The Romans loved spectacle, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the public shows organized by their rulers. To remain in favor, Rome’s emperors built vast venues, including the famous Colosseum and Circus Maximus, where animal hunts, public executions, and even naval battles were staged-at the cost of many human lives. (This article was first published into Who Knew?)
Held in the empire’s amphitheaters at midday, after the animal hunts (venationes) and before the gladiatorial battles, the ludi meridiani were considered a necessary form of social control. These public executions showed the people that the powers that be were running the show. Condemned criminals were the unlucky “performers” in this spectacle, where they could face a number of horrifying ends. Those sentenced to death would be led into the arena partially clothed or completely naked, and often shackled to await their fate. This could come in the form of wild animals, an executioner (confector), or a fight to the death with other prisoners. In “fatal charades,” these unlucky souls were forced to reenact mythical stories before they were killed.
The naumachia, or water shows, were extreme even for the Romans. While some naumachia took place in the Colosseum itself, flooded with water, many of these epic reenactments were held in costly artificial basins built specially for the event. One impressive show put on by Augustus in 2 BCE saw 30 ships re-create the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE), with 3,000 men fighting to the death. It was set in a basin that measured approximately 445 feet by 1,170 feet-around the length of five football fields-and filled with about 460,000 cubic yards of water. That’s enough to fill over one hundred Olympic-size swimming pools.
The men who played the parts of oarsmen and soldiers in these shows were usually prisoners of war or criminals. In another water show, staged by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, 4,000 oarsmen rowed 2,000 soldiers into the fake battle, dressed in costumes as Egyptians and Tyrians. But while the battle was largely choreographed to reflect history, the fighting was real. Thousands died, either in combat or by drowning, to keep the Roman hordes entertained.