Anyone who’s seen the movie Gladiator (2000) knows that the ancient Romans loved a good spectacle, especially if it involved a fight to the death. But it turns out just throwing fighters (man or animal) into an arena and watching them go at it might not have been enough for Roman rulers. According to Edward Brooke-Hitching, who wrote Fox Tossing: And Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games about the truly bizarre sports humans have played throughout history, the ancient Romans may have periodically flooded the Colosseum in order to stage elaborate aquatic battles.
Brooke-Hitching writes that the Romans would sometimes stage re-enacted sea battles—called naumachiae—in lakes or large basins. The naumachiae were often held to commemorate an important event—usually a battle, but sometimes other water-related events like the opening of a new canal—and could involve thousands of prisoners in as many as 100 ships.
“Condemned criminals and captured prisoners of war fought to the death as they played out famous naval campaigns for the entertainment of a crowd,” Brooke-Hitching writes in his book. “The events required sophisticated planning and execution, and as such were only performed with the approval of the emperor to mark special occasions.”
According to Brooke-Hitching, there is even evidence that the Romans may have flooded the Colosseum—the famed gladiatorial fighting ground—to stage naumachiae. He explains that drains were discovered in the original foundation of the Colosseum, implying the structure may have even been built with naumachiae in mind. Several ancient Roman writers also mentioned naumachiae at the Colosseum in their writings. According to Cassius Dio (ca. 164–235), for his inauguration the emperor Titus flooded the arena with water and “brought in people on ships, who engaged in a sea-fight there, impersonating the Corcyreans and Corinthians,” as well as “horses and bulls and some other domesticated animals that have been taught to behave in the liquid element.”
However, not all historians believe that naumachiae were held at the Colosseum. Brooke-Hitching notes that, though there are several accounts of the events being held, there is little physical evidence to back up the claim. But whether or not tales of naumachiae at the Colosseum are apocryphal, they certainly make a striking legend. “The naumachiae were clearly used more as demonstrations of imperial might than anything else,” writes Brooke-Hitching. “[They were] designed to inspire awe with the sheer scale of the spectacle.”