ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Naumachiae, Naval Battles in the Roman Colosseum

Updated on November 16, 2015
19th century engraving, depicting a naumachia
19th century engraving, depicting a naumachia | Source

Executing criminals, staging gladiator fights, hunting thousands of wild animals brought from all over the empire, the famous Colosseum in Rome has had a long history of violent and bloody entertainment being held inside of it. Most people already know about these spectacles; you can hardly read about the Roman games without coming across the infamous gladiator fights, but there seems to be one form of entertainment that has been glossed over in textbooks and other sources, except the Roman writers themselves. The naumachia, Greek for “naval combat,” was no doubt the most fantastic and lavish of the events that Romans set up to entertain themselves with, and also the most difficult to pull off. Which is probably why they aren’t mentioned a whole lot.

Statue of Julius Caesar by French sculptor Nicolas Coustou
Statue of Julius Caesar by French sculptor Nicolas Coustou | Source

As you can guess from the name, the naumachia involves staging a mock sea battle, all in the name of entertainment. Actual ships manned by actual people (usually prisoners of war or criminals condemned to death) all of them actually fighting. Historians say that the root of these games could probably be found in ancient Romans using the Tiber River as a training ground for their navy to stage sea battles as practice while excited citizens watched from the shore, but the first known naumachia given solely for the purpose of entertainment was recorded in 46 BCE, planned by none other than Julius Caesar himself. During his extremely expensive and unique quadruple triumph, he had a basin dug near the Tiber River and filled with water so that it would hold life-sized ships and still be large enough for maneuverability, and made 1,000 men on each of the opposing sides fight each other while 4,000 men rowed.

It was a large spectacle, unrivaled by anything the Romans had ever seen before. Roman writers such as Suetonius write about how people camped along the streets in order to see the battle and many were crushed by their peers in the excitement of it all.

Statue of Emperor Augustus
Statue of Emperor Augustus | Source

So, naturally, it would have to be replicated later. Emperor Augustus took a leaf out of his uncle’s book and staged his own naumachia as a celebration of the newly built Temple of Mars Ultor, having a new basin dug (Caesar’s had been filled in soon after it had served its purpose) that was bigger and more grand than the previous one—as how most Roman things go. It was as long as the Circus Maximus and over twice as wide, with an island in the center where the most important spectators got the best seats to the show. Three times the amount of people fought in this match as before, but it still was nothing compared to a later emperor, Claudius, who staged one of his own inside of an actual lake, so there was plenty of room to fight and maneuver in.

Even more interesting, this particular event is the only time in recorded history where the well-known phrase: “We who are about to die salute you,” has ever been used. The men participating in this battle were criminals condemned to execution, so it makes sense that they would say this to the crowd before they fought, as a way of ingratiating themselves before they died. Modern day myths associate this phrase with gladiator fights, except gladiators were not criminals and their matches rarely ended with the death of one of the fighters and therefore this salute would have been pointless with them.

Colosseum | Source

However the first time an actual site was constructed to have a permanent location where an emperor could hold a naumachia, without needing to dig a basin or go to a lake, was with the Colosseum. Vespasian wanted a place unlike any other in the world, where the grandest games could be held, and it was his son Titus who finished Rome’s most famous monument and held naumachiae inside of it. This was done very cleverly by the Romans; the Colosseum’s floor could be removed, along with all of the supports under it, within a short amount of time to make the ground deeper than usual, so it could be filled with water and not be too shallow for the boats to sail in. Water was drained off from nearby aqueducts and could fill the arena within the very same day as the land fights, as it has been calculated that it would only take about 34 to 76 minutes to flood the vast space, depending on how much water was being siphoned off the aqueducts to fill the Colosseum. This is quite an amazing feat of engineering when thinking about how long ago this was, and the vast amount of effort it would take to replicate something like this even in our day.

Romans have created marvels all for the sole purpose of entertaining themselves, the greatest of these no doubt being the great Colosseum. But to truly appreciate the amazing complexity of it all, learning about everything the Romans could make their creations do and undergo is the way to do it.

 Wall painting with naumachia from Pompeii
Wall painting with naumachia from Pompeii | Source


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Linnea Lewis profile imageAUTHOR

      Linnea Lewis 

      3 years ago from South Carolina, USA

      Thank you, I'm glad that it was both an entertaining and educating hub for you to read! Giving entertainment to the mass has been around for as long as history, although today they are a bit lacking in the bread department. Glad you liked!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Very interesting part of history I was unaware of until now. Providing bread and circuses to the peasants is something that has followed us to the present day, although now our circus is football. It still has the same function of diverting the aggressive tendency of the masses. Great hub.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)