What Is An Amphitheater?

By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 6/24/2019


If you think of the word “amphitheater,” you may think of modern sports arenas that sometimes double as music venues. Since you are visiting us here on Rome Reborn®, you may also be thinking of the Colosseum, which earns itself a future article here on our site. Before we tackle what may be arguably the best and certainly the largest ancient amphitheater, let’s learn the basics about this type of structure.

An amphitheater differed from other outdoor theaters and sporting venues in several ways. First, an amphitheater is an enclosed elliptical venue with raised seating around it and built-in entryways for audiences. Theaters, both Greek and Roman, were generally semicircles open on one side. Amphitheaters’ curves were not as extreme as those found in circuses, where long tracks were used for horse racing events, and their smaller counterparts, stadia, for human racing events. A circus, a stadium, and an amphitheater all had tiered seating, allowing viewers to see with less obstruction from those in front of them. The curved walls allowed for sound to be heard well by the audience. The first theaters and amphitheaters were built into hills and mountains, using them as support for the walls as well as to help with the acoustics; freestanding circuses and stadia came much earlier than freestanding amphitheaters.

The oldest surviving example of the design that we recognize as a freestanding amphitheater is found in Pompeii. Built around 70 BCE, the Spectacula, as it was called then, was the first freestanding stone amphitheater, though it wasn’t truly freestanding, since it seems to have been built partly into the ground instead of into the side of a hill or mountain. Today, we call it the Amphitheater of Pompeii. It was privately funded, as was common in the Roman world, even though it would have been used for public events such as gladiatorial combat. Of course, the amphitheater, along with most of Pompeii, was buried when Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. I visited the uncovered Spectacula in 1990 and was surprised by how odd its shape was – more elongated, almost like a stadium, making its floor plan look similar to a narrowed eye. Another odd feature for someone like me who was already familiar with the Colosseum is the fact that the access to the upper level was provided by ramps on the outside of the building. I believe the seating must have been reconstructed in some way, because the seats were likely wooden in the original structure, while we were seated on stone during that visit.

The design seen at Pompeii must have proved suitable, for it spread around the Roman world. Today, archeologists have located approximately 230 other Roman amphitheaters. These range from Hierasycaminus (al-Maharraqah) in Egypt to Isurium Brigantium (Aldborough) in England and from Tavira in Portugal to Hegra (Madain Saleh) in Saudi Arabia. Most of these were built during the imperial period, but, again, paid primarily by the private funds of the emperor, his family, friends, or local officials. The ubiquity of these buildings demonstrates how far Roman culture was spreading in the wake of conquest by the army. Indeed, arguably the second-greatest amphitheater of the Roman world was built in Thysdrus (modern day El Djem in Tunisia) in the third century CE, reflecting the importance and wealth of Roman Africa and the reach of the Empire.

Improvements continued as the Roman architects gained more experience planning amphitheaters. The arena field was placed at ground level, and walls were built around it, making the structure truly freestanding. Masonry vaulting created tunnels to direct audience traffic flow. Because the arena itself was on the surface, this freed up space below ground for chambers and tunnels where the victims and competitors were housed before they made their public appearance. The most magnificent of the ancient amphitheaters was the Flavian Amphitheater in Rome itself, a topic that deserves its own article on this website.

While the circus or stadium provided a venue for competitions of humans and animals, the amphitheater was used for more varied entertainment events, such as gladiatorial combat, executions, animal hunts, battle reenactments, and some chariot racing, though the latter was more common in circus structures because of the layout of the track.

The violent nature of the events hosted in amphitheaters explains why most of them fell into disuse as Christianity grew in official power. First the gladiatorial combats were ended in the early fifth century CE, then 100 years later criminal executions were no longer held in these  venues. Some amphitheaters were repurposed, some were damaged or destroyed by natural disasters, some were left to fall apart, and some were looted for materials. If we securely know of around 230, how many other amphitheaters might have been in use at the height of Roman power? Stay tuned for more discoveries….

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