Water Battles at the Colosseum

Roman Colosseum

'The Roman Colosseum'

History, Facts and Information about Water Battles at the Colosseum
The building of the Roman Colosseum was commissioned by the Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian family who died before it was completed. His oldest son, the Emperor Titus oversaw the completion and the inauguration of the amphitheatre in 80AD. During the reign of Titus there were water battles at the Roman Colosseum.

When Titus died, 2 years later, his younger brother Domitiantook the throne and during his reign he extended the Colosseum by adding another tier and also the Hypergeum. The hypogeum was vast network of rooms, cells, tunnels and passages under the Roman Colosseum. The addition of the Hypogeum meant that any other water battles at the Colosseum would not have been possible.

Accounts of Water Battles at the Colosseum
The Water Battles at the Colosseum were documented by Ancient Roman writers who recorded that the Colosseum was used for naumachiae (the Greek word for sea warfare) or simulated sea battles. Although experts cannot agree on how this was achieved. The Romans detailed accounts of the inaugural games held by Titus in AD 80. The poet Martial says that the amphitheater could change from dry land to the sea very quickly. The Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote that in 80AD Emperor Domitian employed enough vessels for the inaugural games to form two complete armadas. But Suetonius is not specific as to the location of these water battles. Another Roman writer, Cassius Dio, was more specific and wrote "Titus suddenly filled this same theatre with water and brought in horses and bulls and some other domesticated animals that had been taught to behave in the liquid element just as on land. He also brought in people on ships, who engaged in a sea-fight there, impersonating the Corcyreans and Corinthians."

Picture of a Flooded arena staging a water battle (naumachiae)

History of Water Battles (naumachiae)
The Romans enjoyed great spectacles. The wealth of the early Roman Empire allowed for extravagant re-enactments of famous water battles (naumachiae). In fact the first Naumachiae shows date back to the first Punic war against Carthage during the days of the Roman Republic when the Romans were enjoying new successes with their naval fleet - the Roman Navy. The first Naumachiae or water battles probably started when new ships were being built and sailors and slaves trained in how to row. While the ships were being built the rowers were trained on scaffolds placed upon the land, like benches of ships at sea. There training would then transfer to finished ships launched near Rome. This spectacle would have been watched by enthralled Roman spectators. The sea, rivers and eventually lakes were used for the more serious re-enactments of sea battles. Rowing practise was replaced with actual water battles, where the combatants were expected to slaughter heir opponents, or drown in the process.

History of Water Battles (naumachiae) - Julius Caesar and the Emperor Claudius
Julius Caesar originated these spectacular displays when in 46 AD he had a permanent lake built specifically for Naumachiae, or water battles on the far side of the River Tiber. This lake measured 1800ft long and 1200ft wide and was surrounded by marble seating for the wealthy spectators. Up to 3000 men were engaged in the fighting and the sea battle featured 12 Roman galleys. The Emperor Claudius was also fond of these water battles and used the Fucine Lake for this purpose. The number of galleys involved in the water battles increased and became more elaborate and spectacular.

Water Battles (Naiunachiarii)
Those who fought were called Naiunachiarii. They were usually composed of captives or condemned malefactors, who fought to death, unless saved by the clemency of the emperor.

Staging Water Battles at the Colosseum
To stage Water Battles at the Colosseum would have seemed a natural progression for the emperors who were involved in its construction. However the amount of space available was extremely limited compared with purpose built or natural lakes. The arena at the Colosseum only measured 79.35 x 47.20 meters. The arena of the Colosseum had to be quickly flooded, but the depth of the water would have been fairly shallow. Special flat-bottomed boats, built to a smaller scale than Roman galleys, would have been specially built for this purpose providing the opportunity to stage a re-enactment of a famous naval battle. The combatants would have been dressed in the appropriate costumes. The process of ramming would have been difficult to simulate in a confined space but hand-to hand combat would have been quite possible. Fights could continue in the water and no doubt many unfortunate combatants in the water battles were drowned.

Water Battles at the Colosseum - How was the Colosseum flooded?
How was the Roman Colosseum flooded to show water battles? Was the giant arena flooded to stage the mock sea battles - known as naumachiae -or were the naval re-enactments actually staged elsewhere in Rome? These are the questions that has puzzled historians and engineers for many years. An Edinburgh engineer, Dr. Martin Crapper, has come up with a theory for how this might have been achieved. His theories have been tested by a team of experts assembled by the American ABC Discovery Channel. A timber structure could have been used to transport water from the main aqueduct to the Colosseum. X-ray imaging was used to prove that waterproof material had been used in some parts of the underground structure of the Colosseum. A system of sluice gates could be used to close off water and for water pressure to reach the correct level for the arena to be flooded by four million gallons of water to a depth of five feet within seven hours. Additional work uncovered 18 sunken blocks used to hold wooden props which held up the arena's floor and which could be removed to allow the area to be used for water battles, or naumachiae.

The End of the Water Battles at the Colosseum
The stage Water Battles at the Colosseum would have required extremely difficult tasks. To flood and then drain the arena would have also taken some considerable time - spectators were impatient and easily bored without constant entertainment. The mock sea battles that could have been re-enacted in the arena of the Colosseum would have appeared 'tame' to the Romans who were used to the great water battles staged on full size lakes. The magnificent achievement of the Roman engineers would not have been fully appreciated after the first sight and experience of seeing the arena flooded - perhaps it would have been viewed as 'old hat' by the spectators who craved the excitement of the blood and gore of the battles. But for whatever reason the Emperor Domitian decided that this facility could be removed and replaced by the Hypogeum which provided the facilities to create fantastic special effects, via trap doors and lifts, bringing wild animals and gladiators quickly into the arena of the Colosseum. The water battles at the Colosseum were abandoned after a very short space of time. 

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