Ancient Romans flooded the Colosseum to re-create famous naval battles for thousands to see

Nikola Simonovski
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The Colosseum is the world’s largest amphitheater and one of the most recognizable symbols of Rome.Construction of this grandiose building, also known as the Flavian Amphitheater, began in 70 A.D. by order of Emperor Vespasian. Ten years later, it was completed under the rule of his son, Titus. The building’s opening ceremony in 80 A.D. was as impressive as the Colosseum itself, lasting for 100 days with games such as animal fighting and gladiator duels.

With dimensions of 513 by 620 feet, the Colosseum held between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, averaging 65,000 attendants per event—a remarkable number even by today’s standards. Made of concrete and stone, this arena was in use for more than 390 years and saw the deaths of more than 400,000 people and nearly 1 million animals.

A map showing the Colosseum’s location in the city of Rome

The Colosseum was built by more than 60,000 slaves, some of them Jewish prisoners enslaved after the failed revolt of 70 A.D. in Jerusalem. It was finished in just 10 years. The arena was later renovated several times, with underground tunnels (the hypogeum) added by Emperor Domitian to hold animals and slaves, and a red canvas covering installed to shield spectators from rain.

The Colosseum was a venue for more than just gladiatorial games, though. It was used also for public executions and mythological plays. The Romans would often re-enact famous military victories, with free admission and food for all visitors. Perhaps the most spectacular events at the Colosseum were the mock naval battles in the flooded arena.

Naumachia (detail): an imaginative re-creation by Ulpiano Checa, first exhibited in 1894.

These staged sea battles, called naumachia, were held in places that could easily be flooded. The first recorded naumachia relates to Julius Caesar, just two years before he was assassinated and long before construction of Colosseum. Namely, he wanted to celebrate some of his military efforts in Gaul and Egypt in 46 B.C. Hence, he gave orders that a basin should be excavated in the proximity of the River Tiber. The basin was used for an event in which some 2,000 prisoners reportedly fought each other to the death. Four thousand rowers were present at the mock battle as well.

Cross-section from the Lexikon der gesamten Technik

Some four decades later, in 2 B.C., it was now the turn of Emperor Augustus. He had ordered the creation of a similar basin, also by the River Tiber, and another event was staged. Some 3,000 peoples and 30 ships participated.

View of Rome in 1747 by Giovanni Paolo Panini, emphasizing the semi-rural environs of the Colosseum at the time

The first naval battle at the Colosseum was held in 80 A.D., during the arena’s opening ceremony. Emperor Titus ordered the amphitheater to be flooded and had special flat-bottomed ships designed to accommodate the shallow water. Historians still don’t know how exactly these sea battles were organized, but the ships used at the arena were likely small replicas of real Roman ships.

No physical evidence of naumachia at the Colosseum remains, but several ancient writers, such as Cassius Dio and Suetonius, described these events. The arena could apparently be filled with water and drained very quickly. The first naumachia at the Colosseum had 3,000 combatants and replicated the battle between Athens and Syracuse. There was even an artificial island made in the middle of the arena, where the sailors landed and continued the fights. Another naval battle the Colosseum was documented in 89 AD, orchestrated by Emperor Domitian, and this is the latest recorded naumachia in the history.

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

The popularity of staged naval battles decreased significantly over time, and the Colosseum was used mainly for more traditional combat sports. After nearly four centuries of use, the grand arena fell into disrepair, and in the early medieval period, it ceased being used for entertainment purposes. Over the next few centuries, it was used as a quarry, a fortress, a Christian shrine, and a source of building materials.

Read another story from us: The Colosseum opens its top levels after decades of being inaccessible to the public 

The amphitheater was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1349. Time has taken its toll. However, the Colosseum remains a popular tourist attraction in the Eternal City and a symbol of one of the most powerful empires of all time.