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Naumachia in Rome, Ulpiano Checa
Naumachia in Rome, Ulpiano Checa

Naumachia (naumachiae better known as navalia proelia) was naval combat was a form of spectacle depicting a naval battle. They were probably the most unusual and expensive of the Roman shows. Naumachia literally means “naval war”.

An engraving showing the staging of a naval battle in an amphitheater.

The first naumachia was organized by Julius Caesar during the Great Games of the year 46 BCE. During this time Caesar managed to seize dictatorial power at the expense of hundreds of executions in which unwilling noblemen were executed. Caesar organized the games in order to win the support of the crowd and strengthen his power. So he announced that in addition to gladiator fights, plays, free feasts and other entertainment, there would be a naval battle. 3000 people and over a dozen ships were to take part in the spectacle.

To create the right conditions for this, an army of workers was to dig an artificial lake in the Martian Field. The lake was wide, but not very deep because the warships of that time had very little displacement.

The battle fought several centuries earlier between Tire and Egypt was to be modelled. The Tyrians then had ships with high sides, powered by two rows of oars. In addition, their unit was equipped with a sharp ram on the bow just below the water surface, thanks to which it was possible to ram and sink the enemy unit. There were also armed soldiers on board who could board the enemy ship.

Our information about the Egyptian fleet of this period is very rudimentary, but probably the Egyptians could only boarding.

Liburna (Liburnae) was a kind of light Roman warship, with two rows of oars and low displacement. Its shape was long and narrow, sharpened at both ends.

However, Caesar, not paying much attention to historical details, decided to use the Liburnian galleys, which were the basic ships of the Roman fleet operating in territorial waters during the battle. This unit had two rows of oars placed one above the other, which allowed 60 oars to be placed on one side. The galley was slightly submerged in water and had a fairly wide deck. The ship was about 33 meters long and 4.5 meters wide. Like the Tyrian unit, the ship had a sharp ram, which was to sink the enemy ship. The Liburnian galleys could also contain 40 armed soldiers who gathered on the piers at the bow or stern of the ship, ready to break into the enemy’s deck.

The battle itself was not described in detail, but it is believed that the fight was not a bloody slaughterhouse, but simply a show.

The idea of ​​Caesar was continued by his adopted son, Augustus Augustus, who organized another naumachia in the 2nd year CE. He organized it on the occasion of the dedication of the temple of Mars Avenger. However, because the waters of the artificial Lake Caesar in the Field of Mars after a few years stagnated, they were buried. In this case, August ordered the construction of a new lake on the banks of the Tiber near Trastevere, measuring approximately 548 meters by 365. When the lake was not used for performances, it served as a water reservoir.

This time it was decided to present the battle of the fifth century BCE between the Athenians and the Persians. About 30 ships took part in the battle, while units could only be obtained by boarding. This treatment was aimed at increasing bloodshed and making it more attractive for the Roman conditions of the performance. In addition, 5000 gladiators were loaded on the ships. Rowers, which were probably professional sailors, were supposed to lead ships to the right place so that gladiators could do their bloody work. The spectacle created by August met with great admiration of the people.

Model showing naumachia. The most famous and described in detail by Tacitus, Suetonius and Dion naumachia took place in the waters of Lake Fucin in 52 CE on the order of Emperor Claudius. It is associated with the gladiator call: Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant!

Sea battles were so successful that, despite the enormous costs, the rulers decided that it would be worth organizing them from time to time. Claudius decided to celebrate naumachia’s greatest engineering work that was accomplished during his reign. For years, workers brought by Claudius dug a canal leading from Lake of Fucino, a few miles east of Rome, to the nearby river Liris. The draining of the lake allowed to allocate extensive swamp and swamps for cultivation. Water from the lake was used to irrigate the nearby plain. Certainly, it was an achievement worth celebrating.

It was decided to recreate the battle between Rhodes and Sicilians. About 19,000 convicts who underwent basic naval training took part in the spectacle. The fighters were given cheap and poorly constructed ships, which clearly suggested that they were to be the bloodiest naumachiae in history. Legionaries were set up on the shore to kill anyone attempting to flee, and catapults to destroy ships that avoided fighting.

At the news of a huge event, crowds began to draw on the slopes of Lake Fucynski. Hundreds of thousands of viewers were to watch the battle. Before the convicts went to the ships, they stood before Claudius, raised their arms and gave him a salute: “Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant!” (“Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you”). Claudius was to answer “Or not”, which was not the standard answer. The prisoners took the ruler’s comment as a sign that they were punished by the emigrants and refused to board. Eventually, Claudius persuaded convicts to board ships, provided that if they survived, their lives would be saved.

When Claudius gave the signal to start the battle, a silver triton emerged from the lake and blew into the conch. It was a real technical miracle, which probably required a lifting mechanism. The battle was fierce. The ships were sinking, boarding was done, and people were dying to the delight of the crowd. Finally, the triton surfaced again and called for an end to the fight.

The whole show ruined the ending. When the strength of the drained water was so great that it swept away nearby bridges, podiums and people. Because of the great embarrassment that Naumachia ended on Lake Fucyn, naval battles were now organized in more controlled conditions in Rome itself.

The next naumachia took place in 57 CE during the reign of Nero, who built a new wooden amphitheatre in the Field of Mars, equipped with a complicated piping system, thanks to which the arena could be flooded or drained in a few minutes.

Titus used a similar “trick” in 80 CE during the inaugural games at the Colosseum, which met with great admiration from viewers. At that time, the amphitheatre arena was flooded, and specially trained horses and bulls were released into the water to compete with each other. A naval battle between the Greeks, Corinthians and the inhabitants of Corfu was also to take place. This event, however, is still being criticized by many historians who claim that there could not be enough space for warships in the arena and how the arena was waterproof. However, it was recognized that the Romans had no difficulty filling the arena with water.

Painting showing a sea fight in the arena

This way of entertainment was organized in 84 CE during Domitian and 248 during Philip and Arab, who wanted to commemorate the millennium of the founding of Rome. The show was organized on an artificial lake dug above that created during Augustus, which was called Naumachia Vaticana, from the place that later gave the name of today’s seat of the popes.

Later, no sea battles were ever attempted again. It is possible that the cost of such events was simply too great. The crowd could settle for cheaper competitions and performances. So there was no reason for the ruler to spend money if he could avoid it.

  • Matthews Rupert, Rzym mroczny, ponury, krwawy, Warszawa 2007

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