Why Ancient Rome Staged Epic, Violent Sea Battles

Performed by hundreds of men, mock naval battles thrilled audiences in ancient Rome with high drama and bloody spectacle.

The people of Rome threw a party in 46 B.C. that would be remembered for many years to come. Julius Caesar had just returned, having crushed the followers of his great rival, Pompey the Great. Writing nearly two centuries later, the Roman historian Dio Cassius describes how in the first few days of his triumph the recently proclaimed dictator “proceeded homeward with practically the entire populace escorting him, while many elephants carried torches.”

In addition to the excitement caused by the exhibition of a giraffe—dubbed a “camleopard” because it resembled a cross between a camel and leopard—Romans witnessed the preparations for another astonishing spectacle that would be the culmination of the festivities: a naval battle on a man-made lake built in the Campus Martius filled with water from the nearby Tiber River.

There, two fleets of biremes, triremes, and quadriremes with 4,000 galley slaves and 2,000 crew members on board clashed in a full-scale reconstruction of a naval battle. Roman historian Suetonius, writing in the first century A.D., recorded that people from all over Italy attended. Stalls were set up nearby and the streets filled with sex workers, thieves, and vendors. So many people tried to go that some slept in the street the night before to secure good seats. People even died in the crush of the crowds, including two senators. The astonishing spectacle known as the naumachia—from the Greek word for naval battle—had been born.

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