Bread and circuses: what happened in the amphitheatres of the Roman empire?

From gladiatorial fights to brutal executions by wild animals, the amphitheatres of Imperial Rome were home to many brutal spectacles designed to awe and entertain. Writing for BBC History Magazine, Tony Wilmott of English Heritage explains what really happened in the amphitheatres of the Roman empire

Mosaic showing gladiators, Roman Civilization, 4th century

The secutor Astanax watched warily from beneath his heavy bronze helmet, his shield held tightly, his sword clenched in his hand. His opponent, the retiarius Kalendio circled him – unencumbered by heavy equipment, Kalendio was very light on his feet. The retiarius flailed with his net, holding the trident in reserve in his left hand. Suddenly, to a huge swelling cheer from the crowd who packed the amphitheatre, Kalendio threw the net and Astanax was enfolded. Now free to use the trident two-handed, Kalendio thrust home. Astanax stepped aside, and the trident caught in the net. The referee signalled to continue. Astanax pulled Kalendio close with the net, unbalancing him. A quick thrust and the retiarius was down, his blood staining the sand. The crowd bayed, iugula!, iugula! Despite Kalendio’s gesture of surrender, the mob wanted death. A hush descended, and the coup de grace was delivered and received with professional quiet dignity…

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Despite Hollywood portrayals, the Roman amphitheatre was far more than a blood-drenched killing ground

This, or something very like it, actually happened in a Roman amphitheatre. The fight between Kalendio (a retiarius – who fought with a net and a trident) and Astanax (a secutor – his chaser) was commemorated on a mosaic in Rome (now in the Madrid museum). Despite Hollywood portrayals, the Roman amphitheatre was far more than a blood-drenched killing ground. It had symbolic, religious and political significance which went far beyond mere entertainment, important though this was. Spectacles were a part of Roman life before the amphitheatre was invented. Wild beast spectacles and gladiatorial combat had different origins and developed in different ways. The first recorded example of a venatio, in which ferocious wild animals fought together and were killed in Rome was during votive games in 186 BC, and featured leopards and lions. Not only did these spectacles demonstrate the domination of man over nature, but by the introduction of new and unfamiliar species from strange places, the geographical extent of Rome’s dominion was also symbolised.

Gladiatorial displays were known as munera, meaning “duty” or “obligation”, originally the duty of relatives to provide funeral commemoration. The first known reference to a gladiatorial munus dates to 264 BC, at the funeral in Rome of Decimus Brutus Pera, whose sons put on a spectacle at which three pairs of gladiators fought simultaneously.

Joaquin Phoenix as Roman Emperor Commodus
Joaquin Phoenix as Roman emperor Commodus in ‘Gladiator’. Despite Hollywood portrayals, the Roman amphitheatre was far more than a blood-drenched killing ground. (Image by Alamy)

During the last century of the Roman Republic, rival political figures used ever more lavish venationes and munera to court popularity, and in 63 BC, Cicero introduced a law to forbid those in public life from holding munera during the two years prior to standing for office, in order to divorce the spectacles from the campaigning.

It was the primacy of Augustus (27 BC–AD 14) and the establishment of the Imperial system that drew spectacles under control and created the kind of event that we associate with Imperial Rome. It was Augustus who brought the strands together to create the day-long spectacles known as the munus legitimum, with venationes in the morning, execution of criminals, sometimes in the form of damnatio ad bestias, or exposure to wild beasts, at midday, and gladiatorial munera in the afternoon. Purpose-built amphitheatres did exist before the time of Augustus, the earliest known being that at Pompeii, built c 70 BC, but a stone-built amphitheatre did not appear in Rome until the reign of Augustus. He placed strict limits on the scale and frequency of events, while his were the most lavish ever seen. By 22 BC the spectacles were basically under Imperial control.

The chaos of the Year of Four Emperors (AD 69), which followed Nero’s assassination in AD 68, ended in the accession of Vespasian and the beginning of the Flavian dynasty, which lasted until the death of Domitian in AD 96. Vespasian was the first emperor to lack the legitimacy conferred by descent from Augustus, and needed to establish his rule and the stability of the succession. The supreme symbol of this need was the construction of the greatest stone-built amphitheatre of all – the Flavian amphitheatre, known to us as the Colosseum.

Following the great fire of Rome, Nero had planned a great palace across much of the fire-damaged city. Nero’s artificial lake, part of his ornamental park, was used by Vespasian as the site of the Colosseum, symbolically turning appropriated land back to public use. In Rome, the building of the Colosseum was a break with tradition, but became an instant symbol of being Roman across the whole empire, as it remains in many ways to this day. By the time of Domitian (AD 81–96) no gladiatorial games could be produced except by the emperor, or on his behalf. From this point, in Rome, it was the ruler who determined the scope, date and duration of the games, which generally would be celebrated on exceptional festivals and occasions.

Control of spectacles allowed the emperor to be certain that no opponent might attempt to win popularity by such means. The chaos of the late Republic was not to be repeated. Funerary munera had always been intended to draw attention to the virtues and importance of the dead man and the heritage of the family. This tradition was appropriated by making munera into celebrations of the Imperial family, and of the virtues of the deified emperors, those who had become gods in their own right.

By this means, the Imperial munera were essential aspects of the celebration of the Imperial cult. Although the traditional distinction between public and private benefaction was blurred by this system, it remained the case that the ruler gave munera as a personal gift using his own resources. They did not strictly speaking come from the public purse.

The power of the emperor

In Rome, the Colosseum was where the ruler demonstrated his power to the people and where the Roman people could sense their own power and the glory of their empire. It was a model of Roman society, with seating arranged hierarchically, the wealthy and powerful in the lower front seats, and the masses, segregated by class, in the higher tiers. The order imposed on the arena, the control of the organiser (editor) of the games, and the ritualisation of a chaotic and bloody process was symbolic of the order imposed on the empire and upon society by the Imperial system.

Outside Rome the provincial elites, first of Italy, then of the Empire at large, anxious to demonstrate their alignment with the Roman world and their loyalty, built amphitheatres and provided games. In eastern provinces the spectacles spread, while amphitheatres did not, as the Greek world already had buildings such as stadia and theatres, which could be adapted. Throughout the western Empire, however, amphitheatres spread, particularly as part of the establishment of cities. In the western provinces the form of the amphitheatre appears to have been adapted to meet local needs and interpretations. This was nowhere more apparent than in Britain, where a small number of fairly humble amphitheatres divide into two main groups, the legionary amphitheatres, and the urban structures. In the latter group the London amphitheatre is a special case.

The two known amphitheatres at permanent legionary bases were at Chester and Caerleon, from the 80s–90s AD. Recent studies of the Roman army have stressed it formed a community apart. The legions were fundamental to the expansion of the Empire and spread of Roman ideas, and were linked with the imperial system. They were manned by Roman citizens – in first century Britain these were drawn from all over the Empire, from Italy, Gaul and the Danube provinces, but were not Britons.  Their two stone built amphitheatres (the only ones with stone outer walls in Britain) were built by citizens, for citizens, and to celebrate the kind of festivals associated with the participation of the army in the Imperial cult. There is no doubt that this included munera; these are the only two amphitheatres in Britain to produce gladiatorial imagery in any form. Here soldiers would see military virtue enacted, the ability to fight and die well.

In this way the military amphitheatre performed a didactic function, reinforcing the requirement in the Roman legionary for courage, skill at arms, and the ability to die in combat without complaint. The equipment of the different forms of gladiators was derived from barbarian prototypes, and perhaps this reinforced for the legionary that he would be required to fight someone who had very different fighting styles to those in which he was himself trained.

London early became a boom town for pioneers interested in exploiting this latest conquest. Incoming traders founded the town, which developed quickly. The settlement grew from scratch as a purely Roman place. The timber amphitheatre, dating to shortly after AD 70, was part of a process of the creation of familiar institutions in a new setting. The story of the London amphitheatre is thus similar to the legionary sites, and it is probably no accident that these three are the only British amphitheatres to yield dedications to Nemesis and Diana-Nemesis, the most widespread deity of the amphitheatre, an impartial distributor of good and bad fortune, of success or failure, of life and death, who could intercede with the workings of destiny.

By contrast the other urban amphitheatres of Britain were built in new tribal capitals (Silchester, Dorchester, Cirencester, Carmarthen and Chichester), where existing populations were learning to adapt their behaviour and environment to new forms. These buildings were different to the legionary structures, for instance. All were earthworks, with arena walls and entrances in timber, later stone, but none had outer walls. They were descended from the indigenous tradition of large communal earthworks, put to a different use. Those sites where excavation has been thorough enough show not seating on the earth banks but terraces for standing spectators. This suggests that it would not have been possible to hold day-long events but only spectacles of short duration. It has been suggested, probably correctly, that Roman spectacles were simply not taken up with enthusiasm among the indigenous population of Britain.

When an amphitheatre was located in an urban context, in Britain or elsewhere it was almost always on the fringe of the town. Like many aspects of the games and the amphitheatre, this was symbolic. The amphitheatre was “on the edge” in so many ways, marking the boundary between life and death, between savage and civilised, in the sense of both wild nature and wild humanity seen in the arena, between danger and security, order and disorder. It was “visibly the place where civilisation and barbarism met”.

Visiting the sites: Roman amphitheatres in britain

London

The amphitheatre is of two phases, the first of timber, then stone. The remains of the stone-built entrance, carceres (beast pens), part of the arena wall, and timber elements, including the main drain, can be seen in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery.

Caerleon

The best preserved and most completely excavated amphitheatre in Britain. This fully exposed and conserved legionary amphitheatre is the one British site where it is possible to appreciate the scale and complexity of these structures. The eight entrance ways are particularly well preserved.  

Chester

In the second legionary site is a succession of stone-built amphitheatres, the second of which was the largest in Britain, with external architectural decoration on a two storey façade. Half the arena, two entrances and a quadrant of the seating area are currently accessible.

Silchester

The Silchester amphitheatre had two timber phases and a final stone phase. The tree-clad seating banks preserve the 18th-century appearance of the site. The stone-built arena wall, two main entrances and semi-circular niches around the arena are on display.

Tony Wilmott is a senior archaeologist and Roman specialist with English Heritage. He was joint director of the Chester Amphitheatre excavations, and is the author of The Roman Amphitheatre in Britain.

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This article was first published in the June 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine