1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Amphitheatre

AMPHITHEATRE (Gr. ἀμφί, around, and θέατρον, a place for spectators), a building in which the seats for spectators surround the scene of the performance. The word was doubtless coined by the Greeks of Campania, since it was here that the gladiatorial shows for which the amphitheatre was primarily used were first organized as public spectacles. The earliest building of the kind still extant is that at Pompeii, built after 80 B.C. It is called spectacula in a contemporary inscription. The word amphitheatrum is first found in writers of the Augustan age.

In Italy, combats of gladiators at first took place in the forums, where temporary wooden scaffoldings were erected for the spectators; and Vitruvius gives this as the reason why in that country the forums were in the shape of a parallelogram instead of being squares as in Greece. Wild beasts were also hunted in the circus. But towards the end of the Roman republic, when the shows increased both in frequency and in costliness, special buildings began to be provided for them.

The first amphitheatre at Rome was that constructed, 59 B.C., by C. Scribonius Curio. Pliny tells us that Curio built two wooden theatres, which were placed back to back, and that after the dramatic representations were finished, they were turned round, with all the spectators in them, so as to make one circular theatre, in the centre of which gladiators fought; but the story is incredible, and must have arisen from the false translation of ἀμφιθέατρον by “double theatre.” It is uncertain whether Caesar, in 46 B.C., constructed a temporary amphitheatre of wood for his shows of wild beasts; at any rate, the first permanent amphitheatre was built by C. Statilius Taurus in 29 B.C. Probably the shell only was of stone. It was burnt in the great fire of A.D. 64.

We hear of an amphitheatre begun by Caligula and of a wooden structure raised in the year A.D. 57 by Nero; but these were superseded by the Amphitheatrum Flavium (known at least since the 8th century as the Colosseum, from its colossal size), which was begun by Vespasian on the site of an artificial lake included in the Golden House of Nero, and inaugurated by Titus in A.D. 80 with shows lasting one hundred days. It was several times restored by the emperors, having been twice struck by lightning in the 3rd century and twice damaged by earthquake in the 5th. Gladiatorial shows were suppressed by Honorius in A.D. 404, and wild beast shows are not recorded after the reign of Theodoric (d. A.D. 526). In the 8th century Bede wrote Quamdiu stabit Coliseus, stabit et Roma; quando cadet Coliseus, cadet et Roma. A large part of the western arcades seem to have collapsed in the earthquake of A.D. 1349, and their remains were used in the Renaissance as a quarry for building materials (e.g. for the Palazzo di Venezia, the Cancelleria and the Palazzo Farnese).

Rome possesses the remains of a second amphitheatre on the Esquiline, called by the chronologist of A.D. 354 Amphitheatrum Castrense, which probably means the “court” or “imperial” amphitheatre. Its fine brickwork seems to date from Trajan’s reign. It was included by Aurelian in the circuit of his wall. The remains of numerous amphitheatres exist in the various provinces of the empire. The finest are—in Italy, those of Verona (probably of the Flavian period), Capua (built under Hadrian) and Pozzuoli; in France, at Nîmes, Arles and Fréjus; in Spain, at Italica (near Seville); in Tunisia, at Thysdrus (El-Jem); and at Pola, in Dalmatia. The builders often took advantage of natural features, such as a depression between hills; and ruder structures, mainly consisting of banked-up earth, are found, e.g. at Silchester (Calleva). The amphitheatre at Pompeii (length 444 ft., breadth 342 ft., seating capacity 20,000) is formed by a huge embankment of earth supported by a retaining wall and high buttresses carrying arches. The stone seats (of which there are thirty-tive rows in three divisions) were only gradually constructed as the means of the community allowed. Access to the highest seats was given by external staircases, and there was no system of underground chambers for wild beasts, combatants, &c.

In contrast to this simple structure the Colosseum represents the most elaborate type of amphitheatre created by the architects of the empire. Its external elevation consisted of four storeys. The three lowest had arcades whose piers were adorned with engaged columns of the three Greek orders. The arches numbered eighty. Those of the basement storey served as entrances; seventy-six were numbered and allotted to the general body of spectators, those at the extremities of the major axis led into the arena, and the boxes reserved for the emperor and the presiding magistrate were approached from the extremities of the minor axis. The higher arcades had a low parapet with (apparently) a statue in each arch, and gave light and air to the passages which surrounded the building. The openings of the arcades above the principal entrances were larger than the rest, and were adorned with figures of chariots. The highest stage was composed of a continuous wall of masonry, pierced by forty small square windows, and adorned with Corinthian pilasters. There was also a series of brackets to support the poles on which the awning was stretched.

The interior may be naturally divided into the arena and the cavea (see annexed plan, which shows the Colosseum at two different levels).

1911 Britannica - Arena.png

The arena was the portion assigned to the combatants, and derived its name from the sand with which it was strewn, to absorb the blood and prevent it from becoming slippery. Some of the emperors showed their prodigality by substituting precious powders, and even gold dust, for sand. The arena was generally of the same shape as the amphitheatre itself, and was separated from the spectators by a wall built perfectly smooth, that the wild beasts might not by any possibility climb it. At Rome it was faced inside with polished marble, but at Pompeii it was simply painted. For further security, it was surrounded by a metal railing or network, and the arena was sometimes surrounded also by a ditch (euripus), especially on account of the elephants. Below the arena were subterranean chambers and passages, from which wild beasts and gladiators were raised on movable platforms (pegmata) through trap-doors. Such chambers have been found in the amphitheatres of Capua and Pozzuoli as well as in the Colosseum. Means were also provided by which the arena could be flooded when a sea-fight (naumachia) was exhibited, as was done by Titus at the inauguration of the Colosseum.

The part assigned to the spectators was called cavea. It was divided into several galleries (maeniana) concentric with the outer walls, and therefore, like them, of an elliptical form. The place of honour was the lowest of these, nearest to the arena, and called the podium. The divisions in it were larger, so as to be able to contain movable seats. At Rome it was here that the emperor sat, his box bearing the name of suggestus, cubiculum or pulvinar. The senators, principal magistrates, vestal virgins, the provider (editor) of the show, and other persons of note, occupied the rest of the podium. At Nîmes, besides the high officials of the town, the podium had places assigned to the principal gilds, whose names are still seen inscribed upon it, with the number of places reserved for each. In the Colosseum there were three maeniana above the podium, separated from each other by terraces (praecinctiones) and walls (baltei), and divided vertically into wedge-shaped blocks (cunei) by stairs. The lowest was appropriated to the equestrian order, the highest was covered in with a portico, whose roof formed a terrace on which spectators found standing room. Numerous passages (vomitoria) and small stairs gave access to them; while long covered corridors, behind and below them, served for shelter in the event of rain. At Pompeii each place was numbered, and elsewhere their extent is defined by little marks cut in the stone. The spectators were admitted by tickets (tesserae), and order preserved by a staff of officers appointed for the purpose.

The height of the Colosseum is about 160 ft.; but the fourth storey in its present form is not earlier in date than the 3rd century A.D. It seems to have been originally of wood, since an inscription of the year A.D. 80 mentions the summum maenianum in ligneis. It is stated in the Notitia Urbis Romae (4th century) that the Colosseum contained 87,000 places; but Huelsen calculates that the seats would accommodate 45,000 persons at most, besides whom 5000 could find standing room. The exaggerated estimate is due to the fact that space was allotted to corporate bodies, whose numbers were taken as data. The greatest length is about 615 ft., and the length of the shorter axis of the ellipse about 510 ft. The dimensions of the arena were 281 ft. by 177 ft.

The following table, giving the dimensions of some of the principal amphitheatres, is based mainly on the figures given by Friedländer (l.c.):—

Entire Building. 


Rome (Colosseum) . .
Capua . . . . . . . . . . . .
Julia Caesarea . . . . .
Italica (Seville) . . . . .
Verona . . . . . . . . . . .
Thysdrus . . . . . . . . .
Tarraco . . . . . . . . . . .
Pozzuoli . . . . . . . . . .
Tours . . . . . . . . . . . .
Pola  . . . . . . . . . . . .
Arles  . . . . . . . . . . . .
Pompeii . . . . . . . . . .
Nîmes . . . . . . . . . . .
. .
. .

Bibliography.—Arts. “Amphitheatrum” in Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (3rd ed., 1890), and in Daremberg and Saglio’s Dictionnaire des antiquités; Friedländer, Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms (6th ed., 1888–1890), vol. ii. pp. 551-620; Durm, Geschichte der Baukunst, II.2 (1905), 360 ff. Of older works, J. Lipsius, De Amphitheatris (1585); Carlo Fontana, L'Anfiteatro Flavio (1725); and Maffei, Verona Illustrata, vol. ii. (1826), are worthy of mention. For the amphitheatre at Pompeii, see Mau-Kelsey, Pompeii, its Life and Art (2nd ed. 1904), chap. 30; for the Colosseum, Middleton, Remains of Ancient Rome, ii. pp. 78-110, and Huelsen’s art. “Flavium Amphitheatrum” in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie.  (H. S. J.) 

1911 Britannica - Amphitheatre at Pola.JPG
1911 Britannica - Amphitheatre at Nîmes.png

1911 Britannica - Amphitheatre at Pompeii.png
1911 Britannica - Amphitheatre at Pozzuoli.png