History Monuments and Sites

Pompeii’s controversial amphitheatre

I made a passing comment to a friend a while ago about how impressive many of Pompeii’s public buildings and structures were and how amazing it was that they survived beneath a mountain of rock and volcanic ash for nearly two thousand years. Excavation over the last few hundred years revealed many of these wonderful buildings including Pompeii’s amphitheatre.

Sports and games in the form of gladiatorial combat was almost a prerequisite to any self-respecting Roman city including a provisional city such as Pompeii. So began an obsession to build one of the first stone amphitheatres during the reign of Sulla. It is believed that the impressive  structure was initially built for Sulla’s 5,000 veterans and their families. An inscription on the amphitheatre dates its completion around about 70 BC that even predates the Colosseum in Rome by a little over a hundred years.

If you get a chance to visit Pompeii or view an aerial map of the city, you will notice that the amphitheatre was strategically built-in the south-east corner of the city, which ideally helped minimise the need for huge earth banks to help hold up its tall tiers. Furthermore, its permanence as a structure was highlighted in its construction out of brick and stone, something the Pompeiians took advance of, with the popular use of these materials during the Sulla/Augustus period. Earlier arenas were wooden and a lot more vulnerable to the weather and fire. It seems the Pompeiians were trying to announce to the rest of the empire that they were here to stay, somewhat ironic considering what happened in the year 79 AD. Though I suppose the city and the amphitheatre has in a way stood the test of time, even though it was hidden from us for almost two thousand years beneath volcanic matter.

Typical of amphitheatres that sprung up in the early days of pernament stone structures, Pompeii’s arenas elevation allowed for the best possible views for everyone that attended games or contests. Beneath its impressive exterior also lay a labyrinth of tunnels and rooms, similar to the Colosseum, though on a smaller scale. These substructures beneath the tiers likely housed gladiators before they emerged out into the arena.


With an estimated capacity of about twenty thousand spectators, Pompeii often put on a show like no other. It was able to successfully promote its gladiatorial games to Romans from all neighbouring areas and towns like Nuceria. There is an interesting story that involves both the citizens of both Pompeii and Nuceria, in which a massive riot broke out involving an argument over a gladiator. We can only imagine the details behind what started the riot, like someone disliking the belt buckle of this particular gladiator, nonetheless Roman authorities were absolutely appalled by their riotous behaviour and banned Pompeii from holding further gladiatorial games for ten years. In fact, the events of this riot, likely helped the Senate stall the development of Rome’s first permanent amphitheatre, based on the well founded fears of public disorder exhibited by the amphitheatre riot of 59 AD in Pompeii. Nonetheless, Emperor Vespasian would give Rome, what all its citizens wanted, a permanent home for games some twenty years later. It would be through his successor Titus that the Colosseum would be inaugurated in 80 AD.

Photo credits: The header image of the amphitheatre today in Pompeii is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany license. The image that depicts the 59 AD riot in the amphitheatre can be found in the Casa della Rissa nell’Anfiteatro, Pompeii, Italy.

1 comment on “Pompeii’s controversial amphitheatre

  1. Fascinating stuff. I thought that the Roman elite always very eagerly wanted gladiatorial spectacle to help keep people pacified. But it seems to have had the the opposite effect in some cases. I learned something here. Thank you!

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