The World’s Oldest Arena: The Amphitheatre of Pompeii

Situated in the southeastern corner of the city, Pompeii’s amphitheatre dates to 70BC. It survived the eruption of Vesuvius almost intact, making it the world’s oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre. It also offers a fascinating insight into the design of amphitheatres and their importance to Roman society.

pompeii's amphitheatre
The exterior of Pompeii’s amphitheatre. Picture Credit: Natasha Sheldon

The History of Pompeii’s Amphitheatre

According to inscriptions, Pompeii’s amphitheatre was built by C. Quintius Valgus and M Procius, two of Sulla’s commanders who became the city’s magistrates after its subjugation by the Romans. This dates the amphitheatre to 70AD, making it one of the earliest constructed Roman amphitheatres and the oldest one left standing.

The amphitheatre was central to life in Pompeii. It was amongst the first buildings reconstructed following the earthquake in 62AD, despite the fact that no games had been held there for 3 years. In 59AD, a ten-year ban was placed on gladiatorial contests in the city after riots broke out amongst Pompeian spectators and those from nearby Nuceria. The ban was no doubt revoked early following the earthquake as a way of lifting the morale of Pompeii’s citizen’s.

The deadly eruption of 79AD did not destroy the amphitheatre. While most of it was buried by volcanic debris, its uppermost parts remained partially exposed up until the middle ages. It is these areas that display the most damage, with the holes for the crowd shading awnings known as velaria partially eroded.

The amphitheatre was initially exposed in 1823 when it was cleared of overlying material by Antonio Bonnucci and Michele Arditi. It was not until the twentieth century that it was systematically excavated by the great pioneer of Pompeian archaeology Amedeo Maiuri.


Fresco showing the riot at Pompeii’s amphitheatre in 59A. Wikimedia Commons.


Structure and Design

In contrast to later amphitheatres, Pompeii’s is very simple and represents an example of the earliest style of amphitheatre. It measures 135m long and 104m wide. Its arena was a pit excavated 6m below ground level with earth from the excavations heaped up into embankments that served as a seating area. All that divided the audience from the spectacle below them was a 2-metre balustrade which would have offered inadequate protection for those on the nearest seats during wild beats fights

The south and east sides of the structure were contained by the city walls which were joined by purpose-built retaining walls to enclose the north and west. External staircases built into the walls were the earliest access ways to the seating areas which was initially wooden. There were only two entrances to the arena itself: the Porta Triumphalis which was used for the opening ceremony procession of gladiators and the Porta Libitinensis which was the exit point for the dead.

Improvements were made to the design and appearance of the amphitheatre during the repairs of 62AD. A new seating area was constructed, and brick buttresses were added to support the access tunnels. A covered walkway was added to the seating area allowing access via stairways to the internal access corridor to allow the city’s elite to enter the amphitheatre through the main arena entrances rather than the external stairs.The balustrade of the arena was painted with bright panels depicting gladiator fights. Two inscribed statue niches over the northern entrance indicate this was funded by C. Crispus Pansa and his son.

The chief difference between Pompeii’s amphitheatre and later design is the lack of external structures. The arena is built on solid ground, without the underground vaults and cells for the containment of gladiators and animals found in later amphitheatres. The only internal feature was a simple corridor cut into the earth base of the cavea. Running the circumference of the amphitheatre, it was used to access to the arena.


tomb graffiti from Pompeii recording a gladiatorial contest-and its winners and losers. Photograph by Marcus Cyron. Wikimedia Commons.


The Popularity of the Games in Pompeii

The arena accommodated all social classes, demonstrating the universal popularity of the games. The 35 rows of seats which could accommodate 20000 people and were divided into three areas, the ima, media and summa cavea, which split spectators into three distinct social groups. The media was kept for the general populace while, the ima cavae which ran around the arena and was for the well to do only. Slaves and women and the lowest classes viewed the games form the summa cavae, at a distance from the show. Protection from the sun was provided by velaria suspended above the crowd from the top of the arena.

The external walls of the amphitheatre were covered with posters praising the gladiators and recording the outcome of the contests. The Thracian Celadus is described as the ‘hero’ and ‘heartthrob of the girls’. The area around the amphitheatre developed into an area of taverns and eateries to provide pre and post games’ refreshment. Signs painted on the arena walls marking out rented spaces indicate that temporary booths were set up just outside the arena walls, selling souvenirs, food and drink.


Pompeii-Archaeological Guide

Pompeii-The Last Day by Paul Wilkinson. 2003. BBC Books.

The world of Pompeii ed. John J Dobbins and Pedar W Foss. 2007. Routledge: London and New York.



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