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Mock Sea Battles

Going through the print collection often leads to amusing and fascinating discoveries. This happened the other day when I came upon a print depicting a mock sea battle in ancient Rome.

This depicts “Naumachia Domitiani” or Naval Battle of Domitian, Roman Emperor from AD 81 to AD 96 (when he was assassinated). Domitian was not a popular emperor and was considered a tyrant, which led to the plot to end his life.

Many emperors held these mock naval battles; the first being held by Julius Caesar in 46 BC as a way to celebrate his triumph in Egypt. A basin would be created where these naval battles would be held and, much like the gladiatorial games, the combatants would be fighting to the death. During Domitian’s rule (and that of his predecessor Titus, who was the elder brother of Domitian) it is speculated that these naval battles could have even taken place inside of the Colosseum, which would have been quite a feat. Filling the Colosseum with water, and then having to drain it afterwards would have been an enormous task. What the Emperor wants, the Emperor gets!

During Domitian’s rule, he created the hypogeum, a substructure of passageways and spaces that went twenty feet below the Colosseum. Once these were created, it would have been impossible to have more naumachia held at the Colosseum, and none were recorded.

Bust of Domitian at the Louvre. Courtesy of Sailko, Wikipedia

The particular print in our collection comes from a book titled Nouveau Theatre D’Italie Ou Description Exacte des ses Villes, Palais, Eglises, Principaux, Edifices, & C., meaning New Theater of Italy, or Description of its Towns, Palaces, Churches, Principal Buildings, etc. It was published ca 1704 by Pierre Mortier, a re-issue with french text of Johannes Bleau’s publication.

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