Thursday, March 29, 2012

Amphitheater of Pompeii

The Amphitheater at Pompeii may at first seem like any other roman amphitheater, but it is in fact very unique. It was built around 80 B.C., soon after Pompeii had officially become a Roman colony. Quinctius Valgus and Marcius Porcius, two local officials built the amphitheater at their own private expense. We know this because there is an inscription crediting them with the construction. It can seat around 20,000 people in three tiers. It served not only the people of Pompeii but also surrounding towns. In its time, it was not called an amphitheatrum, for that word was not being used yet. It was called a spectacular. Now why is it so special? This amphitheater is the earliest known permanent stone amphitheater in the Roman world. Before this, they were built from wood. The next stone amphitheater built was the Colosseum, in Rome, more than a century later. The well-preserved amphitheater has given many insights into Roman gladiator culture.

The amphitheater is in the southeast part of Pompeii, in the outskirts with very few other buildings near it. It is situated in a corner of two town walls to take advantage of existing structures for support.  Because the arena in the center of the amphitheater was below the ground level of the time, they dug about six meters (19.68 feet) down. This created a lot of extra dirt that was piled against the city walls and used to support half of the seating area. There are six stairways in the amphitheater, two double-sided stairways on the west side and two simple stairways on the north and south sides. The amphitheater’s design is seen by some modern crowd control specialists as near optimal. Its washroom, located in the neighboring palaestra (training field) has also been cited as an inspiration for better bathroom design in modern stadiums. The arena is shaped like an oval and surrounded by a parapet (any low protective wall or barrier at the edge of a balcony, roof, bridge, or the like) that is more than two meters (6.56 feet) high. This was wall or barrier was originally painted with scenes of animal hunts and gladiator fights. There was also a large training field right next to the amphitheater. 

There were bloody shows between gladiators and animals were what people came to see. There were not shows in the winter and the hottest parts of summer. A canopy of black flax material covered the seating area in the summer to protect the audience from the burning sun. Another thing I found interesting about this amphitheater is the deadly brawl between the people of Pompeii and the visiting people of Nuceria that occurred there. It resulted in the ban of events in the amphitheater for 10 years. Below is a illustration of the brawl.

"About this time [AD 59] there was a serious fight between the inhabitants of two Roman settlements, Nuceria and Pompeii. It arose out of a trifling incident at a gladiatorial show...During an exchange of taunts—characteristic of these disorderly country towns—abuse led to stone-throwing, and then swords were drawn. The people of Pompeii, where the show was held, came off best. Many wounded and mutilated Nucerians were taken to the capital. Many bereavements, too, were suffered by parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate the affair. The senate passed it to the consuls. When they reported back, the senate debarred Pompeii from holding any similar gathering for ten years. Illegal associations in the town were dissolved; and the sponsor of the show and his fellow-instigators of the disorders were exiled."
~Tacitus, Annals (XIV.17)

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  1. I had no idea that the first stone amphitheatre was actually a spectacular, and that it was constructed in Pompeii. This makes the early cinema spectaculars make more sense, it follows a long tradition of the people going to sit and observe some sort of diversion. I wonder how sites like these influenced the construction of modern day theatres and stadiums. Parallels can of course be drawn to football, basketball, hockey, even soccer and swimming. Though not golf… which only makes sense.

    I find it interesting that the main draw of the gladiatorial games was to pit fighters against man and animals, but it was because of this spectacle that events were banned for ten years. Unfortunately, in the past, just as today, the spectators get too into the sport. I wonder what the first event was in the spectacular after it re-opened, was it another gladiatorial match, or was it something more diplomatic, such as a footrace or play.

    Overall, this is a very good post, I found it was informative and thought provoking. I look forward to future post topics and to see how this blog will be related to the in-class lecture. Pompeii proves itself to be quite the archeological marvel, part of the Roman Empire, a mixing port for various cultures, site of the first stone spectacular, ghost town, home to controversial artwork, and memorial to the wrath of Mount Vesuvius.

  2. I've always been really into the Roman coliseum so the amphitheater is also high up on my "to learn about" list. I found it very interesting that many of the same things went on in both arenas including the animal vs. human death matches. The thing that was most interesting to me though was the riots between the Pompeii and Nuceria; I would really like to know more about what caused it, how it broke up and exactly what happened to the people involved.

  3. An excellent post. There are many aspects of Pompeii that are unique and to some extent extraordinary, but it sadly is set aside by the common image of "oh, that Roman city that got buried in ash" mentality throughout the world. This remarkable amphitheater' status is yet a case of that. Thankfully, there is growing interest in it, as it truly serves as a window into how the past has shaped the future.

    It is interesting that you mention the training fields allocated near the amphitheater. I do ponder what would motivate a gladiator, in particular one that felt hopeless in his situation, to train in any way, if there was indeed training done for the gladiators. Besides the chance of being freed and wealth, there really was not much else to motivate a gladiator. As history has show us however, that has been enough for thousands to have participated.

    Of course, one can say the frantic fever installed in the crowds was also to account for the gladiator's situation. One can only imagine that support for the "blood sports" could only have fueled the hunt for more and more stronger prisoners to fight.

    Regarding the ten-year ban of events held at the Pompeii amphitheater, I do question how this was enforced. Sort of direct military occupation, how could one truly prevent some form of fighting from occurring in secret there? Perhaps the fear from the capital was so strong that it installed a sort of complete compliance from the citizens of Pompeii.