Gladiators illustrate both the glory and decadence of the Roman Empire. Their legendary fights convey images of sand mixed with blood, voracious beasts and noisy crowds… But did you know there was a bloodier, maritime version of gladiatorial games, set in water-filled amphitheaters? Grab your life jackets as we dive in.
The waters burst out of the pipes and fill the amphitheater, to the amazement of the audience. And then the spectators exult as galleys make their way in. Aboard, there are thousands of warriors sentenced to death; but for the general public, this naumachia is sheer entertainment.
Blood and Water
Julius Caesar is said to have ordered the first naumachia in 46 BC. Set on an artificial lake near the Tiber river, it was staged as a ‘rematch’ of a historical battle featuring Egyptians and Phoenicians. Who cares if the conflict never occurred? The imperator did not aim at teaching a history lesson, but celebrating his (short-lived) triumph.
He took drastic steps to do so. Caesar deployed 2,000 seamen and twice as many rowers, ‘selected’ amongst his prisoners of war. Decades later, his successors Augustus and Claudius followed suit, adding to the number of corpses blackening the waters and feeding the fish…
Hit and sunk
Unlike traditional gladiators, who were selected and trained before entering the amphiteater on game day, naumachiarii were just prisoners tasked with killing one another. Pretty straightforward. They knew which fate awaited them, and hardly ever survived the experience. Most warriors either died by the swords of their companions of misery, or drowned, crushed by the sunken galleys’ skeletons.
Plus, the basins where those naval assaults took place were relatively small compared to the size of the forces involved. Sure, one could not risk staging them in the open sea — slaves and prisoners would definitely sail away! What is more, the audience did not come en masse just to watch skillful sea maneuvers. They wanted blood. So they got thousands of men swallowed alive by Neptune.
Claudius’ bad joke
Naumachiae may have given rise to a long-lasting sterotype about gladiatorial combat, now featured everywhere from Asterix comics to Hollywood epics: the gladiators’ salute. It is widely believed that, before fighting to death, the warriors would raise their arms towards the imperator’s tribune and cry gravely: “Ave imperator, morituri te salutant” (Hi emperor, those who are about to die salute you). Did they ever do that?
According to Suetonius (Life of Claudius, XXI, 4), this happened only once in Roman history, during a naumachia ordered by Emperor Claudius in 52 AD. The slaves chosen for the mock sea battle turned towards him and said “Ave imperator, morituri te salutant” but the latter replied “Aut non” (“Or not”), implying that their salute was not much honest… But the warriors interpreted it in the sense of ‘maybe you won’t die here today’ and thought their emperor had just pardoned them. So they fled the naval battlefield in great numbers without giving Claudius time to make up his mind…
The emperor forced them to fight anyway, as Suetonius recalls:
“Upon this [Claudius] hesitated for some time about destroying [the naumachiarii] with fire and sword, but at last leaping from his throne and running along the edge of the lake with his ridiculous tottering gait, he induced them to fight, partly by threats and partly by promises. At this performance a Sicilian and a Rhodian fleet engaged, each numbering twelve triremes, and the signal was sounded on a horn by a silver Triton, which was raised from the middle of the lake by a mechanical device.”
Flooded amphiteaters, at last
Several other sea battles were staged across the Empire in the 1st century AD. The rule of Nero (54-68) marked the first time an amphiteater was filled with water, while previous naumachiae had to be staged outside city centres, near natural bodies of water. The amazed audience watched the stadium fill magically, and some even witnessed “sea creatures” roaming through the waters…
Titus (79-81) also staged a naumachia in 80 AD at the Colosseum of Rome. The audience expected wild beasts and sand; instead, they got a naval battle featuring, according to Cassius Dio (Roman History, LXVI, 25) “horses and bulls and some other domesticated animals that had been taught to behave in the liquid element just as on land.” One can barely imagine the number of animals and men killed on that celebration day…
Eventually, naumachiae died out as the Roman Empire slowly but surely collapsed. They were gradually replaced by (peaceful) naval jousts which became something of a sport. Scattered across the old empire, from Merida (Spain) to the Moselle river (France), the ruins of ancient basins are now under thorough investigation… And beyond the centuries, archeologists still perceive the bloodthirsty noise of the crowds, the crack of broken masts, and the desperate dives of sea gladiators. Morituri te salutant.
- K. M. Coleman, “Launching into History: Aquatic Displays in the Early Empire”, The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 83, 1993, pp. 48–74, JSTOR.
- Roger Dunkle, Gladiators: Violence and Spectacle in Ancient Rome (2013), Routledge.
- Y. Béquignon, “Un Trait D’esprit De L’empereur Claude”, Revue Archéologique, vol. 25, 1946, pp. 228–229, JSTOR.
- Martin Crapper, How Roman Engineers Could Have Flooded the Colosseum (2007).
- R. L., “Archéologie Ancienne De La Péninsule Ibérique”, Revue Archéologique, vol. 15, 1940, pp. 264–268, JSTOR.