Amphitheatres, meaning ‘theatre all round’, played a pivotal role in Ancient Roman society, hosting gladiatorial events and civic meetings. As the Roman Empire expanded and grew more prosperous, its architecture become more ornate. Its amphitheatres were no exception.
And more than 200 Roman amphitheatres have been excavated across the globe, with many of them in impressive states of preservation. Here are 10 of the finest, most significant amphitheatres to visit around the world.
Easily the most famous and the largest amphitheatre of Ancient Rome, the Colosseum saw gladiators, criminals and lions fight for their lives in spectacular events. Today it remains a world-renowned, iconic symbol of the Roman Empire.
A visit to the Colosseum offers a great insight into the lives of those who had the misfortune of fighting there. In particular, it’s possible to tour the underground hallways and corridors where the gladiators would prepare to fight. There’s also a museum with a wealth of interesting artefacts and information and audio guides are available in a number of languages.
El Jem in Tunisia is a magnificent UNESCO-listed, 3rd-century Roman stadium. From the outside, the El Jem bears a striking resemblance to its older and larger counterpart in Rome. In fact, with its abundant original characteristics and elliptical stone walls, which are intact up to 35 metres in places, many argue that El Jem is in better condition that the Colosseum.
Constructed by the Emperor Gordian between 230 and 238 AD, El Jem Amphitheatre was vast and able to accommodate up to 35,000 spectators. At 162 metres long and 118 metres wide, the El Jem Amphitheatre is the largest of its kind in North Africa.
Possibly the best preserved Roman stadium in the world, Nimes Arena survived due to its adaptation over the centuries, being used as a fortress and village before its eventual restoration. Built during the reign of Augustus, Nimes is a marvel of Roman engineering.
A vast oval, with a stunning façade of archways and ornamentation, the arena could seat up to 24,000 people. Now fully restored, Nimes is a popular tourist attraction and allows people to experience what it would have been like for Roman spectators. Including an interactive audio guide and some detailed exhibits, the site is now a fitting museum of its past.
Arles is a UNESCO listed Roman sports arena still in use today. Built during the reign of Augustus, at the time Arles was flourishing as a Roman colony. It could accommodate over 20,000 spectators and had over a hundred Corinthian and Doric columns spread over 2 levels.
Today the site is in an excellent state of preservation, in spite of the fact that it was used as a military fortification during the medieval period.
Pula Arena in Croatia was built in the 1st century AD and still hosts events today. Constructed during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, it was able to accommodate approximately 20,000 spectators.
Now restored with a capacity of 5,000 people, Pula Arena hosts shows that are far more docile in nature, mostly operas and film festivals.
Also known as Pozzuoli, the Flavian Amphitheatre was constructed during the reign of the Vespasian around the same time as Rome’s Colosseum. Later damaged by ash and rubble from the eruption of the Solfatara volcano, the site lay abandoned and was later used as a quarry for its marble.
It was excavated in the 19th century, and archaeologists found it in a good state of preservation with many of its walls and floors intact. One of the highlights of a trip is exploring the underbelly of this once-thriving stadium and wandering through the rooms and chambers below the arena itself. It is even possible to see the quarters in which the gladiators would have prepared for their contests.
Verona Arena was built in 30 AD and is thought to have been the third largest of its time. Originally made up of three elliptical rings of arches, during its prime the arena could hold up to 30,000 people and would have played host to an array of ancient entertainment.
As with many similar Roman constructions, the arena suffered during the decline of the Empire and was pillaged for masonry during the middle ages. Despite this, however, the arena stands in an excellent state of preservation and still hosts events, operas and open-air performances.
The amphitheatre of Leptis Magna would once have held almost 20,000 people and is still an impressive site today. Originally founded by the Phoenicians, Leptis Magna later became part of the Carthaginian Empire and was then incorporated into the Roman Empire in 46 BC.
Most of the remaining structures found at the site originate from the reign of Septimius Severus, who was born here.
Once holding over 30,000 spectators, the arena of Carthage was one of the biggest ancient stadia in North Africa. A Roman circus near the site was thought to be able to hold at least double the number of spectators but has been all-but-lost to history and there is little if nothing to see.
Unlike similar sites in North Africa, such as El Jem, this site has been mostly lost to ruin, but it is still worth a visit.
The Roman amphitheatre in Alexandria in Egypt is a large circular Roman theatre and the only one of its kind to be found in the country. Excavations at the site – initially undertaken in search of the grave of Alexander the Great – uncovered the original Roman marble seating, a number of courtyard mosaics and even graffiti relating to the rivalry of supporters of local chariot teams.
As well as the theatre itself, there are also the remains of a baths complex on the site and several other chambers and living quarters.