In 46 BCE, with Julius Caesar’s return to Rome, the first naumachia was performed. A basin was built in the Campus Martius, a flood-prone area of the river Tiber. Ships with as many as four banks of oars were set afloat. Prisoners and the condemned were among the four thousand oarsmen during the performances. The naumachia was a rather special event for the citizens of Rome. Along the streets, campers would often get trampled to death by the stampeding hoards of people rushing to witness the spectacle (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, XXXIX.4; Dio, Roman History, XLIII.23.4; Appian, Civil Wars, II.102; Plutarch, Life of Caesar, LV.4). After a performance, due to fear of an epidemic caused by stagnant water, the basin was quickly filled in (Dio, XLV.17.8).
On the bank of the river Tiber, the naumachia Augusti was a basin spanning one-thousand eight-hundred by one-thousand two-hundred feet. Using water that also irrigated a nearby garden, a new aqueduct was built (Frontinus, On the Water Supply of Rome, I.11). A massive tree measuring one-hundred and twenty feet in length, was used as a bridge which connected a man-made island (Pliny, XVI.190, 200). Four thousand men literally risked life and limb for the show.
Among his achievements, Augustus records the event in the Res Gestae (IV.23). Not being captivated, Ovid rejects it in one sentence. The naumachia was important as it allowed citizens of Rome to be sexually flirtatious. People from the entire Roman empire would travel to see a naumachia. "With such a throng, who could not fail to find what caught his fancy?" (The Art of Love, I.171ff). The naumachia Augusti remained the central venue and became a popular red-light district (Tacitus, Annals, XIV.15).
In 57 CE, a naumachia was built by Nero, in the Campus Martius (Tacitus, XIII.31). A blue-colored awning sprinkled with stars, spanned the arena (Pliny, XIX.24). Nero used seawater with live fish and other marine life (Suetonius,...