 21). Troops of Nereids were also represented swimming about (Martial, de Spect. 26). In the sea-fight exhibited by Titus there were 3000 men engaged (Dion Cass. LXVI.25), and in that exhibited by Domitian the ships were almost equal in number to two real fleets (paene justae classes, Suet. Dom. 4). In the battle on the lake Fucinus there were 19,000 combatants (Tacit. Ann. XII.56) and fifty ships on each side (Dion Cass. LX.33).

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Page updated: 4 Feb 09