Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

 p82  Amphitheatrum

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp82‑90 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

AMPHITHEA′TRUM (ἀμφιθέατρον) was a description of building arranged for the exhibition of combats of gladiators, and wild beasts, and ships, which constituted the ludi amphitheatrales.

I. Its History

Such exhibitions — which were peculiar to the Romans, and which were unknown to the Greeks till the Romans introduced them​a — originally took place in the Forum and the Circus, the shows of gladiators being given in the former, and those of wild beasts in  p83 the latter; indeed the amphitheatre itself is sometimes called circus. The shape of the circus, however, was much better fitted for the chariot races, for which it was at first designed, than for the gladiatorial combats, and the more wholesale slaughter of animals, which, in process of time, came to be the favourite amusements of the Romans. For these purposes, the circus was too long and too narrow, and the spina was a great impediment, so that a new form of building was required, which should accommodate a multitude of spectators in such a manner as that all might have a good view of the space occupied by the combatants, which space too required to be of quite a different shape from the circus, as the combatants were to be kept as much as possible in the same place. The idea of such a building was suggested, as the name (from ἀμφί, on both sides, θέατρον, a theatre) seems to imply, by the existing theatre: indeed, the first amphitheatre of which we have any account — that of C. Scribonius Curio — was, literally, a double theatre,​1 being composed of two theatres, placed on pivots, so that they could be turned round, spectators and all, and placed either back to back, forming two separate theatres for dramatic exhibitions, or face to face, forming an amphitheatre, for the shows of gladiators and wild beasts. This edifice, which was erected by Curio (the celebrated partisan of Caesar), for the celebration of his father's funeral games, is described and somewhat vehemently commented upon by Pliny (H. N. XXXVI.15 s25 ¶8). The next amphitheatre, and apparently the first to which the name was applied, was built by Julius Caesar himself, during his perpetual dictator­ship, in B.C. 46 (Dion Cass. XLIII.22), who thus describes the building: Θέατρον τι κυνηγετικόν, ὃ καὶ ἀμφιθέατρον ἐκ τοῦ πέριξ πανταχόθεν ἕδρας ἄνευ σκηνῆς ἔχειν προσεῤῥήθη). This, however, was still only of wood, a material which was frequently used for theatres, and which was, therefore, naturally adopted for amphitheatres, but which sometimes proved inadequate to support the weight of the immense body of spectators, and thus occasioned serious accidents. For example, we are told that a wooden amphitheatre, which was built at Fidenae in the reign of Tiberius by Atilius, a freedman, gave way, in consequence of the imperfections in the foundation and in the joints of the timbers, and buried either 20,000 or 50,000 spectators in its ruins (Suet. Tiber. 40; Tac. Ann. IV.63).​b These wooden buildings were, of course, also exposed to great danger from fire; thus a wooden amphitheatre at Placentia was burned in the civil war between Otho and Vitellius (Tac. Hist. II.20).

It was not, however, till the fourth consul­ship of Augustus, B.C. 30, that a more durable amphitheatre, of stone, was erected by Statilius Taurus, in the Campus Martius (Dion Cass. LI.23; Suet. Octav. 29; Tac. Ann. III.72; Strab. V. p236). But, since this building was destroyed by fire, it must be supposed that only the shell was of stone, and the seats and staircases of wood. This edifice was the only one of the kind until the building of the Flavian amphitheatre. It did not satisfy Caligula, who commenced an amphitheatre near the Septa; but the work was not continued by Claudius (Dion Cass. LIX.10; Suet. Cal. 18, 21). Nero too, in his second consul­ship, A.D. 57, erected a vast amphitheatre of wood, but this was only a temporary building (Suet. Ner. 12; Tac. Ann. XIII.31). The amphitheatre of Taurus was destroyed in the burning of Rome, A.D. 64 (Dion Cass. LXII.18), and was probably never restored, as it is not again mentioned. It is still a question with the topographers whether any traces of it are now visible (cf. Becker, Handbuch d. Römischen Alterthümer vol. I. pp642, 643, and Urlichs, Beschreibung Roms. pp53, 54).2

The erection of an amphitheatre in the midst of Rome, proportioned to the magnitude of the city, was among the designs of Augustus, who delighted in the spectacles of the venatio, and especially in the uncommon species and immense number of the animals exhibited in them; so that, as he himself informs us, in one of his venationes there were no less than 3500 animals slaughtered (Suet. Vesp. 9; Aur. Vict. Epit. 1; Monum. Ancyr.). It was not, however, till the reigns of Vespasian and Titus, that the design of Augustus was carried into effect by the erection of the Amphitheatrum Flavium, or, as it has been called since the time of Bede, the Colosseum or Colisaeum, a name said to be derived from the Colossus of Nero, which stood close by.​c

This wonderful building, which for magnitude can only be compared to the pyramids of Egypt, and which is perhaps the most striking monument at once of the material greatness and the moral degradation of Rome under the empire, was commenced by Vespasian, but at what precise time is uncertain; for the genuineness of the medal, which is quoted by Lipsius, as placing its commencement in his eighth consul­ship, A.D. 77, is more than doubtful (Rasche, Lex. Univ. Rei Num. vol. V. pt. 2 p1017; Eckhel, Doctr. Num. Vet. vol. VI. p840). It was completed by Titus, who dedicated it in A.D. 80, when 5000 animals of different kinds were slaughtered (Suet. Tit. 7; Dion Cass. LXVI. 25). From the somewhat obscure account of an old writer (Catal. Imp. Vienn. p243, Ronc.), we learn that Vespasian carried the building so far as to dedicate the first three ranges of seats, that Titus added two ranges more, and that Domitian completed the building usque ad clypea. Without professing to be able to explain these statements fully, we may observe that it is extremely probable, as will be seen more clearly from the description of the building, that Titus would dedicate the amphitheatre as soon as it was fit for use, without waiting for the final completion of the upper and less essential parts.

There is an ecclesiastical tradition, but not entitled to much credit, that the architect of the Colisaeum was a Christian, and that thousands of the captive Jews were employed in its erection.

The Flavian amphitheatre, from its enormous  p84 size, rendered the subsequent erection of any other such building in Rome perfectly unnecessary. It became the spot where prince and people met together to witness those sanguinary exhibitions, the degrading effects of which on the Roman character can hardly be over-estimated. It was thoroughly repaired by Antoninus Pius (Capit. Ant. Pi. 8). In the reign of Macrinus, on the day of the Vulcanalia, it was struck by lightning, by which the upper rows of benches were consumed, and so much damage was done to other parts of the structure, that the games were for some years celebrated in the Stadium (Dion Cass. LXXIX.25).º Its restoration was commenced by Elagabalus and completed by Alexander Severus (Lamprid. Heliog. 17; Alex. Sev. 24). It was again struck by lightning in the reign of Decius (Hieron. p475), but was soon restored, and the games continued to be celebrated in it down to the sixth century. The latest recorded exhibition of wild beasts was in the reign of Theoderic. Since that time it has been used sometimes in war as a fortress, and in peace as a quarry, whole palaces, such as the Cancellaria and the Palazzo Farnese, having been built out of its spoils. At length the popes made efforts to preserve it: Sixtus Vº attempted to use it as a woollen factory, and to convert the arcades into shops; Clement XIº enclosed the lower arcades, and, in 1750, Benedict XIV consecrated it to Christians who had been martyred in it. The best accounts of the building are contained in the following works: Lipsius de Amphitheatro; Nibby, dell' Anfiteatro Flavio, a supplement to Nardini, vol. I, p233, in which we have the most complete historical account; Fea, Notizie degli scavi nell' Anfiteatro Flavio; Bunsen, Beschreibung d. Stadt Rom. vol. III. p319, &c; Cressy and Taylor, The Architectural Antiquities of Rome; Maffei, Verona Illustrata; Stieglitz, Archäol. d. Baukunst; Hirt, Geschichte d. Baukunst bei den Alten.

II. Description of the Flavian Amphitheatre

Notwithstanding the damages of time, war, and spoliation, the Flavian amphitheatre still remains complete enough to give us a fair idea, excepting in some minor details, of the structure and arrangements of this description of building. The notices of the ancient authors are extremely scanty; and Vitruvius of course fails us here altogether; indeed, this description of building was so completely new in his time, that only once does the bare word amphitheatrum occur in his book (I.7). We derive important aid from the remains of amphitheatres in the provinces of the ancient Roman empire. We shall first describe the Colisaeum, and then mention the chief points of difference between it and these other amphitheatres.

The very site of the Flavian amphitheatre, as of most others, furnishes an example of the prodigal contempt of labour and expense which the Roman emperors displayed in their great works of architecture. The Greeks, in choosing the sites of their theatres, almost always availed themselves of some natural hollow on the side of a hill; but the Roman amphitheatres, with few exceptions, stand upon a plain. The site of the Colisaeum was in the middle of the city, in the valley between the Caelius, the Esquiline, and the Velia, on the marshy ground which was previously the pond of Nero's palace, stagnum Neronis (Suet. Vesp. 9; Martial, de Spect. II.5). No mere measures can give an adequate conception of this vast structure, the dimensions and arrangements of which were such as to furnish seats for 87,000 spectators, round an arena large enough to afford space for the combats of several hundred animals at once, for the evolutions of mimic sea-fights, and for the exhibition of artificial forests; with passages and staircases to give ingress and egress, without confusion, to the immense mass of spectators, and others for the attendants on the arena; dens for the thousands of victims devoted to destruction; channels for the rapid influx and outlet of water when the arena was used for a naumachia; and the means for the removal of the carcasses, and the other abominations of the arena. Admirable pictures of the magnitude and magnificence of the amphitheatre and its spectacles are drawn in the Essays of Montaigne (III.6), and in the latter part of Gibbon's twelfth chapter. As a general description of the building the following passage of Gibbon is perfect: "It was a building of an elliptic figure, founded on fourscore arches, and rising, with four successive orders of architecture, to the height of 140 [157] feet. The outside of the edifice was incrusted with marble, and decorated with statues. The slopes of the vast concave, which formed the inside, were filled and surrounded with sixty or eighty rows of seats, of marble likewise, covered with cushions, and capable of receiving with ease about 80,000 spectators. Sixty-four vomitories (for by that name the doors were very aptly distinguished), poured forth the immense multitude; and the entrances, passages, and staircases, were contrived with such exquisite skill, that each person, whether of the senatorial, the equestrian, or the plebeian order, arrived at his destined place without trouble or confusion. Nothing was omitted, which, in any respect, could be subservient to the convenience and pleasure of the spectators. They were protected from the sun and the rain by an ample canopy, occasionally drawn over their heads. The air was continually refreshed by the playing of fountains, and profusely impregnated by the grateful scent of aromatics. In the centre of the edifice, the arena, or stage, was strewed with the finest sand, and successively assumed the most different forms. At one moment it seemed to rise out of the earth, like the garden of the Hesperides, and was afterwards broken into the rocks and caverns of Thrace. The subterraneous pipes conveyed an inexhaustible supply of water; and what had just before appeared a level plain, might be suddenly converted into a wide lake, covered with armed vessels, and replenished with the monsters of the deep. In the decoration of these scenes, the Roman emperors displayed their wealth and liberality; and we read on various occasions that the whole furniture of the amphitheatre consisted either of silver, or of gold, or of amber. The poet who describes the games of Carinus, in the character of a shepherd, attracted to the capital by the fame of their magnificence, affirms that the nets designed as a defence against the wild beasts were of gold wire; that the porticoes were gilded; and that the belt or circle which divided the several ranks of spectators from each other, was studded with a precious mosaic of beautiful stones."

The following ground-plan, external elevation, and section, are from Hirt, and contain of course some conjectural details. The ground plan is so arranged as to exhibit in each of its quarters the plan of each of the stories: thus, the lower right  p85 hand quarter shows the true ground-plan, or that of the lowest story; the next on the left shows a plan of the erections on the level of the second row of exterior columns, as well as the seats which sloped down from that level to the lower one; the next quarter shows a similar plan of the third order, and the upper right-hand quarter exhibits a view of the interior as it would appear to an eye looking vertically down upon it. The dotted lines on the arena are the radii, and their points of intersection the centres, of the several arcs which make up the ellipses.

[image ALT: A plan of a large oval structure: the Colosseum in Rome.]
Ground plan of the Flavian Amphitheatre

[image ALT: An elevation of a large colonnaded structure: the Colosseum in Rome.]
Longitudinal elevation of the Flavian Amphitheatre

[image ALT: A cross-section of a large structure shaped like an oval cup: the Colosseum in Rome.]
Longitudinal section of the Flavian Amphitheatre

 p86  This structure, like all the other existing amphitheatres, is of an elliptical form. It covers nearly six acres of ground. The plan divides itself naturally into two concentric ellipses, of which the inner constituted the arena or space for the combats, while the ring between this and the outer circumference was occupied by the seats for the spectators. The lengths of the major and minor axes of these ellipses are, respectively, 287 feet by 180, and 620 feet by 513. The width of the space appropriated to spectators is, therefore, 166½ feet all round the building. The ratio of the diameters of the external ellipse is nearly that of 6 to 5, which becomes exactly the proportion, if we take in the substructions of the foundation. Of course, the ratio of the diameters of the arena is different, on account of the diminished size: it is, in fact, nearly as 8 to 5. The minor axis of the arena is here, and generally, about one-third that of the outer ellipse. The material used was stone, in large blocks, fastened together, where necessary, by metal clamps. The exterior was faced with marble and adorned with statues. The external elevation requires little description. It is divided into four stories, corresponding to the tiers of corridors by which access was gained to the seats at different levels. These corridors are connected with the external air by eighty arched openings in each of the three lower stories. To the piers which divide these arches are attached three-quarter columns, that is, columns one-fourth of whose circumference appears to be buried in the wall behind them. Thus, each of the three lower stories presents a continuous façade of eighty columns backed by piers, with eighty open arches between them, and with an entablature continued unbroken round the whole building. The width of the arches is as nearly as possible the same throughout the building, namely, 14 feet 6 inches, except at the extremities of the diameters of the ellipse, where they are two feet wider. Each tier is of a different order of architecture, the lowest being a plain Roman Doric, or perhaps rather Tuscan, the next Ionic, and the third Corinthian. The columns of the second and third stories are placed on pedestals; those of the lowest story are raised from the ground by a few steps. The highest tier is of quite a different character, as it merely consists of a wall, without corridors, against which, instead of columns, are placed pilasters of the Corinthian order; and the wall between them is pierced with windows, in the alternate intercolumniations only, and therefore, of course, forty in number. The whole is crowned with a bold entablature, which is pierced with holes above the brackets which supported the feet of the masts upon which the velarium or awning was extended: and above that the entablature is a small attic. The total height of that part of the building which remains entire, namely, about three-eighths of the whole circumference, is 157 feet: the stories are respectively about 30, 38, 38, and 44 feet high. The massiveness of the crowning entablature, the height of upper story, and the great surface of blank wall in its intercolumniations, combine to give the elevation a somewhat heavy appearance; while the projecting cornices of each story, intercepting the view from below, take off very much from the apparent height of the building. Indeed, it would be a waste of words to attempt to specify all the architectural defects of the composition.

The stone used in the building is a species of travertine: some of the blocks are as much as five feet high, and eight or ten feet long; and it is remarkable, that all those which form the exterior have inscribed upon them small numbers or signs, which evidently indicate the place of each in the building, and which prove how great was the care taken to adapt every single stone to the form of the whole edifice. In some parts of the interior large masses of brickwork and tufa are seen: and in the upper part there are fragments of other buildings worked in; but this, no doubt, happened in some of the various repairs.

There are coins extant, bearing on the reverse a view of the amphitheatre, so arranged as to show not only the outside, but a portion of the interior also. It is from them that we learn the fact, that the outer arches of the second and third stories were decorated with statues in their openings, unless, indeed, the figures shown in the arches are meant for rude representations of the people passing through the outer colonnade. These coins also show, on the highest story, in the alternate spaces between the pilasters, circles against the wall, corresponding to the windows in the other alternate spaces; they are, perhaps, the clypea mentioned by the old author cited above, that is, ornamental metal shields, hung there to decorate the building. There are several coins of Titus and Domitian of this type (Eckhel, Doctr. Num. Vet. vol. VI. pp357‑359, 375). There are similar coins of Gordian, which are, however, very inferior in execution to those of Titus and Domitian (Eckhel, vol. VII. p271). The coins of Titus and Domitian also show a range of three stories of columns by the side of the amphitheatre, which (though the matter is doubtful) is supposed to represent a colonnade which ran from the palace of Titus on the Esquiline to the amphitheatre, to which it gave access at the northern extremity of its minor axis, as shown on the plan. At the other extremity of this axis was the entrance from the Palatine.

[image ALT: An arc of a tall curved vaulted corridor with 8 arched entrances giving onto it.]
	The eighty arches of the lower story (except the four at the extremities of the axes) formed the entrances for the spectators, and gave admission to a corridor, running uninterruptedly round the building, behind which again is another precisely similar corridor (see the plan and section). The space behind the second corridor is divided by eighty walls, radiating inwards from the inner piers of the second corridor; which support the structure, and between which are partly staircases leading to the upper stories, and partly passages leading into a third corridor, which, like the first and second, runs round the whole building. Beyond this corridor the radiating walls are again continued, the spaces between them being occupied, as before, partly by the staircases leading on the one side to the podium, and on the other to the lower range of seats (maenianum), and partly by passages leading to a fourth continuous corridor much lower and smaller than the others, which was divided from the arena by a massive wall (called podium), the top of which formed the place assigned to the spectators of the highest rank. From this fourth corridor there are several entrances to the arena; and it is most probable that the whole of the corridor was subservient to the arrangements of the arena. (See the lower right-hand quarter of the plan, and the section.) On  p87 the second story we have the two outer colonnades repeated, and the radiating walls of the first block are continued up through this story; and between them are staircases leading out onto the second range of seats, and passages leading into a small inner corridor, from which access is obtained to a sort of terrace (praecinctio) which runs round the building between the first and second ranges of seats, and increases the facilities for the spectators getting to their proper places. Sloping down from this praecinctio to the level of the top of the podium, and supported by the inner series of radiating walls, are the lower series of seats. On the third story (above the floor of which the details are almost entirely conjectural), we have again the double colonnade, the inner wall of which rises immediately behind the top of the second range of seats, with only the interval of a narrow praecinctio, to which access was given by numerous doors in the wall just mentioned, which was also pierced with windows. Above the outer corridor of this story is a mezzanine, or small middle story, in front of which and above the inner colonnade were a few tiers of wooden benches for the lowest class of spectators. Above this mezzanine was a gallery, which ran right round the building, and the front of which is supposed to have been formed by a range of columns. It seems that the terrace formed by the top of this gallery would also be available for spectators. And, lastly, the very summit of the wall was formed into a sort of terrace which was, no doubt, occupied by the men who worked the ropes of the velarium. The doors which opened from the staircases and corridors on to the interior of the amphitheatre were designated by the very appropriate name of vomitoria. The whole of the interior was called cavea. The following section (from Hirt) exhibits these arrangements as clearly as they can be shown without the aid of perspective.

[image ALT: A cross-section of the bleachers.]
			a. Stairs from the third colonnade to the podium
 p88  b. Short transverse steps from the podium to the first maenianum (cf. the plan)
c, d. Stairs from the ground story to the second; whence the second maenianum was reached in two ways, e and g.
e. Steps to the first praecinctio, from which there were short transverse steps (f) to the second maenianum.
g. Stairs leading direct from the corridors of the second story to the second maenianum, through the vomitorium α.
h. Stairs leading from the floor of the second story to the small upper story, whence other stairs (δ) led to the third story, from which access was obtained to the upper part of the second maenianum by doors (β) in the inner wall of the second corridor q.
k. Stairs from the second story to the mezzanine, or middle story, whence access was obtained to the third maenianum by passages γ.
l. Stairs in the mezzanine, leading to the upper part of the third maenianum, and to the gallery K.
m. Steps from the gallery to the terrace over it.
n. Steps from that terrace to the summit.
o, p. Grated openings to light the two inner corridors.
q. See under h.
s. Windows to light the mezzanine.
t. Windows of the gallery.
v. Rest, and loop, for the masts of the velarium g.

The arena was surrounded by a wall of sufficient height to guard the spectators against any danger from the wild beasts, namely about fifteen feet. A further protection was afforded, at least sometimes, by a network or trellis of metal; and it is mentioned, as an instance of the profuse ostentation which the emperors were so fond of displaying, that Nero, in his amphitheatre, had this trellis gilt, and its intersections ornamented with bosses of amber (Plin. H. N. XXXVII.3 s.11 ¶2). The wall just mentioned appears to have been faced with marble, and to have had rollers suspended against it as an additional protection against the possibility of the wild beasts climbing it (Lips. de Amph. 12). The terrace on the top of this wall, which was called podium (a name sometimes applied to the wall itself), was no wider than to be capable of containing two, or at the most three ranges of moveable seats, or chairs. This, as being by far the best situation for distinctly viewing the sports in the arena, and also more commodiously accessible than the seats higher up, was the place set apart for senators and other persons of distinction, such as the ambassadors of foreign states (Suet. Octav. 44; Juv. Sat. II. 143, &c.); the magistrates seem to have sat here in their curule chairs (Lipsius de Amph. 11); and it was here, also, that the emperor himself used to sit, in an elevated place called suggestus (Suet. Caes. 76; Plin. Paneg. 51), or cubiculum Suet. Nero, 12; and likewise the person who exhibited the games, on a place elevated like a pulpit or tribunal (editoris tribunal). The vestal virgins also appear to have had a place allotted to them on the podium (Suet. Octav. 44).

[image ALT: A few rows of marble seating, reconstructed from fragments.]

Above the podium were the gradus, or seats of the other spectators, which were divided into stories called maeniana. The whole number of seats is supposed to have been about eighty. The first maenianum, consisting of fourteen rows of stone of marble seats, was appropriated to the equestrian order. The seats appropriated to the senators and equites were covered with cushions (pulvillis), which were first used in the time of Caligula (Juv. Sat. III. 154; Dion, LIX.7). Then, after a horizontal space, termed a praecinctio, and forming a continued landing-place from the several staircases which opened on to it, succeeded the second maenianum, where were the seats called popularia (Suet. Domitian 4), for the third class of spectators, or the populus. Behind this was the second praecinctio, bounded by the high wall already mentioned, above which was the third maenianum, where there were only wooden benches for the pullati, or common people (Suet. Octav. 44). The open gallery at the top was the only part of the amphitheatre, in which women were permitted to witness the games, except the vestal virgins, and perhaps a few ladies of distinction and influence who were suffered to share the space appropriated to the vestals (Suet. Octav. 44). 
[image ALT: A cross-section of a staircase.]
		The seats of the maeniana did not run in unbroken lines round the whole building, but were divided into portions called cunei (from their shapeº), by short flights of stairs which facilitated the access to the seats (Suet. Oct. 44; Juv. Sat. 6.61). See the plan, and the annexed section of a small portion of the seats. →

[image ALT: An entrance arch seen from the outside, with the number 29 in Roman numerals over it: XXVIIII.]
	Not only were the different ranges of seats appropriated to different classes of spectators, but it is pretty certain also that the different cunei of each maenianum were assigned to specific portions of the people, who were at once guided to their places by numbers placed over the external arches by which the building was entered: these numbers still exist. The office of preserving order in the distribution of the places was assigned to attendants called locarii, and the whole management was under the superintendence of the villicus amphitheatri.

It only remains to describe the arena, or central open space for the combatants, which derived its name from the sand with which it was covered, chiefly for the purpose of absorbing the blood. Such emperors as Caligula, Nero, and Carinus, showed their prodigality by using cinnabar and borax instead of the common sand. It was bounded, as already stated, by the wall of the podium, but in the earlier amphitheatres, in which the podium was probably not so lofty, there were ditches (euripi) between it and the arena, which were chiefly meant as a defence against the elephants. The euripi were first made by Julius Caesar, and were dispensed with by Nero, in  p89 order to gain space for the spectators. (Suet. Caes. 39; Plin. H. N. VIII.7; Lipsius de Amph. 12)

The space of the arena was entirely open, except that perhaps there was, in the centre, an altar of Diana, or Pluto, or of Jupiter Latiaris, on which, it is inferred from some passages of the ancient authors, that a bestiarius was sacrificed at the opening of the games; but the evidence is very slight (Lips. de Amph. 4). There were four principal entrances to it, at the extremities of the axes of the ellipse, by passages which led directly from the four corresponding arches of the exterior: there were also minor entrances through the wall of the podium. There is a difficulty about the position of the dens of the wild beasts. The rapidity with which vast numbers of animals were let loose into the arena proves that the dens must have been close to it. The spaces under the seats seem to have been devoted entirely to the passage of the spectators, with only the exception of the innermost corridor, the entrances from which to the arena suggest the probability that it was subsidiary to the arena; but, even if so, it was probably used rather for the introduction and removal of the animals, than for their safe keeping. Some have supposed dens in the wall of the podium: but this is quite insufficient. In the year 1813, the arena was excavated,

[image ALT: A wide view of the inside of the Roman Colosseum. The ancient floor has been removed, and you can see the basement with its maze of service corridors.]

and extensive substructions were discovered, which, it has been supposed, were the dens, from which the animals were let loose upon the arena through trap-doors. The chief difficulty is to reconcile such an arrangement with the fact that the arena was frequently flooded and used for a naval combat, and that too in the intervals between the fights of wild-beasts. (Calpurn. Eclog. VII.6473: the whole poem is a very interesting description of the games of the amphitheatre.) [Naumachia] All that can be said with any approach to certainty is, that these substructions were either dens for the animals, or channels for water, and possibly they may have been so arranged as to combine both uses, though it is difficult to understand how this could have been managed. The only method of solving the difficulty in those cases in which a naumachia took place between the venationes, appears to be, to assume that the animals intended for the second venatio were kept in the innermost colonnade, or in dens in its immediate vicinity during the naumachia; unless, which seems to us quite incredible, there was any contrivance for at the same time admitting the air to, and excluding the water, from their cells beneath the arena. In the amphitheatre at Verona, there are remains of channels for water under the arena, communicating with an opening in its centre; but some antiquaries believe that these were only intended for draining off the rain water.

It is unnecessary to attempt a detailed description of the statues and other ornaments with which the amphitheatre was adorned; but the velarium, or awning, by which the spectators were sheltered from the sun, requires some explanation, which will be found under Velum. The space required for the working of the velarium, and the height necessary for keeping it from bending down by its own weight so low as to obstruct the view from the upper benches, are probably the reasons for the great disproportion between the height of the upper part of the amphitheatre, and the small number of spectators accommodated in that part.

The luxurious appliances of fountains of scented water to refresh the spectators, and so forth, are sufficiently described in the passage already quoted from Gibbon (cf. Lucan IX.808).º

III. Other Amphitheatres

The Flavian amphitheatre, as has been already stated, was, from the time of its erection, the only one in Rome; for the obvious reason that it was sufficient for the whole population. The little Amphitheatrum Castrense was probably only intended for the soldiers of the guard, who amused themselves there with fights of gladiators. But in the provincial cities, and especially the colonies, there were many amphitheatres. Indeed, it is not a little interesting to observe the contrast between the national tastes of the Greeks and Romans, which is indicated by the remains of theatres in the colonies of the former, and of amphitheatres in those of the latter. The immense expense of their construction would, however, naturally prevent the erection of many such buildings as the Colisaeum. (Cassiod. Ep. V.42) The provincial amphitheatres were, probably, like the earlier ones at Rome itself, generally built of wood, such as those at Placentia and Fidenae, already mentioned. Of these wooden amphitheatres there are of course no remains; but in several of the larger cities of the Roman empire there are important ruins of large amphitheatres of stone. The principal are those at Verona, Paestum, Pompeii, and Capua, in Italy; at Nîmes, Arles, and Fréjus, in France; at Pola, in Istria; at Syracuse, Catania, and some other cities in Sicily. They are all constructed on the same general principles as the Colisaeum, from which, again, they all differ by the absence of the outermost corridor; and, consequently, their height could not have exceeded three stories; while some of them only had two. Of the Veronese amphitheatre, the outer wall and colonnade are entirely gone, excepting four arches; but the rest of the building is almost perfect. When complete, it had seventy-two arches in the outer circle, and, of course, the same number of radiating walls, with their passages and staircases; the lengths of the axes of the outer ellipse were 500 and 404 feet, those of the arena, 242 and 146. It was probably built under Domitian and Nerva (Maffei, Verona Illustrata). The next in importance is that at Nîmes, the outer dimensions of which are computed at 434 by 340 feet. "The exterior wall, which is nearly perfect, consists of a ground story and upper story, each pierced with sixty arches, and is surmounted by an attic. Its height, from the level of the ground, is above 70 English feet. The lower or ground story is adorned with pilasters, and the upper with Tuscan or Doric columns. The attic shows the holes destined to receive the posts on which was stretched the awning that covered the amphitheatre. The rows of seats are computed to have been originally 32 in number. There were four principal entrances. The amphitheatre has been computed to hold 17,000 persons: it was built with great solidity, without cement." (Pen. Cyclop. art. Nîmes) That at Arles was three stories high, and has the peculiarity of being built on uneven ground, so that the lowest story is, for the most part, below the level of the surface, and the principal entrances are on the second story. (For a detailed description, see Guis, Description de l'Amphithéâtre d'Arles, 1665; and Pen. Cyclop.  p90 art. Arles.) Both these amphitheatres belong probably to the time of the Antonines. (Maffei, de Amph. Gall.) The amphitheatre at Pola stands on the side of a hill, and is higher on one side than on the other. There is little to remark respecting the other amphitheatres, except that a fragment of an inscription, found in that at Capua, informs us that it was built under Hadrian, at the cost of the inhabitants of the city, and was dedicated by Antoninus Pius; and, concerning that of Pompeii, that the earthquake, which preceded the eruption by which the city was buried, injured the amphitheatre so much, that antiquarians have been disappointed in looking for any new information from it; there is an excellent description of it in the work entitled Pompeii, vol. I c. 9. There are traces of amphitheatres of a ruder kind, chiefly of earth, in various parts of our own country, as at Dorchester, Silchester, Caerleon, and Redruth.

IV. Uses of the Amphitheatre

This part of the subject is treated of under Gladiatores, Naumachia, and Venationes. This is not the place to discuss the influence of the spectacles of the amphitheatre on the character and destinies of the Roman people: some good remarks on the subject will be found in the Library of Entertaining Knowledge, Menageries, vol. II c. 12.

The Author's Notes:

1 As a mere matter of etymology, the word θέατρον (a place for beholding), would more strictly apply to the amphitheatre, which was intended exclusively for spectacle, while the theatre, which was for recitations accompanied by music, might be at least as fitly described by the word ὠδεῖον.


[image ALT: A high rounded brick wall with engaged brick columns.]
	In the lower eastern angle of the walls of Aurelian, near the church of S. Croce, are the remains of an amphitheatre, of brick, called in the Notitia, the Amphitheatrum Castrense. Its date is very uncertain (see further Becker, Handb. d. Röm. Alter., vol. I pp549, &c.)

Thayer's Notes:

a The Corinthians set the gladiatorial contests in a vacant lot far from downtown; and in Athens they took place in the theatre. For the details, and at least one Greek's poor opinion of them, see Dio Chrysostom, Or. 31.121.

b Considering that the largest Roman amphitheatre ever built was the Colosseum, seating at the very most 80,000 and probably only about 50,000, the figure seems exaggerated; not only to me, but to scholars as well. Here for example, Guy Chamberland, "The Production of Shows in the Cities of the Roman East Indies: A Study of the Latin Epigraphic Evidence", p209, n. 488:

The figure is highly suspicious, considering that the maximum capacity of the largest of all amphitheaters, the "Colosseum", was about 50,000 (GOLVIN 1988 p287). Suetonius claims that over 20,000 were killed (Tib. 40; followed by Oros. Hist. 7.4.11), while the Chronographer of 354 gives, perhaps more realistically, the figure of 4205 killed (Monumenta Germaniae historica, Auct. ant. IX, Chron. Min. I, p145).

c Now why this spelling Colisaeum, which is also, for example, the standard one in French (Colisée)?

The fact is, once again, that nobody knows exactly what gave the Coliseum its name; and indeed, our author carefully avoids saying he does — in sharp contrast with many people who state flat outright that the name is due to a colossal statue that had once stood somewhere in the area. Examining the evidence for this unsubstantiated assumption:

  1. No contemporary author ever calls this building the Colosseum nor connects it with any Colossus. The first time the name is used in any extant text is by the Venerable Bede — see my note to Platner, who says something different — in the form Colis(a)eus or Colys(a)eus, which is thus the oldest spelling. Bede was an Englishman who never saw Rome, thus he was hardly a local; flourishing in the early 8c, some six and a half centuries after the amphitheatre was built, he was hardly a contemporary, either!

  2. The Colossus built by Nero was a portrait of him: people detested him, and by the time the amphitheater was built, the face of the Colossus had been changed at least once. Although it was admittedly a striking landmark, I wonder whether people might have been inclined to ignore it.

  3. This same Colossus did not last very long. Cassius Dio, a Roman senator writing in the early 3c, may be vague (65(66).15) about when exactly it was erected — he ascribes it to Vespasian in A.D. 75, and goes on immediately to say that it "is said to have been one hundred feet in height", showing clearly that it had already been demolished before his own time.

  4. In Roman times the area in which it stood, the Augustan Regio III, appears under the name Isis et Serapis, leading some people, including both a few real experts and yours truly, to find Collem Isaeum a very likely etymology.

Let's refine that with a touch of compromise, and admit that, in the best of cases, a conflation may have occurred: *amphitheatrum ad Collem Isaeum — if you've had even the rudiments of Latin prosody, you'll remember the elision of final ‑m before a vowel, for which there is plenty of other evidence as well — would have become *(amphitheatrum) Coll' Isaeum; then under the baneful effects of folk etymology, the memory of the nearby Colossus produced Colosseum.

It appears more likely still, though, that the spelling used in some modern languages ultimately derives from some folk etymologizing dressed up with antiquarianism, probably in the Renaissance.

Moral: do not always believe what you read, no matter how many times it is repeated from book to book. On the other hand, it might be true.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 7 Nov 19