Naumachia (detail), an imaginative recreation by Ulpiano Checa
A naumachia was a mimic sea battle that oftentook place in a constructed basin. These entertainments also took place in flooded amphitheatres. The opposing sides were prisoners of war or convicts, who fought until one side was destroyed.
The earliest naumachia recorded (46 bc) represented an engagement between the Egyptian and Tyrian fleets and was given by Julius Caesar on an artificial lake that was constructed by him in the Campus Martius. In 2 bc Augustus staged a naumachia between Athenians and Persians in a basin newly constructed on the right bank of the Tiber at Rome. In the naumachia arranged by Claudius on Lake Fucino in ad 52, 100 ships and 19,000 men participated.
The introduction of new technologies initially led to an increased number of naumachia. The first three naumachia were spaced about 50 years apart; the following six, most of which took place in amphitheatres, occurred in a space of 30 years. Less costly in material and human terms, they could afford to be staged more frequently. Less grandiose, they became a feature of the games, but could not be considered exceptional. The iconography bears witness to this. Of some twenty representations of a naumachia in Roman art, nearly all are of the Fourth Style, of the time of Nero and the Flavian dynasty.
After the Flavian period, naumachiae disappear from the texts almost completely. Apart from a mention in the Augustan History, a late source of limited reliability, only the town records (fastia) of Ostia tells us that in 109 Trajan inaugurated a naumachia basin.
A later version of the naumachia was practiced in indoor theatres, such as London’s Sadler’s Wells, during the 19th century. A tank was constructed in the pit and stalls areas, and real boats were used for the purpose.