Ancient History and

Exploring the Ancient Past

Roman Amphitheatres

By Natasha Sheldon

The first amphitheatres were built in Campania but reached the pinnacle of design in Rome with the colosseum, the blueprint for all future amphitheatres.  

Taken from the Greek for ‘double theatre’, an amphitheatre was the venue for the Roman gladiatorial fights and wild beats hunts. Also known as arenas for the sand strewn over their floor to soak up the blood, these structures trace their origins back to the second century BC.


Originally, amphitheatres were temporary, wooden structures. But with time, they developed, with concrete allowing them to develop into an architectural art form.


The Origins of Amphitheatres.


Gladiatorial contests were originally held in temporary arenas erected in open areas such as the forum of a town, purpose built pits or at the bottom of natural inclines with wooden seating for spectators. Such structures were originally known as ‘spectacular’.It was in 2 BC that the term amphitheatre was first applied to venues of the games.


The Earliest Amphitheatres.


Evidence for the earliest amphitheatres has been found in Campania, where the tradition of gladiatorial contests is said to originate. At Capua, Cumae and Liternum, remains have been found dating to the 2nd century BC, while at Atella, Cales, Telese and Pompeii, amphitheatres can be traced back to the first half of the 1st century BC.


In Rome, the original spectaculars were held in the forum in temporary rings. The first purpose built amphitheatres, such as the amphitheatre of Taurus are mentioned in sources as from the late first century BC.


The Design of Amphitheatres.


Originally, amphitheatres had a simple design. They were elliptical in shpae and built on naturally sloping ground or on embankments, natural seating areas for spectators.


Otherwise, temporary wooden seats or cavea were constructed around the fight zone, with some having permanent masonry foundations. Stone seating only occurred on natural slopes, such as the amphitheatre at Sutri which was hewn out a natural rock slope.


The Advent of Concrete.


Although wooden amphitheatres continued to be built well into the second century AD, the invention of concrete created a revolution in amphitheatre construction.


Concrete allowed the creation of vaults which could be used to give greater support to the foundations of buildings. It was now possible to build free standing amphitheatres on flat plains and marshland without the support of embankments-, natural or otherwise. This was because the cavea could now be supported by a system of vaults which also doubled as access ways. As a result, more amphitheatres could be built as permanent, monumental civic structures.


The Legacy of the Colosseum.


The Colosseum represents the pinnacle of amphitheatre building. The first great masonry amphitheatre, its size, design and magnificence were unprecedented and made it the model for all future amphitheatres.


It could be said that the colosseum promoted the amphitheatre as a civic building. For by the end of the first century ad, every town of any significance in the Roman Empire had an amphitheatre- wooden or stone, simple or complex.



Connolly, P (2003). Colosseum: Rome’s Arena of Death. BBC Books.

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