THE DEMAND OF THE CROWD, not only for bigger and better games but also for novelties, kept increasing and the government was hard put to it 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 county. 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 bi-remes (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 Rho-dians 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.
The signal for the onslaught, was given by a silver Triton that rose from the lake and blew on a golden conch shell. This mechanical contrivance must have taken some doing but it was nothing to many of the tricks that the Romans were able to dream up.
If they had expended the same amount of skill and ingenuity in improving their weapons, Rome might never have fallen. At the conch-shell signal, the two fleets approached the royal dais: drums beating, trumpets blowing and the crews saluting with their weapons.
The triremes were about a hundred feet long, each equipped with an iron beak or ram in the bow. In the bow was reared up a long beam with a spike on one end and the other end fastened to the foredeck by a heavy hinge. This was the corvus or “crow.” When the corvus was dropped on an opposing galley, the spike sank into wood and held the two ships together. It could then be used as a gangplank for boarders.
The ships carried a single square sail which was effective only if the wind was dead astern. Julius Caesar records how astonished he was when he saw the Venetii ships tack but for some reason or other it never occurred to the Romans that this maneuver might be handy for a sailing ship and they never changed their galleys’ rig.
As a result, the galleys depended almost entirely on their oars. The rowers were not in the holds of the galleys but sat on a sort of superstructure projecting over the ships’ sides. This was to give the men greater leverage with the oars, for moving one of those big ships even with fifty rowers must have been a tough job.
There was one man to an oar and they sat at different levels so the oar blades wouldn’t interfere with each other. In the stern sat a man who gave the rowers the time with a drum and two overseers with whips walked up and down platforms running fore and aft to make sure everyone was doing his best.
The ships were built long and narrow for speed and were very unseaworthy craft, although they were ideal for a battle on a lake. They were almost identical with the Greek galleys of a thousand years before. All the Romans added, except for the corvus, were foot ropes for the men to stand on while reefing the sail, and shrouds so they could climb the mast. The Greeks had to use a ladder.
The combined fleets passed in review and as they came within hearing distance of the royal dais, the men gave the traditional cry of “Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die greet thee!”
Claudius shouted back gaily, “That depends on you, my friends,” meaning that if a man put up a good fight he wouldn’t be killed. However, the crews yelled, “Good Caesar! If it depends on us, we won’t bother to fight.” Then the two fleets sailed away together, the crews shouting congratulations to each other.
The mob howled protests and Claudius, jumping off his throne, ran down to the shore, yelling insults at the crews and swearing to have the soldiers set fire to the ships and bum them alive if they didn’t fight. Claudius was crippled (he may have been a polio victim) and was also weak in the head.
He used to go into insane rages and this was a typical one. The crowd laughed themselves sick at his antics but finally the crews got the idea and, dividing into two fleets, made ready for the battle. Agrippina led the emperor back to his throne where Claudius, seeing the crowd laugh, began to laugh too, and got hysterical.
When the royal family finally got Claudius quieted down, he gave the signal for the fight by dropping his handkerchief. Instantly the war trumpets of both fleets blared out and the galleys began to move, the drummers building up the stroke as rapidly as possible, for it was of vital importance for the ships to have the maximum amount of momentum when they met.
When galleys fought, they first tried to ram each other with the iron beaks in the prows. If this maneuver succeeded, the rammed galley sank within a few minutes and nothing more needed to be done. If the ramming failed, then each galley tried to plow through the oars of the enemy.
As the oars were forced back, the handles crushed the rowers at their benches and the disabled galley could then be rammed at leisure. If this maneuver also failed, then there was nothing for it but to board with the aid of the corvus and slug it out man to man.
On the first onslaught nine of the Rhodian galleys were sunk by ramming and three of the Sicilian. Many of the Rhodian galleys had lost one or more banks of oars and could not maneuver. They managed to crowd together at one end of the lake and the Sicilian fleet surrounded them and attacked by boarding.
The fight, which had started at ten in the morning, went on until three in the afternoon. The Sicilian triremes put up a desperate resistance, Tacitus saying: “The battle, though between malefactors, was fought with the spirit of brave men.” Several of the Sicilian single-banked galleys, however, did their best to keep out of the fight At last “when the surface of the lake was red with blood,” the last of the Sicilian fleet surrendered.
Three thousand men were killed. The fight had been so exciting that Claudius pardoned the survivors on both sides except for the crews of the three Rhodian galleys who had been rammed, because he thought that they hadn’t charged into the fight fast enough, and the crews of six of the Sicilian single-banked galleys, who had been gold-bricking.
This exhibition was such a success that four months later, Claudius gave another show. As he was fresh out of prisoners (all the Roman jails had been swept clean to provide crews for the galleys) he had to be content with a less elaborate production. This time he had a bridge on pontoons stretched across the lake, widening in the middle to a platform about a hundred yards wide.
Two armies of about five thousand men each were raised from prisoners of war, newly arrived jailbirds, and slaves. One was dressed up like Etruscans and the other as Samnites. Each side was given the appropriate arms, all the Etruscan weapons having to be made especially for the event as the Etruscans had ceased to exist as a nation three hundred years before.
However, some of the old Etruscans’ double-headed battle-axes and bronze lances were still in museums and these were carefully duplicated by the Roman smiths.
While the bands played, the two armies marched across the bridge from opposite sides of the lake and met in the middle. Claudius had given orders that no one was to be allowed to swim ashore. If he fell off tile bridge, he had either to drown or climb back.
At first the Samnites seemed to be winning, pushing the Etruscans back and holding the wide central part of the bridge. But the Etruscans rallied and finally drove the Samnites off the span. All the Etruscans, and a few of the Samnites who had shown outstanding courage, were given their freedom.