Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Water Games of Domitian

The Emperor Titus died of fever at the age of 42, and his younger brother Domitian came to power. Although an able administrator, Domitian had a volatile temper and could be quite arbitrary. In AD84 Domitian held a naumachia on the reservoir built by Augustus for his naval games. As the battle raged a sudden storm swept down on Rome. Two of the ships capsized, drowning their crews, while bitterly cold winds and heavy rain lashed the audience. Domitian pulled a thick woollen cloak over his shoulders and ordered the battle to continue. The audience was forbidden to leave and forced to keep their seats. Finally the storm passed, but the audience were drenched to the skin. It was said that for some weeks afterward all Rome was ill, and many people died from the fevers they had caught. Suddenly remorseful, Domitian laid on a free banquet.

Despite the huge popularity of the naumachiae, they do not seem to have been a regular feature after the games of Domitian. There are scattered references to naval gladiators, but the large scale recreation of naval battles was abandoned by about AD100. It may have been that the cost of the events in terms of money and life was simply too great. The crowds could apparently be satisfied with cheaper events and spectacles. There was no point in an emperor spending money if he did not need to.

Only once again was a naumachia to be held in Rome. In AD248 the emperor Philip the Arab presided over the events celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Rome. Among the magnificent games held to mark this momentous event was a naumachia staged on an artificial lake dug upstream from that built by Augustus. Dubbed the Naumachia Vaticana, the site has given its name to the modern home of the Popes.

The mob had, meanwhile, found a new favourite game in their orgies of blood. Pitting man against man was no longer enough to keep the crowd entertained. Now it was the turn of the wild animals.

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