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"Whatever is viewed in the Circus and the Amphitheater, that, Caesar, the wealth of your water has afforded you. So no more of Fucinus and the lake of direful Nero; let this be the only sea fight known to posterity."

Martial, On the Spectacles (XXVIII)

When Julius Caesar returned to Rome in 46 BC, among his triumphs was the first naumachia or mock sea battle (although the life-and-death struggle certainly was real enough to those who were forced to participate). It took place on a water-filled basin constructed in the Campus Martius, a low-lying area in a bend of the river Tiber. There, ships of two, three, and even four banks of oars representing the Tyrian and Egyptian fleets were set afloat, manned by four thousand oarsmen and, on each side, one thousand fighting men, all prisoners of war or condemned to death. Such was the novelty of the spectacle that people thronged the streets and camped along the roads to see it, many being killed in the crush to witness the death of others (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, XXXIX.4; Dio, Roman History, XLIII.23.4; Appian, Civil Wars, II.102; Plutarch, Life of Caesar, LV.4). The basin soon was filled in, however, either because Caesar intended to build a temple to Mars on the site (Suetonius, XLIV.1) or, more likely, by vote of the Senate because of the risk of epidemic from stagnant water when the Tiber flooded (Dio, XLV.17.8).

Augustus presented a naumachia in 2 BC to mark the dedication of the Temple of Mars Ultor (Suetonius, XLIII.1; Pliny, XVI.200; Dio, LV.10.7-8; Tacitus, Annals, XII.56; Velleius Paterculus, Roman History, II.100.2). The naumachia Augusti (the word could signify both the place and what took place there) was a basin measuring eighteen hundred by twelve hundred Roman feet on the right bank of the river near the Tiber Island. It was supplied with water from a new aqueduct (Aqua Alsietina) which, because the water quality was poor, also irrigated a surrounding park or grove (Frontinus, On the Water Supply of Rome, I.11). In the middle of this artificial lake was an island connected by a bridge that was constructed in part from a single wooden beam one-hundred and twenty feet in length, the largest tree ever seen in Rome and so impressive that it later was displayed by Tiberius (Pliny, XVI.190, 200). The expanse of water was almost as long as the Circus Maximus and two-and-a-half times wider, broad enough to hold thirty triremes and biremes representing the Persian and Athenian fleets at Salamis, as well as a number of smaller craft. Aside from the rowers, three thousand men were said to have fought.

In the Res Gestae (IV.23), Augustus records the spectacle among his accomplishments. Ovid is not as impressed and dismisses it in a single couplet. For the poet, the occasion was important because it afforded the opportunity for sexual dalliance. There were huge crowds, drawn from the whole Roman world. "With such a throng, who could not fail to find what caught his fancy?" (The Art of Love, I.171ff). Indeed, the naumachia Augusti continued to be used and became a place for trysts, solicitations, and drinking (Tacitus, Annals, XIV.15). Nero once hosted a banquet on the water and then sailed down the discharge canal to the Tiber (Dio, LXII.20.5). Two hundred years later, Dio relates that traces of the basin still could be seen.

In AD 57, Nero constructed his own naumachia, a wooden amphitheater in the Campus Martius (Tacitus, XIII.31). Covered with an awning dyed azure to mimic the heavens and spangled with stars (Pliny, XIX.24), the arena was filled with seawater stocked with fish and other marine creatures (Suetonius, XII.1). There was a battle between Persians and Athenians, after which the water immediately was drained and another contest presented between forces on land (Dio, LXI.9.5). Dio also speaks of a spectacle in AD 64 (the year that Nero's fire destroyed his amphitheater) involving a beast hunt followed by a sea fight, then a gladiatorial combat, and finally, the place being flooded again, a public banquet (LXII.15.1), but the two episodes may have been the same.

Titus also presented an elaborate show at the vetus naumachia (the "old naumachia" of Augustus) as part of the spectacles celebrating the dedication of the Colosseum in AD 80. There was a sea battle and a gladiatorial show, as well as the presentation of five thousand beasts, all in a single day (Suetonius, VII.3). On the first day, a portion of the lake was covered with planks and stands erected for spectators of the gladiatorial exhibition and the venatio or beast hunt. The next day there was a horse-race and on then on the third day, a naval battle between three thousand men (as many as Augustus had presented more than eight decades earlier), followed by an infantry battle between Syracusans and Athenians, who landed on the island (representing Ortygia at Syracuse) and assaulted a wall that had been built around it (Dio, LXVI.25.3-4). Martial commemorates the event as well: the animals suddenly appearing in the water (perhaps driven off the wooden platform); chariots racing through the water, kicking up spray; and Nereus, father of the Nereids, startled to find himself, as he prepares for the naval battle, having to walk in the water instead of swimming (XXVIII).

Covering the lake between the shore and the island with wooden planks, which then could be removed, is the only practical way that the naumachia of Augustus could have been used both for battles on land and water in a single day. The basin, therefore, must have been continuously fed by the Aqua Alsietina; otherwise, as Taylor has calculated, it would have taken almost a month to fill (Coleman figures seventeen days). One wonders then about the extravaganza presented by Nero. It hardly seems credible that water (let alone seawater) could be brought into the theater, drained, and then piped in again in so short a time that the audience would not become impatient at the delay. More likely, the arena floor was removed and an excavated area below it used for the marine display, much like the one at Mérida in Spain.

Too, there is the question whether the outcome of a naumachia ever was foreordained, especially those based on historical events. The Athenians were victorious at Salamis and they prevailed in Augustus' re-enactment (Dio, LV.10.8), which may have hinted at his own victory over Antony at Actium in 31 BC. They also were victorious against the Syracusans in the naumachia of Titus. But, disastrously, the Athenians had lost that battle, which was fought in the harbor of Syracuse in 413 BC (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, VII.21.36ff). To be sure, there had to have been an element of suspense and uncertainty as desperate men fought for their lives, and a lack of predictability must be presumed in that none of these contests involve a Roman fleet, which could not inadvertently be seen to lose. One then wonders if the Athenian side had been given some advantage to ensure their victory.

The most elaborate naumachia was sponsored by Claudius in AD 52 to celebrate the impending completion of an emissary to drain Lake Fucinus in the Apennine Mountains. "Like an open sea," the lake had no surface outlet and was subject to seasonal inundations so pronounced that marshy land around the shore became dry enough to till (Strabo, The Geography, V.3.13; indeed, the level of the lake has been calculated to have fluctuated as much as forty feet). Julius Caesar had intended to drain the Fucine Lake (or at least control its level) but was thwarted by the difficulty of the task. Augustus, in spite of requests from inhabitants around the shore, refused to intervene. It was Claudius, as much for glory as for gain (some had agreed to drain the lake at their own expense if they could have the land that was reclaimed), who completed the project (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, XLIV.3; Life of Claudius, XX.1; Dio, LX.11.5).

The outlet, which was three Roman miles in length and required both partly leveling and tunneling through a mountain, required the labor of thirty thousand men working without interruption for eleven years (Suetonius, XX.2). At times, they had to cut through solid rock, with the spoil hoisted to the surface through forty overhead shafts. Underground, the work, which Pliny considered to have been one of the emperor's most remarkable achievements, continued in darkness, "operations which only those who witnessed them can envisage and no human utterances can describe" (Natural History, XXXVI.124).

Tacitus relates that Claudius' naumachia was modeled on that of Augustus. There were triremes and quadriremes and nineteen thousand combatants (Annals, XII.56). At the sound of a horn from a silver Triton that rose from the middle of the lake, the Sicilian and Rhodian fleets engaged, each with twelve triremes (Suetonius, Life of Claudius, XXI.6; Dio has fifty ships on a side but presumably was counting ships of both types, LXI.33.3). To guard the condemned criminals who manned the ships, praetorians were stationed around the lake on rafts protected by ramparts and equipped with catapults and ballistae, and further reinforced by marines. On shore, the surrounding hills formed a natural amphitheater and a multitude of onlookers from the nearby towns (and from Rome itself) soon filled the stands (Tacitus, Annals, XII.56).

But it all went badly. Hoping to ingratiate themselves, the condemned men cried out "Hail, Emperor! We who are about to die salute thee" (Dio, LXI.33.4, in Greek; Suetonius uses the third person, "They who..."). Not being criminals, gladiators in the arena would not have made such a declaration, which seems to have been limited to this one instance. Unmoved by the appeal, Claudius is said to have responded "Or not," a retort that the men understood to be a pardon and then refused to fight. Hobbling along the edge of the lake with his peculiar tottering gait, Claudius first threatened and then cajoled (Suetonius, XXI.6). Finally induced to continue, they simply rowed past one another, inflicting as little injury as possible (Dio, LXI.33.4). Eventually, the men did engage and fought with such spirit that the survivors were allowed to live (Tacitus, XII.56).

Tacitus goes on to say that, when the emissary was opened at the conclusion of the naumachia, it was discovered that the channel had not been deep enough and had to be cleared to a lower level. There then was another display at the lake, this time with gladiators fighting on pontoons but it, too, was a fiasco. A banquet near the mouth of the tunnel was completely disrupted when the volume of released water destroyed some of the work and caused panic among the revelers (XII.57). Claudius' wife Agrippina used the occasion to charge the freedman in charge of the project with embezzlement, and he retorted with an attack on her feminine imperiousness and extravagance.

The project to drain Lacus Fucinus required "the expenditure of an indescribably large sum of money and the employment for many years of a horde of workers" (Pliny, XXXVI.124). Nero deliberately neglected the emissary, although Hadrian did manage to clear it (Historia Augusta, XXII.12), as had Trajan. By Dio's time, however, it again was blocked by debris, all the money having been "expended in vain" (Dio, LX.11.5). The lake would not be completely drained until 1875, when the original outlet was cleared and rebuilt.

There possibly was one last recorded naumachia. Aurelius Victor relates that Philip the Arab constructed a reservoir on the far side of the Tiber to alleviate a chronic shortage of water there (Book on the Caesars, XXVIII). When Victor wrote a century-and-a-half later, it may have served that function. But it also could have been a restoration of the naumachia Augusti and used for the same purpose, when, in AD 248, Philip commemorated the millennium of Rome's founding.

Of all such displays, however, it was the naumachiae in the Colosseum of Rome that most excite the imagination.

"I saw a theatre that rose skyward on interwoven beams and almost looked down on the summit of the Capitoline. Passing up the steps and slopes of gentle incline, we came to the seats, where in dingy garments the baser sort viewed the show close to the women's benches. For the uncovered parts, exposed beneath the open sky, were thronged by knights or white-robed tribunes. Just as the valley here expands into a wide circuit, and, winding at the side, with sloping forest background all around, stretches its concave curve amid the unbroken chain of hills, so there the sweep of the amphitheatre encircles the level ground, and the oval in the middle is bound by twin piles of building. Why should I now relate to you things which I myself could scarcely see in their several details? So dazzling was the glitter everywhere....Look, the partition-belt begemmed and the gilded arcade vie in brilliancy; and withal just where the end of the arena presents the seats closest to the marble wall, wondrous ivory is inlaid on connected beams and unites into a cylinder which, gliding smoothly on well-shaped axle, could by a sudden turn balk any claws set upon it and shake off the beasts. Bright too is the gleam from the nets of gold wire which project into the arena hung on solid tusks, tusks of equal size; and (believe me, Lycotas, if you have any trust in me) every tusk was longer than our plough. Why narrate each sight in order? Beasts of every kind I saw; here I saw snow-white hares and horned boars, here I saw the elk, rare even in the forests which produce it. Bulls too I saw, either those of heightened nape, with an unsightly hump rising from the shoulder-blades, or those with shaggy mane tossed across the neck, with rugged beard covering the chin, and quivering bristles upon their stiff dewlaps. Nor was it my lot only to see monsters of the forest: sea calves [seals] also I beheld with bears pitted against them and the unshapely herd by the name of horses [hippopotamuses], bred in that river whose waters, with spring-like renewal, irrigate the crops upon its banks. Oh, how we quaked, whenever we saw the arena part asunder and its soil upturned and beasts plunged out from the chasm cleft in the earth; yet often from those same rifts the golden arbutes [strawberry trees] sprang amid a sudden fountain spray (of saffron)."

Calpurnius Siculus, Eclogues (VII.23ff)

The Roman poet Calpurnius is thought to be writing about Nero's wooden amphitheater. In the guise of Corydon, who has returned from Rome to the countryside, he relates to his older country cousin the wonder that he saw there. Aside from the naumachia, which was fought in sea water filled with marine monsters (beluae), Suetonius recounts that senators and equites were obliged to fight in the arena, both among themselves and against wild animals. There also were Pyrrhic dances, in which the story of Pasiphaë and the bull was re-enacted (Apollodorus, Library, III.1.4; also Martial, V on a similar exhibition in the Colosseum), as was the myth of Icarus (Ovid, Metamorphoses, VIII.183ff) who, falling from the sky in an attempt to fly, bespattered the emperor with his blood (Suetonius, XII). Calpurnius elaborates on these creatures in the arena. There were seals, bears, and hippopotamuses and, on land, hares, boars, elk, and bulls—both the aurochs (now extinct) and the European bison (or possibly the Indian zebu). He also speaks of ivory cylinders which, turning freely, did not allow the animals to get a foothold if they tried to clamber up the surrounding marble wall, and golden nets hanging from long ivory tusks.

Agrippina the Younger (top) was the fourth wife of her uncle Claudius and the mother of Nero. Pliny, who actually attended the naval battle on Lake Fucinus, comments only on the gold lamé chlamys that she wore while sitting by her husband's side (XXXIII.63). This cloak of woven gold must have created a sensation, as Tacitus and Dio remark on it as well.

The bust of Agrippina (above) is in the Hall of the Emperors, Capitoline Museums (Rome). A Pyrrhic Dance (1869) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema is in the Guildhall Art Gallery (London).

References: "Launching into History: Aquatic Displays in the Early Empire" (1993) by K. M. Coleman, The Journal of Roman Studies, 83, 48-74; "Morituri Te Salutamus" (1939) by H. J. Leon, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 70, 46-50; "The Fucino: The Draining of a Major Lake in the Second Half of the XIXth Century" (2005) by Antonio Linoli (21st European Regional Conference); Julio-Claudian Building Programs: A Quantitative Study in Political Management (1989) by M. K. and R. L. Thornton (Chapter 5: The Draining of the Fucine Lake); "Torrent or Trickle? The Aqua Alsietina, the Naumachia Augusti, and the Transtiberim" (1997) by Rabun Taylor, American Journal of Archaeology, 101(3), 465-492; Liber de Caesaribus of Sextus Aurelius Victor (1994) translated by H. W. Bird; Calpurnius Siculus: Latin Minor Poets (1935) translated by J. Wight Duff and Arnold M. Duff (Loeb Classical Library); A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1992) by L. Richardson, Jr.; "Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments" (1990) by  K. M. Coleman, The Journal of Roman Studies, 80,  44-73; "Calpurnius Siculus and the Munus Neronis" (1980) by G. B. Townend, The Journal of Roman Studies, 70, 166-174; Ovid: The Erotic Poems (1982) translated by Peter Green (Penguin Classics).

See also Ave.

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