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The Amphitheater at Pompeii

"About this time [AD 59] there was a serious fight between the inhabitants of two Roman settlements, Nuceria and Pompeii. It arose out of a trifling incident at a gladiatorial show....During an exchange of tauntsócharacteristic of these disorderly country townsóabuse led to stone-throwing, and then swords were drawn. The people of Pompeii, where the show was held, came off best. Many wounded and mutilated Nucerians were taken to the capital. Many bereavements, too, were suffered by parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate the affair. The senate passed it to the consuls. When they reported back, the senate debarred Pompeii from holding any similar gathering for ten years. Illegal associations in the town were dissolved; and the sponsor of the show and his fellow-instigators of the disorders were exiled."

Tacitus, Annals (XIV.17)

It is unlikely that the riot was provoked simply by the games that day. During the Social War (91-88 BC), a century and a half earlier, Rome's Italian allies had fought to acquire the benefits of citizenship. Pompeii joined the revolt but fell to Sulla, who settled a colony of legionary veterans there. The amphitheater, itself, was constructed about 70 BC for the benefit of these new colonists, both because of its association with the Roman military and as a monumental reminder of their dominance over the local Samnite population. Nuceria had not rebelled and subsequently was awarded territory confiscated from a neighboring town that had been destroyed during the fighting. Less than two years before the riot, Nero settled a veteran colony at Nuceria (Annals, XIII.31), which no doubt inflamed old resentments, especially if assigned lands were disputed by the Pompeians.

It is not likely that the amphitheater was closed the entire ten years. Beast hunts (venationes) and athletic competitions, at least, seem to have continued. Poppaea, the second wife of Nero, whose mother's family lived in Pompeii, may have interceded. A local magistrate, whose name, together with that of Nero, is acclaimed in the fresco, also may have pleaded that the spectacula be offered again. In AD 62, a devastating earthquake struck Pompeii (Annals, XV.22), a precursor to the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and, once the amphitheater had been repaired, it may have been opened as a gesture of consolation to the populace.


This detail is from a larger fresco found in the house of Actius Anicetus, who, given the scene (which originally was flanked by two smaller paintings of gladiatorial pairs), may have been a freed gladiator. The amphitheater was located in the eastern part of town, positioned against the embankment that filled this corner of the city wall, the towers of which can be seen in the background. A section of the awnings (velarium) that protected against the sun also is visible, the masts of which were fitted through stone corbels attached to the rear wall of the summa cavea. Private boxes (cathedrae) were reserved there for the aristocratic women of Pompeii, who were restricted by the social legislation of Augustus to these uppermost seats.

Curiously, the number of arches beneath the double staircase leading up to the terrace of the amphitheater is incorrect. That there are six, not eleven, is a reminder that even the most seemingly obvious archaeological evidence must be treated with caution.


References: Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome (1959) translated by Michael Grant (Penguin Classics); The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre (2000) by D. L. Bomgardner; The Colosseum (2000) edited by Ada Gabucci; Gladiators at Pompeii (2003) by Luciana Jacobelli.

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