Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Gulliver's Travels:
Voyage to Laputa

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Laputan Logic*
Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
Naumachia

Posted on Thursday 7 April 2005


A naumachia held at the Colosseum. Illustration by G. Nispi-Landi, 1913

Although the Colosseum served for many centuries as a centre of hideous spectacle and barbarous cruelty, at the time of its construction Romans saw it as part of the rightful restoration into public hands of land which had been illegally expropriated by the despised Emperor Nero. At the very heart of Rome, from the Palatine to the Esquiline, Nero had built a large private estate, the symbolism of which had been plain to everyone. Nero had even blocked the people's access to the Sacre Via, Rome's most sacred thoroughfare and, in a city which traditionally frowned upon ostentation in private dwellings even for the rich, built himself a huge and magnificent palace which became known as the Domus Aurea or "Golden House". On a ridge on the northern face of the Palatine, Nero had erected for himself a colossal 36 metre high bronze statue and in the middle of the palace grounds was a large artificial lake.

After Nero's eventual disgrace and death, his successors competed with one another to break up his estate and to replace it with structures of public utility. To this end, Emperor Vespasian filled in the lake and built the Amphitheatrum Flavium. He also moved closer to it the Colossus of Nero which he changed to represent to the god of the Sun. It is this combination statue and amphitheatre which much later led to the site being known as the Colosseum.

Considering the watery origins of the site, it seems somehow appropriate that some of the earliest spectacles held there had an aquatic theme. Following precedents set by Julius Caesar and Augustus, the amphitheatre was used as a venue for naumachia, mock sea battles which were designed to thrill and divert the masses. Being located very close to a major aqueduct, the arena of the Colosseum was filled with water up to a height of 1.5 metres. Then scale replicas of naval vessels were floated on the water and manned with presumably very reluctant crews of prisoners who were forced to battle for their lives.

The exhibitions were normally reenactment of famous naval engagements between two fleets such as the Battle of Actium ("Augustus" vs. "Mark Anthony"), the Battle of Salamina ("Greeks" vs. "Persians") etc. They usually involved a large number of ships and thousands of combatants. Clemency was sometimes granted to the victors of these battles but, as with other gladiatorial events, this apparently happened very rarely.


Another naumachia this time held at a venue built by Emperor Domitian. Several permanent naumachia venues were built in Rome over the centuries. Sometimes the waters were allowed to stagnate becoming a source of malaria within the city.


A modern naumachia held in the Civic Arena of Milan in the presence of Emperor Napoleon, 1807.


A century later, Milan's Civic Arena once again filled with water.