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Bill Thayer

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The Other Amphitheatre in Rome:
the Amphitheatrum Castrense

[image ALT: A rounded section of ancient brick wall, about 3 meters high, with an engaged arcade of several columns, also of brick. It's the Amphitheatrum Castrense in the Aurelian Walls in Rome.]

Having paid the almost obligatory visit to the Colosseum, most visitors to Rome never realize, and others are surprised to learn, that a second ancient amphitheater remains in the city.

Indeed, at various times during the life of ancient Rome, even more amphitheaters existed. We know of at least one built of stone — the amphitheater of Statilius Taurus — and one of wood built by Nero: both stood among the sports and military training facilities in the Campus Martius complex.

In fact, technically, there remain even now vestiges of yet a third amphitheater in Rome: a small training arena right next to the Colosseum, to the E, used by gladiators as they prepared for the real combat.

It also seems reasonable to imagine that in so large a city as Rome, several further smaller structures of this type may have existed as well, not recorded in extant sources; and some of them may even have been of brick as well, since other brick amphitheatres are known, for example at Nola.

We aren't absolutely sure, by the way, that what you see on this page was the "Castrense". We think it was, because it is a major building in about the right place, matching a Late Antique catalog of buildings within the City. The name on the other hand suggests a special military entertainment arena, since castrum normally means a military camp; it is only by interpreting the word as meaning "Imperial court" that the identification has been made.

Whatever this sports arena was called in Roman times, however, one thing is certain: some of it has survived. It did so for a reason having nothing to do with its function. When in A.D. 271 the weakened Empire was felt to be vulnerable to attack by Northern barbarians, the emperor Aurelian decided to build massive walls around Rome. Speed and economy required that any large pre-existing structures be incorporated into the new fortifications.

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In the photo above you can see exactly how this was done: all the arched entrances that faced out were blocked up. Now (despite talking to the right people at the right time) I was unable to see the inside of the amphitheater, but this view by du Pérac, a 16c engraver, shows clearly how the functional part of the building had already pretty much disappeared, while the blocked arches built into the wall survived:

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The building itself is a regular ellipse 88 meters long and 75.80 meters wide. The engraving above shows it to have had at least three storeys, at least two of which were gracefully arcaded. It is unusual among extant amphitheaters by being built of brick with occasional decorative accents of travertine marble, as for example the bases of the columns you noticed in my first picture.

Scholar­ly consensus dates the arena to the first half of the third century, possibly to the reign of Elagabalus (218‑222). Richardson's New Topographical Dictionary of Rome states that this more precise dating would be confirmed by the absence of brick stamps: if this mystifies you as much as it does me, the details can be found in H. Bloch, I bolli laterizi e la storia edilizia romana (Rome, 1938).

The serious student will be certain to take a look at the article in Platner and Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.

Access Information, 1998:

This monument is not open to the public. To visit the interior of the structure you may, however, in theory, apply to the pastor of the adjacent church of S. Croce in Gerusalemme (at the time of writing: Don Simeone, or his associate Don Luca) from 10‑12 A.M. Monday thru Saturday, and 4‑6 P.M. Monday thru Friday, excepting Catholic feast days: the phone number is 70.14.769 in Rome.

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Page updated: 4 Dec 17