Roman Times and Events: Those about to Die, Chapter 03, Part 1 of 3

(by Daniel P. Mannix)

THE DEMAND OF THE CROWD, not only for bigger and better games but also for novelties, kept increasing and the government was hard put not only to provide elaborate enough spectacles but also to think up new displays.

Possibly the most elaborate demonstrations of all were the naumachia, or naval combats. Julius Caesar originated these displays in 46 B.C., digging a special lake in Mars' Field on the outskirts of Rome for the show.

Sixteen galleys manned by four thousand rowers and two thousand fighting men fought to the finish. This spectacle was later surpassed by Augustus in 2 B.C.

He had a permanent lake built for these fights, measuring 1800 feet long by 1200 feet wide, on the far side of the Tiber River. Marble stands were constructed around the lake for the crowd. Traces of this gigantic construction project still remain.

One engagement was between two fleets of twelve ships each with crews of three thousand men (besides the rowers), to commemorate the "Battle of Salamis".

The men on the opposing fleets were dressed like Greeks and Persians. Later, Titus gave a naumachia on a lake that could be planked over. On the first day, gladiators fought on the planking. On the second, there were chariot races. On the third, the planking was removed and a sea fight took place, in which 3,000 men were engaged.

The greatest naumachia of all time was the naval engagement staged by Claudius. As Augustus' lake was too small, the mad emperor decided to use the Fucine Lake (now called the Lago di Fucino) some sixty miles to the east of Rome.

This lake had no natural outlet and in the spring it often flooded many miles of surrounding country. To overcome this trouble, a tunnel three and a half miles long had been cut through solid rock from the lake to the Litis River to carry off the surplus water.

This job had taken thirty thousand men eleven years to finish. For the dedication of the opening of this tunnel, Claudius decided to stage a fight between two navies on the lake.

The galleys previously used in such engagements had been small craft with only one bank of oars. For this fight, there were to be twenty-four triremes (three banks of oars), all regulation ocean-going warships—and twenty-six biremes (double bank).

This armada was divided into two fleets of twenty-five ships each and manned by nineteen hundred criminals under the command of two famous gladiators.

One fleet was to represent the Rhodians and the other the Sicilians and both groups wore the appropriate costumes.

Nineteen hundred desperate and well-armed men could be a dangerous force if they decided to band together and turn against the crowd, so the lake was surrounded by heavily armed troops.

In addition, a number of regiments were put on rafts equipped with catapults so they could sink the galleys if necessary.

The hills around the lake formed a natural amphitheater and on the morning of the fight the slopes were covered with over 500,000 spectators. As the lake was several hours' trip from Rome, the crowd brought their lunches and picnicked while watching the fight.

Fortunately, it turned out to be a nice day. As the lake was nearly two hundred square miles in size, the fight was restricted to the southwestern section, the rafts being lashed together to form a semicircle across the lake and mark the limits for maneuvering.

The Emperor Claudius sat on a specially prepared dais in a superb suit of golden armor covered with a purple cloak, while the Queen Mother, Agrippina, in a mantle of cloth of gold, sat beside him.

In addition to the infantry surrounding the lake, there was also a detachment of cavalry mounted on magnificent Sicilian steeds drawn up behind the royal family.

In order to handle the mob, the slopes had been divided into sections, each section under the care of a magistrate.

A big tent had even been put up to care for the wounded after the battle—after all, prisoners were scarce and the survivors could always be used again in other spectacles.

As matters turned out, the tent served another purpose. Fifteen women in the crowd gave birth during the fight and had to be cared for in the tent. It is an interesting example of the mob's passion for these fights that women in advanced pregnancy traveled sixty miles from Rome so as not to miss the naumachia.

Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Three, Part 2 is next.

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