The Roman Colosseum is probably best known for its gladiator battles, but the Roman Empire’s elite also enjoyed watching simulated wild game hunts and pitting convicted felons against each other, all played out before a delighted and vocal crowd. Researchers have also found traces of runoff canals that are believed to have been used to flood and then drain the Colosseum. This would have allowed mock sea battles, or naumachiae, to be staged in the Colosseum in water between three and five feet (.9 to 1.5 meters) deep.
Naumachiae, which translates to “naval combat,” appear to have taken place only four or five times in history, and only for very special celebrations. The Roman historian Cassius Dio (235 AD) wrote about one such epic, bloody sea spectacle that was staged in the famed amphitheater in 86 AD.
The place to be in 80 AD:
- The first naumachia on record, in 46 BC, was a re-enactment of Julius Caesar’s military triumphs against Pharnaces of Pontus and King Juba of Numidia. A basin was constructed near the Tiber River and boats were launched with 4,000 oarsmen and 2,000 fighting men, eager to recreate the battles.
- The now-crumbling Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, is an oval structure located in the center of Rome. Construction began under Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD, and was completed by his successor, Titus, in 80 AD.
- It has been estimated that the Colosseum could hold between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, who also came for public speeches and theatrical dramas. The structure’s life as an entertainment venue ended in the early medieval era, and it was later used as a housing complex, a fortress, a quarry, and a Christian shrine.