Naumachiae: the great spectacle

Antiochus IV spent much of his young adulthood in Rome. After a series of disastrous defeats against the Roman legions in 191-190 BCE, his father had been obliged to abandon his territories in Europe and Asia Minor, his war elephants, and the majority of his warships, while young Antiochus was sent to Rome as a hostage. Upon his brother’s death in 175 BCE, Antiochus ascended to the throne of the Seleucid Empire and declared himself a “manifest god”. His early reign was defined by his efforts to demonstrate his connection to classical Greece; he patronized Greek poleis throughout his empire and bestowed benefactions upon cities and temples in mainland Greece.

His sojourn to Rome, though, could not fail to influence his approach to entertainment, and so Antiochus is credited with introducing gladiatorial shows in the Greek world. The games he organized in 166 BCE at Antioch were magnificent, but the audience did not know what to make of them. Many spectators were more frightened than pleased since they were unaccustomed to such events. Antiochus had to “train” the locals to enjoy them by frequent repetition; sometimes the fighters would only lacerate each other, sometimes they would fight to the death. Eventually, the spectators grew used to all this blood and even found joy in arms. The success was so great that Antiochus was soon able to find local gladiators, and save himself the substantial cost of importing them from Rome.        

Theater or amphitheater?

Gradually, gladiatorial games became more popular in the Greek world. Members of the aristocracy and priests of the imperial cult would sponsor them as a demonstration of their affinity for Rome. But there was a major technical problem: the old city-states did not have the proper venue for this type of popular entertainment. Gladiatorial games were best enjoyed in oval amphitheaters; these custom-made buildings provided the audience with ideal viewing conditions, while the elongated space of the arena was perfectly suited to single combats and wild beast shows. Some Greek cities, such as Corinth, erected proper amphitheaters; others opted to modify the existing infrastructure i.e. their theaters.   

Burglars and fornicators

Athens falls into the latter category. The theater of Dionysus, on the south slope of the Acropolis, was converted to host gladiatorial games. A parapet wall made of upright marble slabs enclosed the orchestra, while a series of small holes in the pavement in front of the parapet received wooden poles that suspended nets to protect the audience from the gladiators and wild beasts. The conversion received mixed reviews from the Athenians. The masses flocked to the theater to witness adulterers and burglars and fornicators fighting with one another. Philosophers and traditional citizens, though, claimed that this was a sacred place that should not be polluted by human slaughter.

The Neopythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana refused to enter the theater and sent the Athenians a letter expressing his amazement that the goddess Athena had not quitted the Acropolis when so much blood was shed under her eyes. Dio Chrysostom also berated the Athenians for allowing fighters to slaughter one another in the orchestra. The magnificent marble seats of the priests of Dionysus were now frequently spattered with blood.   

Mock naval battles

Naumachiae were recreations of historical sea battles. Julius Caesar presented the first performance in 46 BCE in an artificial lake in the Campus Martius to celebrate his victory in Gaul. By the imperial period, they had become the most elaborate and marvelous theatrical spectacles. Augustus constructed an aqueduct to provide water for a huge basin on the bank of the Tiber and recreated the battle of Salamis with thirty ships and 3000 men. In 52 CE Emperor Claudius, who envisioned a battle involving a hundred ships and 19,000 combatants (!), had to use Fucine Lake.

None of these battles pitted the Romans against an “enemy”, since it was possible that the “enemy” would win. In some cases the organizers stationed troops and catapults in strategic locations to prevent the escape of the participants; even crocodiles could be added to the water to ensure an “enthusiastic” performance. Professional gladiators were too expensive to waste in such large numbers, so large mock sea battles involved prisoners of war.

The sea monsters of Nero

The theater of Dionysus could not accommodate such grand spectacles, but fortunately, Emperor Nero had already provided a solution by moving naumachiae into an amphitheater with the use of scaled-down boats. According to Cassius Dio, Nero filled the arena with so much sea water that fish and sea monsters could swim about, and exhibited a naval battle between the Athenians and the Persians. Then he drew off the water and allowed large groups of men to fight a traditional gladiatorial combat.

Flooding the theater

The theater of Dionysus in Athens was used for similar performances. Waterproofing mortar (opus signinum) was applied around the orchestra to create a watertight basin, while the foot of the parapet wall was pierced at regular intervals to allow for the escape of surface water. The old drainage channel that diverted rainwater and protected the theater from flooding was upgraded with a new cover of horizontal marble slabs. A tank was added south of the theater to store the water used in flooding the orchestra. The Athenians were thus able to enjoy from the comfort of their local theater naumachiae with miniature warships, or aquatic battles that featured wild animals (crocodiles, hippopotami, seals, bulls etc.) and gladiators.

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The Origins of the Theater - Mentor - Study abroad in Greece
Link to The Origins of the Theater – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

The Origins of the Theater – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

During this module, the students will have the opportunity to become familiar with the works of the great Greek tragedians.


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