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The naumachias of the Colosseum

The naumachia were real naval battles carried out in the arena of the amphitheater which, for the occasion, was flooded recalling the famous historical battles. These shows were organized and represented only inside the Colosseum, due to the very high cost they needed. The participating ships were absolutely authentic and during the battle they were badly damaged and very often sunk. Unlike the Greek term naumachia , generally adopted to indicate both the spectacle and the host site, naval battles took the name of navalia proelia .

Among the most famous historical naval battles was that of the Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis and that of the inhabitants of Corfu against the Corinthian fleet

The involvement of the spectators

The naumachias, to perfectly emulate the real past battles, aimed at stimulating the perception of the spectators. In the battle representing the Athenian siege of the city of Syracuse, for example, a fortress was built in the center of the basin so that the “Athenians” could land and take over the Syracusan stronghold. The audience followed the various stages of the show exalting themselves at the sight of the war machines or during the maneuvers of the soldiers and cheering for the favorite faction by encouraging the fighters.

The naumacari

The naumacari, that is, the fighting actors, were slaves, men hired at the time, paid sailors or criminals sentenced to death who were spared their lives if they demonstrated skill and courage. These, once wearing the armor of the battle represented, were forced to really war.

” Ave Caesar , morituri te salutant !”
“Hello Caesar, those who go to die greet you!”

This is traditionally considered the Latin phrase pronounced by the gladiators at the entrance to the arena before starting each fight. This tradition has no literary attestations except in Suetonius, in the historiographical work De Vita Caesarum , in which we can read “Ave imperator, morituri te salutant!” , a slightly different shape from the one handed down.

Suetonius says that the invocation was addressed, by the naumacari, to the emperor Claudiuson the occasion of the battle of Fucino. He instinctively replied “Hello to you”, regardless of the weight of his words. On the other hand, the meaning was misrepresented and understood as a gesture of grace to the condemned to death, who after embarking and lined up to face the naval battle, they limited themselves to cautiously navigate towards the enemy ships, crossing them without mutually causing any damage. It then took all the energy of the praetorians to convince those criminals that their sentence had by no means been annulled and that any subsequent pardon depended on the courage they had shown in facing the opposing fleet. Finally they resolved to commit themselves fully and gave birth to such a bitter and realistic combat,

The naumachias of the inauguration

Emperor Titus, on the occasion of the inauguration of the Colosseum, organized two water shows. The first, inside it, with horses, bulls and other animals equipped both for movement in water and on land in memory of the battle between Corfu and Corinth; the second, organized in the basin built by Augustus, emulated the victory of the Athenians over the Syracusans. In the opinion of archaeologists, the Colosseum was used as a theater of naval battles only a few times, arguing that it was difficult to make the arena watertight and fill it to a height sufficient to allow ships to float.

Verona and Spain

Beyond these testimonies, the naumachias seem to be shows reserved for exceptional occasions, closely linked to celebrations of the emperor and his victories or important undertakings. For their organization in Rome an attempt was made to make use of natural basins as much as possible, so great prudence is necessary when attributing the function of naumachia to some amphitheaters. The amphitheater of Verona and that of Meridia, for example, despite having a basin in the center of the arena, are too small in size to attest to the use of such large spectacles.