Link #29: The Colosseum Was Filled with Water for Naval Games!


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Link #29: The Colosseum Was Filled with Water for Naval Games!

Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872

The Colosseum is almost always related to gladiatorial battles. That’s the first thing that comes into our heads when we think about the great arena. In our last post, we showed how the ancient Romans believed that the blood of a fallen gladiator can cure epilepsy. However, there are things about the Colosseum that are not common knowledge.

An example of this is the fact that the ancient Romans used the Colosseum for naval games. It defies belief because you’re likely to think that the Romans didn’t have the technology to fill up a building with water. Add to this that naval battles would mean bringing in ships and other props and the whole idea of naval games becomes even more unlikely. It was true, though.

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When Were the Naval Games Held in the Colosseum?

Inside of the Colosseum or Flavian amphitheatre, showing the hypogeum. 70/72 – 80 DC in Rome. Image credit: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT cc3.0

If you have some knowledge about the Colosseum, then you will know that below the Colosseum is a network of underground tunnels (hypogeum). These tunnels would automatically make naval games a physical impossibility.

However, the hypogeum didn’t exist until much later in the history of the Colosseum. To be precise, the hypogeum was added two years after the Colosseum was built. It was added along with an upper tier by Domitian who was the brother of the previous emperor, Titus.

It was Titus who completed the construction of the Colosseum, even though his father, Emperor Vespasian, had sanctioned the construction. Before its construction, the Colosseum’s underground was untapped. It was solid in 80 AD and remained so until two years later.

What Were the Naval Games in the Colosseum Like?

The naumaquia (Naval battle between Romans). Oil on canvas, 125.6 x 200.5 cm. This work was presented at the National Society of Fine Arts in Paris, 1894. He received the gold medal at the International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895. Painter: Ulpiano Checa. Image credit: Poniol60

The clearest records of the naval games being held in the Colosseum mention the inaugural games. A number of ancient Roman writers and poets mention the naval games.

As per their description, the Colosseum was filled with water very quickly. This was in itself a marvel considering the technological level of that era. Their records mention that the Emperor brought in horses, bulls and other animals along with multiple ships to re-enact naval battles from earlier times. These men on ships would re-enact battles between the Corinthians and the Corcyraeans.

The water battles held at the Colosseum and at other locations in ancient Rome were called naumachiae. The men who fought in the naumachiae were known as naiunachiarii. Initial naumachiae were often part entertainment, part shows of prestige, and part training sessions for the fast developing Roman Navy.

How Did the Ancient Romans Flood the Colosseum?

Naumachia old engraving
Naumachia old engraving. PD – old artwork

The manner in which the ancient Romans flooded the Colosseum is not recorded clearly in any histories written by people of that era. However, many experts have worked to reverse engineer the process used.

The core of the process used by the ancient Romans, as speculated, was a timber structure which connected the aqueduct to the Colosseum. In addition to this, a combination of waterproof material and sluice gates were supposedly used by the ancient Romans to keep the water in.

This meant that the ancient Romans could flood the Colosseum with four million gallons of water that would be around five feet deep.

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