I found this book at a yard sale, and the following passages, about the Romans reenacting naval battles and scenes from their mythological past in their gladiatorial coliseums, jumped out at me. “Daedalus does not reach his destination; as he flies over the arena, his wings fail him. A bear awaits him on the ground.” Those people were truly serious about authenticity! This gives rise to an interesting matter for the reenactor community to resolve, however: if a man wears, say, farby Grecian armor during the Salamis reenactment and is run through by a "Persian" wielding a spear and killed, is he still a farb? Or does the act of dying to educate the public redeem him? - Jonah


Roman Days: Reenacting in the Coliseum!


From Cruelty and Civilization – the Roman Games by Roland Auguet



Mythological reenacting [My italics – Jonah]


The silvae - which was what the Romans called this type of spectacle - were not short-lived fantasies fashioned by the tortured mind of some ruler. The monuments prove the contrary. It is perhaps not too much to say that among other things they represented one of the manifestations of “a certain form of Roman feeling for nature,” very well analyzed by Grimal. That nature should have come to be appreciated only as the product of the culture and ingenuity of man is in no way astonishing in an essentially urban culture for which the flocks and shepherds of the ancient hills had long since become pastoral characters in an increasingly artificial form of poetry. It is probable moreover that these spectacles gratified a profound feeling quite on their own since they were not usually coupled with the customary animal massacres. 


This really baroque taste for travesty found a more perverse, one can hardly say a more developed, expression in another very special type of spectacle - which had close associations with the silvae - the mythological dramas. To begin with, their settings were, generally speaking, similar. They were, from a commonsense point of view, theatrical mimes in which the actors really died on the stage, suffering the punishment proper to the plot. These dramas, moreover, had a somewhat complicated structure, since they were a hybrid of several types. The existence, if not of a plot then at least of a fairly detailed scenario that controlled their development, linked them to some extent with the theatre. Some of them were, perhaps, no more than very loose and extremely simplified adaptations of theatrical successes. But for the most part they displayed on the stage the adventures of mythical or legendary characters. This point is not unimportant: “Let high antiquity, O Caesar,” says Martial, “Lay down its pride; all its fame the arena offers to your eyes.”


The marvels of the Olympians were in this way brought within the reach of all: one saw Orpheus charming the animals before perishing from the blow of a savage bear; Ixion attached to his flaming wheel; Hercules, too, consumed by the flames; and Dirce tied to the horns of the bull or perhaps, according to a fantastic variant, on its crupper, her wrists tied behind her back, serving as the stake in the struggle between the animal and a panther. Sometimes, indeed, remarkable liberties were taken with the biographies of the heroes which were “revised” to make them more spectacular and to provide a bloody end. In one of these dramas, of which unfortunately, we do not possess the complete scenario, Daedalus does not reach his destination; as he flies over the arena, his wings fail him. A bear awaits him on the ground.


As can be seen from their subjects, these spectacles were akin to the tragic pantomimes, with which they should not be confounded. But certain of their elements were also akin to the venatio, first of all their setting, similar to that of the silvae; secondly when they were not consumed by the flames, as Hercules on Mount Etna, or Croesus whose robe suddenly burst into fire, the actors were devoured by the beasts, which brings this type of spectacle into line with the executions previously described rather than with the venation, properly speaking. The men who took part were also criminals condemned to death and it is easy to recognize in the robe of Croesus the tunica molesta -the inflammable tunic - which those sentenced to death usually wore. From this point of view these dramas seem no more than executions painstakingly “romanticized” with the aim of overcoming the monotony of the mass hecatombs.


The feelings which they evoked were no less complex than their structure. The few descriptions left us by classical authors will be convincing on this score; in the middle of the arena, resting on an unstable scaffolding of planks, rose Mount Etna. Everything, shrubs and rocks, looked the more contrived for the care taken to give an exact reproduction. On the summit was chained a man, half-naked, playing the “poetic” role of the celebrated brigand Selurus, the terror of Sicily, perhaps also of Prometheus chained to his rock. But he was a man of flesh and blood, and one could see from the rise and fall of his chest that he was afraid to die.


Before the crowd had finished feasting its eyes on the spectacle, the mountain had fallen to pieces and the “bandit” had been precipitated still alive among the cages of wild beasts, which had been fastened in such a way as to open at the slightest touch. A bear seized him, crushed him and tore him to pieces, till all that remained of his body was an unrecognizable pulp. Another day it was Orpheus who held the stage. A magic forest, like the garden of the Hesperides, controlled by stagehands, moved towards him. He advanced, surrounded by birds. As in the legend, with his song, he charmed the lions and tigers which the best animal trainers of Rome had trained to live at peace with a flock of sheep. Then a bear appeared suddenly to put a horrible end to this scene and its deceptive simplicity.


It is easy to see how these cunningly contrived surprises, these contrasts between the destitution of the criminal and the sumptuousness of the setting, between his isolation and the communal jollity of the crowd, similar in sum to the artifices sought by sensualists, gave death a zest which it no longer had in the amphitheatres. No doubt latent eroticism had some part in the attractions of this sort of spectacle; this powerful muscular man chained to a rock, that Dirce, to all intents and purposes naked, offering her throat to the panther's leap that she seeks to avoid, are sufficient proof of it. There was also sometimes the obscenity, which was the attribute of the pantomime; under Nero the dramas went so far as to portray the fable of Pasiphae, whose role was played by a woman enclosed in a wooden heifer, which was covered by the bull.




Naval battles


In the naumachias, as at the midday games, criminals were set to fight one another, but the combats took place on water. Small troupes appeared in them, as sometimes in the munera, but there were real armies also; we read of 19,000 appearing in one of them.


Historians confirm that these naval battles sometimes took place in the amphitheatres where, by a system of reservoirs and channels, the arena could be flooded or drained at will. Martial pretends astonishment: “There was land until a moment ago. Can you doubt it? Wait until the water, draining away, puts an end to the combats; it will happen right away. Then you will say: the sea was there a moment ago.”


But this method was exceptional and we very often think we recognize in provincial amphitheatres a means of flooding where only drainage channels exist. Furthermore, it was not possible to stage grandiose battles. Caesar, Augustus, Domitian, therefore had special basins dug in Rome, known as naumachias, the word serving both for the spectacles and for the places where they were staged. That of Augustus necessitated the construction of an aqueduct 22,000 paces long to bring to Rome the water needed to fill a basin which measured 598 yards by 393, specially excavated in order to stage a combat in which between 2,000 and 3,000 men took part. It served subsequently, it is true, for the watering of the gardens and furnished an additional source for the provision of water to the city. Claudius did not want to rely on any of the usual solutions; he gave a naumachia on the Fucino lake which, taking up once more a project earlier conceived by Caesar, was linked to the Liris river by a series of imposing construction works.


This sort of spectacle, which first appeared in the times of Caesar, exuberantly displayed the youth of an empire rich in resources. But it had a brief existence; naumachias are no longer mentioned after the first century, nor were they ever staged with the regularity of the munera. How could they have been, considering the enormous expenses involved? It was not merely a question of finding the monies needed to finance a complex organization, the construction and equipment of a fleet and the destruction of a vast number of human lives, for in this slave economy men also had their price; the very water intended to engulf these riches cost a fortune, for the sea was too inconvenient and the bays too far away to serve for such entertainments.


Naturally, the naumachias were no mere imitations of a battle; blood was shed in floods and it even happened that none of the combatants emerged from the melee alive. Sometimes, however,

As after the naumachias on the Fulcino lake, the survivors were granted mercy, which could only have been a respite, for a criminal, at least by law, remained a criminal. To compel these men to kill one another, stringent safety measures were taken in case of need; Claudius, for example, had a circle of rafts placed all around the Fucino lake on which the praetorians, ranged in maniples, closed every way of escape.


To this pitiless realism was added a search for picturesque and exotic travesties. It was customary for the naumachia to represent some famous naval battle. Greek history above all was ransacked for examples, either because of the vogue for things Greek then current at Rome, or quite simply because it abounded in picturesque episodes. Thus one saw, under Augustus and under Nero, the Athenians twice defeat the Persians in the roads of Salamis, the Corcyreans destroy the Corinthian fleet and kill all the captives, while, under Caesar the snobbery of the time forced the criminals to die on triremes flying Egyptian colours.


These fictions naturally involved recourse to a more or less complex mise en scene: for example, a fort was built on an island in the naumachia excavated by Augustus so that the “Athenians,” victors over the Syracusians, could take it by assault before the eyes of the spectators; on the Fulcino lake a triton rose out of the waters and gave the signal for the combat to begin. The few details reported by Tacitus lead one to think that the striving for exactitude was pushed to the utmost. The combat had to follow the usual phases of a naval battle and include displays of everything that might arouse interest: the skill of the pilots, or the force of the rowers, the power of the various types of vessel, or the play of the siege-engines mounted on breastworks which had been erected at the ends of the rafts surrounding the lake.