Most people have heard of the Colosseum in Rome, but there were many other amphitheaters all over the Roman Empire. The first gladiatorial fights, in Etruscan times, were held anywhere that there was a flat place near a hill, so that people could sit on the hillside and watch the fights being held down on the flat area. But there isn’t always a convenient hill like that, so before long, around 300 BC, rich men and city governments started to build temporary wooden amphitheaters for people to sit in, like artificial hills, or like the seating for events at county fairs or festivals today. People called these buildings amphitheaters because they were like two theaters facing each other.
By the last years of the Roman Republic, though, there were so many gladiatorial fights that people got tired of putting up these wooden amphitheaters and taking them down again. Big towns began to build permanent amphitheaters out of limestone and marble. The first stone amphitheaters were not built in Rome, but in Pompeii and other smaller towns in Italy. They’re built mainly out of arches and barrel vaults strung together. In fact, Roman amphitheaters were almost just like modern ones. Fun fact: the Romans called the big exit tunnels where people left after the show vomitoria!
What happened in these amphitheaters? Well, huge audiences of thousands of people came and watched other people and animals kill each other. It was rowdy, like a football game today. In the morning, usually there were fights between animals and people. Then you would break for lunch, and there would be executions of criminals (sometimes including Christians). Finally in the afternoon you’d get fights between men, or sometimes between women.
In the time of the Roman Empire, nearly every town of more than a few thousand people had its own stone amphitheater, all over the Roman Empire from Syria to Spain, and from England to Tunisia in North Africa. Many of these amphitheaters are still standing (at least part of them is still standing) even today, and you can go visit them.
This is the amphitheater of El Djem in Tunisia (North Africa), one of the largest amphitheaters that is still around today. This amphitheater was big enough to hold many more people than lived in the town of El Djem: farmers used to come in from the countryside all around on holidays to see the gladiatorial shows and executions here.
Here’s another example of a Roman amphitheater from outside of Italy. This is the amphitheater of Selinunte in Sicily. Paris, which was only a small town under Roman rule, had a pretty small amphitheater.
The Christian bishops began preaching that gladiatorial fights were wrong. This was partly because the amphitheaters had been used to execute Christian prisoners, people who had been convicted of practicing Christianity illegally, like Saint Paul. And it was partly because gladiators traditionally fought in honor of the Roman gods. But even though gladiatorial fights stopped, amphitheaters kept right on hosting fights between men and animals – and they still do today in Spanish and Mexican bullfights.
Make This Model Roman Amphitheatre, by Iain Ashman (1995).
Roman Architecture, by Frank Sear (1983). The standard college textbook.
The Roman Amphitheatre: From its Origins to the Colosseum, by Katherine Welch (2004). By a specialist, for specialists.