Monday, 17 May 2010

The Gladiatorial Arena at Pompeii

In the popular imagination gladiatorial games took place in purpose built arenas in front of baying mobs of thousands of Romans. In fact, the earliest gladiatorial contests took place either beside the tomb of the man being honoured by a munus or on his estate. There would have been few spectators other than the dead man’s family and household.

Later, as the events became spectacles and attracted large crowds, they were held in town squares or, in Rome, at the Forum. In these venues the editor of the games, the man putting on the spectacle, might erect temporary wooden seating for the comfort of the audience. The erection of permanent structures in which games could be held did not begin until the 1st century BC. Only then were the events being staged frequently enough for the large expense of permanent buildings to be worthwhile.

The oldest gladiatorial amphitheatre of which enough remains for us to see the layout in any detail is that in Pompeii. The structure was built in 80BC and had seating capacity of about 20,000. We know of earlier amphitheatres from written sources, but these were built at least partially of wood and so have not survived. The Pompeii amphitheatre is built entirely of stone and includes several features that were to become standard elements of amphitheatre design across the Roman Empire.

The most consistent feature of all amphitheatres was their shape, an elliptical oval. The most effective layout to give all spectators a good view of the action in the arena would have been a circle, but that would have been of little use for the primary purpose of the games by this date which was to enhance the prestige and fame of the editor of the games, and thus his chances of winning elections. The elliptical oval, however, gave a position of prominence for the special dais on which sat the editor. This dais was placed half way along the shady, northern side where the curve was at its flattest. From there the editor could see everything that went on in the arena or in the seating. More importantly, he could be seen by the entire crowd. The platform on which he sat went by the name of the tribunal editoris. The arena itself was covered with sand to soak up the blood and give the fighters a good grip with their feet. The word arena comes from the latin for sand.

A second feature of the amphitheatre at Pompeii that was to persist was the location of the two gates which gave access to the arena itself. These were put in at either end of the oval. One was dubbed the Porta Libitinaria, named after Libitina the goddess of burials. It was through this gate that the dead, be they human or animal, were removed for disposal.

A third characteristic set by the Pompeii amphitheatre was the layout of the seating. The seats were made of stone and ran in horizontal lines around the arena. The front seats were raised several feet above the sand and separated from it by a sheer wall of polished stone. This was a safety feature as the wall stopped beasts or frantic men from climbing into the crowd. Sometimes nets were rigged above the wall for added safety. The long horizontal rows of seats were broken by vertical flights of steps so that each block of seats formed a wedge-shape. At the top of the steps was a door through which the crowd entered and left the amphitheatre.

Finally, the amphitheatre of Pompeii was built by two extremely wealthy local magnates named Gaius Quintius Valgus and March Porcius. These men made sure that a prominent inscription recorded their generosity for posterity, and for the attention of the voting public. The fashion was followed elsewhere and with other public buildings. The construction of an amphitheatre was as much a method of gaining public approval as building a temple.

In one important respect the Pompeii amphitheatre is unique. It was built by digging down into the ground so that the floor of the arena was some feet below the level of the ground. The soil excavated was heaped up to form the banks on which the stone seats were built. This model was not followed elsewhere. Most amphitheatres were entirely free standing structures whether they were built of wood, stone or a mix of the two.

This is an extract from the Age of Gladiators by Rupert Matthews

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