Development and Design of Arenas

In this section you will learn

  • where the Romans staged the first gladiatorial fights
  • why they had no permanent, stone arena in Rome until very late
  • the impact the Colosseum had when it was built and after

The first stone amphitheatre in Italy was built in Pompeii, a colony for Roman military veterans, in 70 BCE; it could seat perhaps as many as 24,000 spectators – enough for all of Pompeii’s population. An inscription from the amphitheatre tells who first built it.

Gaius Quinctius Valgus, son of Gaius, and Marcus Porcius, son of Marcus, quinquennial duumvirs, for the honour of the colony [of Pompeii], saw to the construction of the amphitheatre at their own expense and gave the area to the colonists in perpetuity.

CIL[1] 10 852

Inside of the amphitheater of Pompeii, Italy.

The Romans, however, were extremely reluctant to build a stone amphitheatre in Rome itself (or, indeed, a stone theatre for less murderous drama), because they argued a permanent location of this sort would corrupt public morality.[2] This did not stop people building incredibly elaborate temporary structures to host games. In 52 BCE Gaius Scribonius Curio created revolving wooden theatres that came together to form an amphitheatre.

Curio (who died during the Civil War while fighting for Caesar)[3] had no hope of outdoing Scaurus[4] in expensive decorations in his games for his father…so he had to think hard and come up with some new scheme. It’s a valuable lesson for us to know what he came up with and to be pleased with our values and, in a shift from what is usual, to call ourselves [moral] ancestors. He constructed two large wooden theatres right beside each other, each of which pivoted on a revolving point. In the morning each one hosted a play, and each half faced away from the other so that the plays did not drown each other out. And, then, suddenly each one revolved (and the sources say that after the first few days some spectators kept sitting as it did so) and the corners met and the whole became an amphitheatre in which he gave gladiatorial battles – although the gladiators were less for sale than the Roman people as they whirled around. [Pliny then goes on a long rant about the sheer immorality of this.]

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 36.117

Julius Caesar also built a wooden amphitheatre in 46 BCE for his own spectacles:

After completing this new forum and the temple to Venus, as the founder of his family,[5] he dedicated them at this very time, and in their honour founded many contests of all kinds. He built a kind of hunting-theatre of wood, which was called an amphitheatre from the fact that it had seats all around without any stage. In honour of this and of his daughter[6] he exhibited combats of wild beasts and gladiators; but anyone who cared to record their number would find his task a burden without being able, in all probability, to present the truth, as people regularly exaggerate these things in order to boast.

Cassius Dio 43.22

The first stone amphitheatre in Rome was built by Statilius Taurus in 29 BCE and was probably located in the south of the Campus Martius, which was outside the city walls; it seems to have been rather unsatisfactory and eventually burned down in the great fire of Rome in 68 CE. It was built alongside a number of other public buildings during the reign of Augustus and was paid for by Taurus’ spoils of war from his campaign in Africa in 34 BCE.

Reconstruction of the Amphitheater of Statilius Taurus, Rome, Italy.

More than that, Augustus often urged other prominent men to adorn the city with new monuments or to restore and improve old ones, each according to his means. 5 Many such public works were undertaken at that time by many men; for example, the Temple of Hercules and the Muses but by Marcius Philippus, the Temple of Diana by Lucius Cornificius, the Hall of Liberty by Asinius Pollio, the Temple of Saturn by Munatius Plancus, a theatre by Cornelius Balbus, an amphitheatre by Statilius Taurus, and by Marcus Agrippa[7] in particular many magnificent buildings.

Suetonius, Augustus 29.4-5

These were the events of those days. And while Caesar was still in his fourth consulship, Statilius Taurus both constructed at his own expense and dedicated with a gladiatorial combat a hunting-theatre of stone in the Campus Martius. Because of this he was permitted by the people to choose one of the praetors each year.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 51.23

Despite the fact that this amphitheatre was unsatisfactory, it was not until Caligula that we hear of another stone amphitheatre being started. This was abandoned by his successor Claudius.

Caligula completed the public works which had been half finished under Tiberius, namely the temple of Augustus and the theatre of Pompey. He likewise began an aqueduct in the region near Tibur and an amphitheatre beside the Saepta [Julia], the former finished by his successor Claudius, while the latter was abandoned. At Syracuse he repaired the city walls, which had fallen into ruin though lapse of time, and the temples of the gods. He had planned, besides, to rebuild the palace of Polycrates at Samos, to finish the temple of Didymaean Apollo at Ephesus, to found a city high up in the Alps, but, above all, to dig a canal through the Isthmus in Greece, and he had already sent a chief centurion to survey the work.

Suetonius, Caligula 21

Map showing the location of the Colosseum, the baths of Trajan, and the Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden House. The Colosseum was built over the artificial lake Nero had constructed in the grounds of the Domus Aurea.

The most famous and iconic Roman amphitheatre is, of course, the Colosseum, much of which still now stands. It was built on the grounds of Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) by the Flavians, who succeeded the Julio-Claudians as emperors; it covered the place where his artificial lake was located. It was begun by the Emperor Vespasian, inaugurated under his son Titus, and finally finished under his other son Domitian. The funds for building the Colosseum came from the First Jewish War (66-73 CE), a fact that was marked by an inscription on the front of building. It was originally called the Flavian Amphitheatre; it ended up with the name the Colosseum because it stood by a colossal statue of Nero depicted as the sun god that he had had erected by his palace.

Vespasian also undertook new works, the Temple of Peace close to the Forum and one to the Deified Claudius on the Caelian Hill, which was begun by Agrippina, but almost completely destroyed by Nero; also an amphitheatre in the heart of the city, a plan which he learned that Augustus had cherished.[8]

Suetonius, Augustus 9.1

The poet Martial wrote a book of poems on the opening of the Colosseum, which gives some idea of its impact on many people of the period and the desire of the builders to make sure it was celebrated as a sign of Roman (and their) power. In his first poem he claims that the Colosseum has surpassed all the wonders of the ancient world.

Let barbarian Memphis[9] be silent of the wonders of the pyramids, and Assyrian labour not boast of its Babylon; let us not praise the soft lonians for Diana’s temple;[10] let the altar made of many horns keep hid its Delos;[11] nor the Carians boost to the heavens the Mausoleum[12] poised on empty air with excessive praise. All labour yields to Caesar’s amphitheatre: Fame will speak of one work instead of all the others

Martial, Book of Spectacles 1


Think of your favourite arena or space for spectacles (any spectacle or activity could take place there – it doesn’t need to be a sport).
Now try and create a list of its features, and see if you can can compare them to any modern wonder of the modern world.* What does this look like? Does it seem like a good way to describe or praise a location of this sort.
    * Any wonder of the world: but it must currently exist.


The video below tries to give you a sense for the size and impressiveness of the Colosseum, but it is a bit cheesy, I find. Still, you get a sense of its varied spaces, lighting, and the various features:


In his second poem Martial reflects on how the space where the Colosseum now stands was private land occupied by the grounds of Nero’s infamous Golden House and, specifically a lake, which was now returned to the public.

Here where, the starry Colossus[13] now looks at  the heavens and tall scaffolds rise in the middle, the palace of a savage king– a loathsome thing – gleamed and only a single home stood. Here, where the far-seen amphitheatre lifts its lofty mass was Nero’s lake. Here, where we admire the warm baths,[14] a rapidly built gift, a proud estate once robbed the poor of their homes. Where the Claudian Colonnade extends its outspread shade was the furthest edge of the palace. Rome has been restored to herself, and under your power, Caesar, what once belonged to our master is now the delight of the people.

Martial, Book of Spectacles 2

The games to celebrate the opening of the Colosseum were incredibly lavish:

During his reign Titus did little that was exceptional, apart from the incredible shows he gave for the dedication ceremonies of the hunting theater [the Colosseum] and the baths that are named after him. One contest pitted whooping cranes against each other; in another four elephants fought. Animals both tame and wild were slaughtered, to the number of 9,000. Women (though none of any standing) took part in the killing; many men fought in single combat, but many others fought in squads, on both foot and in boats, since Titus had this same theater quickly flooded … Others also fought on boats in the basin in the Gardens of Gaius and Lucius [the Naumachia], which Augustus had excavated for just such battles.… Such spectacles lasted for one hundred days. Titus supplemented them with some more useful entertainment: he threw little wooden balls down on the audience of the amphitheater, each inscribed with a little picture of the prize that those who caught the balls could pick up from the appropriate officials: the prizes included food, clothing, vessels of silver and gold, horses, mules, cattle, and slaves.

On the last day of his games, Titus was seen to weep. When they were over, he accomplished nothing great, dying the following year.

Cassius Dio, History 66.25

Long after the Flavian dynasty was no more, the Colosseum kept standing – and occasionally burning down.

Macrinus[15] was not destined to live long, either, as, indeed, it had been foretold to him. For a mule gave birth to a mule in Rome and a sow to a little pig with four ears, two tongues, and feet, a great earthquake occurred, blood flowed from a pipe, and bees formed honeycomb in the forum Boarium. 2 The Colosseum was struck by thunderbolts on the very day of the Vulcanalia, and such a blaze followed that its entire upper circuit and everything in the arena was consumed, and the rest of the structure was ravaged by the flames and reduced to ruins. Neither human aid could stop the conflagration, though practically every aqueduct was emptied, nor could the downpour from the sky, which was extremely heavy and violent, accomplish anything — to such an extent was the water from both sources consumed by the power of the thunderbolts, and, in fact, actually contributed in a measure to the damage done. For several years, gladiatorial combats had to be put on in [Domitian's] Stadium.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 79.25.2, 3

The Emperor Alexander Severus[16] placed a tax on pimps and both male and female prostitutes, with the stipulation that the income thus raised go not into the public treasury but towards the cost of restoring the Theatre, the Circus, the Colosseum, and the Stadium.

Historia Augusta, Severus Alexander 24.3

Constantius II gazed over the regions of Rome and the suburban estates that ringed it, thinking, as each object met his view in turn, that it excelled everything else in height: the Temple of Jupiter, rising above its surroundings the way divine things rise over earthly; the imperial baths, piled high to the volume of a province; the sturdy mass of the Colosseum encased in its frame of travertine marble, soaring to heights difficult to reach with the human eye.

Ammianus, History 16.10.1

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Bomgardner, D. L. 2013. The story of the Roman amphitheatre. Routledge.
  • Futrell, Alison. (1997). Blood in the arena: The spectacle of Roman power. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press: 53–76
  • Golvin, Jean-Claude. 1988. L’amphithéâtre romain: Essai sur la théorisation de sa forme et de ses fonctions. 2 vols. Paris: Boccard.
  • Hopkins, Keith, and Mary Beard. 2005. The Colosseum. London: Profile.
  • Taylor, Rabun. 2003. Roman builders: A study in architectural process. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Welch, Katherine E. 2007. The Roman amphitheatre: From its origins to the Colosseum. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • ---- 1994.“The Roman arena in late-Republican Italy: A new interpretation,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 7: 59–80.

  1. Corpus Inscriptorum Latinorum, a record of Latin inscriptions, including graffiti.
  2. This was not the case outside Rome: locations in the south of Italy had stone arenas long before Rome.
  3. He died in 49 BCE.
  4. See here for more about that theatre.
  5. The Julian gens claimed descent from the Trojan prince Aeneas, the son of Venus and the mortal hero Anchises.
  6. Julia, who had died in childbirth several years before.
  7. Augustus’ friend and son-in-law.
  8. It was surprisingly common for later emperors to declare that they were doing something that Augustus had planned, and thus it was fine.
  9. An ancient city even by Egyptian standards, filled with many, many temples.
  10. The Temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
  11. This altar, made of the horns of sacrificed goats, was one of the attractions on the island of Delos, an island dedicated to the god Apollo.
  12. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (in Southwest Caria) was a massive tomb built for Mausolus by his wife Artemisia in the mid-4th century BCE; it was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
  13. The statue of Nero (later turned into the Sun God) that stood outside the arena
  14. The Baths of Titus built in 81 CE; these were built over some of the Domus Aurea and were located beside where you can still view the remains of the Baths of Trajan.
  15. Macrinus was emperor of Rome from 217-8.
  16. Emperor 222-235.


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