This article about the “Flavius Amphiteatre” opens a series entitled “Theatres and Amphtheatres into the Roman Campania”. All pictures were made upon permission by the Superintendence to the Archaeological Heritage n. 10793 of 10th July 2014, with the exception of the first two.

Picture 1. Greek theatre of Epidaurus.

Picture 1. Greek theatre of Epidaurus.

In this series I’ll not follow a strictly chronological order. I’ll begin to treat this subject from the most famous monuments, such as the amphitheatres of Pozzuoli and Santa Maria Capua Vetere, to the less known – but not less fascinating – buildings, such as the theatre of Cales (Calvi Risorta near Caserta) and the one of Villa Pausylipon in Naples. What distinguishes an amphitheatre from a theatre? As a first step I have to clear up this point: the Roman amphitheatre is an evolution of the Greek theatre, whose quite semicircular plan didn’t change from the Greek era to the 1st century AD, as attested by the Great Theatre and the Small Theatre (or Odèion) in Pompeii, built in 2nd century b. C., and subsequently modified. At this purpose, we could compare the plan of the Greek theatre in Epidaurus (picture 1), with the one of the “Flavius Amphitheatre” in Pozzuoli (picture 2).

The invention of the amphitheatre led to an evolution of the Greek theatre in a monumental sense. The same word “amphitheatre” comes from the Greek term amphìtheatron, composed by amphì (around, on every side) and theatron (theatre). As a matter of fact, the amphitheatre originated from the contraposition of two theatres, giving to the strucuture an elliptical shape. Unlike the theatre, the amphitheatre took advantage of the natural slope of the grounds to support the cavea, which usually rested on solid bulkheads. The amphitheatres were quite always located in level places. The tiers of seats were divided vertically in four sections called “wedges” (in latin cunei), and orizontally in three sectors (praecinctiones). Each of those sectors was bound to a single class. These areas were called ima, media and summa cavea (lower, middle and higher tiers of seats). Senators could reach the lower tiers of seats (ima cavea), which sometimes could include an Authority box. The members of the equestrian class (from eques, pl. equites, a social rank whose power derived from his own wealth) could reach the media cavea (middle tiers of seats). People could reach the higher tiers of seats (summa cavea), farthest from bullring. These three sectors sometimes were overhung by a porch with columns, delimited outwards by a wall. The Flavius Amphiteatre could lodge 40.000 spectators about, and its cavea included 39 steps: 8 in the ima cavea; 16 in the media cavea; and 15 in the summa cavea. The Romans extended this division also to theatres. In fact, into the Odeon – or Small Theatre – in Pompeii, the distinction between ima and media cavea is marked by two marble balustrades decorated with winged gryphons. There’s another difference between a theatre and an amphitheatre: while in theatres the entrances were usually two, placed beside the scene, in amphitheatres the number of entrances increases. The Flavius Amphitheatre in Pozzuoli had sixteen entrances: the four main accesses, in connection with the four cardinal points, placed at the end of the middle axes of the ellipse, were preceded by a monumental porch with pillars (propylon), divided in three naves which, through many arches, allowed to enter the arena (pics 3, 4 and 5). The porch preceding the southern entrance seems to be very imposing (pic 3). At the end of this porch two stairs, placed beside the arches, led to the Authorities Gallery (pic 4).

Foto 3: Pozzuoli, Anfiteatro Flavio, portico monumentale (propylon) sul lato meridionale.

Picture 3: Pozzuoli, Flavius Amphitheatre, monumental porch (propylon) along the southern side.


Foto 4: Pozzuoli, Anfiteatro Flavio, cavea meridionale con palco per l'autorità

Picture 4: Pozzuoli, Flavius Amphitheatre, tiers of seats on the southern side, with the authority box.


Foto 5: Pozzuoli, Anfiteatro Flavio, portico monumentale (propylon) dell'ingresso orientale.

Picture 5: Flavius Amphitheatre, monumental porch on the eastern side

Two corridors – or ambulatories – run under tiers of seats, connecting each other the four entrances (pics 6 and 7). Other twenty stairs (vomitoria) led from the ambultories to the middle tiers of seats and the overhanging porch (pic 8).


Foto 6: Pozzuoli, Anfiteatro Flavio, ambulacro anulare sottostante la cavea meridionale.

Picture 6: Pozzuoli, Flavius Amphitheatre, ambulatory ring below the southern cavea .


Foto 7: Pozzuoli, Anfiteatro Flavio, ambulacro anulare sottostante la cavea settentrionale.

Picture 7: Pozzuoli, Flavius Amphitheatre, ambulatory ring below the northern cavea.


Foto 8: Pozzuoli, Anfiteatro Flavio, fiancata meridionale, scalinata di accesso (vomitorium) alla precinzione alta (summa cavea).

Picture 8: Pozzuoli, Flavius Amphitheatre, the southern side, stairway (vomitorium) to the high tiers of seats (summa cavea).

At this point we might ask the following questions: what kind of events could take place into an amphitheatre? And, most of all, what were their meaning and origin? From the passages of Gaius Valerius Martial that I’ll quote subsequently, we can get a first important datum: into the amphitheatres, ill-adapted to accommodate comedies or musical performances, could take place only scenic representations, sometimes inspired by classic mythology, that I’ll indicate with their latin names: the munera gladiatoria (gladiators fightings), the venationes (hunts), and the naumachiae (namely “naval battle”).

Referring to the last category, Martial wrote (De Spectaculis, 24):  “Whosoever you are, belated spectator coming from distant lands, which care for the first time in these sacred events, don’t be deceived by the naval battle with its fleets and the resemblance of these waves with the ones of the seas. You don’t believe it? Wait until the water is no longer haunted by the battle: time will go quickly and you’ll say: But here a little while ago there was the sea“. We have to imagine, therefore, great pipelines transporting large quantities of water, and sewerages to drain them. These events could not take place in Pozzuoli’s Amphiteatre, because probably it was deprived of the useful infrastructures. This conjecture, that Charles Dubois advanced for the first time in 1907, based on the presence of an acqueduct and a sewerage that cross the basement along the minor axis of the ellipse, was resolutely confuted by Amedeo Maiuri, with this statement of motives: “But giving naval battles in a region rich in gulfs, ports and lakes, could be a non – sense: and so the arena had its stable and monumental preparation for fightings and hunts” (MAIURI A., I Campi Flegrei. Dal sepolcro di Virgilio all’antro di Cuma, 1981, p. 51). The acqueduct and the underlying sewerage could not support the water flow necessary to set up a naval battle. Therefore, they were probably used to wash the arena and its basement; and to feed waterworks and fountains placed in various points of the building. The amphitheatre was equipped either with an highly branched waterworks, built with lead pipes; or with a system to drain rain water, with terracotta tubes and rain – pipes on the outer façades of pillars along the perimetric ambulatory. 

The word naumachia, however, indicated not only the mock battle itself, but also the place in which it could occur. Read what Suetonius says about the Emperors Augustus and Titus in two passages of his Lives of the Caesars: “…. and a naval battle, for which he ordered to dig the ground near the Tiber, where now is the Wood of Caesars” (Lives of the Caesars, II, 43 – the Roman numeral indicates the book, the Arabic number indicates the passage). And then: “He gave even a naval battle in the old Naumachia (as Naumachia we have to intend the structure that Augustus ordered to build near the Tiber’s bank, quoted in the previous passage), and gladiators fightings, and hunts with five thousands beasts of every species in one day” (Lives of the Caesars, VIII, 43). The Naumachia that i quoted in the passage II, 43 was probably covered with wooden planks, so that the “gladiators fightings” and the “hunts with five thousands beasts” could take place. Regarding gladiatorial fightings (munera gladiatoria) and hunts (venationes), some scholars have identified their origins among the Oscans, a pre – Roman population, where these events could be part of funerary rites. The same Dupont ascribes these events to the category of “rituals of separation”: «In spite of their evolution, the munera preserved some steady trait that allow us to reconstruct their religious and cultural meaning, that couldn’t always be a gift to some late relative. The same gesture that accompanied it, likened it to a human sacrifice offered to the powers of the Underworld, because the blood gushing out was given to dead, butbut the ones still alive didn’t take their part. Drinking blood, dead became anthropophagous, changing themselves into creatures unrelated to the world of gods and men, connected instead by an animal and vegetable sacrifice. The munus could be, therefore, a “ritual of separation”: according to the latin wording, calming down death could mean relegate them into a different space, into an absolutely savage dimension” (F. DUPONT, Gli spettacoli, in A. GIARDINA (edit. by), Roma antica, Roma – Bari 2008, pp. 282 – 306).

The first munus of which we have some information, was probably organized in Rome in 364 BC, by Junius Brutus in memory of his dead father. Just over following centuries gladiatorial fighitings assumed an “official dress”, preserving at the same time their memorial meaning. In 164 BC Lucius Aemilius Paulus set up in Amphipolis a munus to commemorate his victory in the battle of Pidna. These events, therefore, didn’t always take place into amphitheatres, most of all during the Republican age: from 216 BC on they were set up prevailingly into forums, the beating heart of political – administrative life of the city. In order to indicate the different structures in which these events could take place, i could quote a passage by Suetonius, previously mentioned, but quoting it completely this time: “Accordingly to number, variety and magnificence of shows he was over his predecessors. He (Augustus) says that, on behalf of his own name, he organized public shows four times and twenty-three times in honour of magistrates that were absent or poor. Sometimes he set up some show in various neighborhoods, using actors speaking all languages; he set up shows not only in forum or amphitheatre, but also in circus or polling stations, and sometimes they were only huntings; he organized also wrestling contests with athletes into the Field of Mars, where wooden benches were placed, and a naval battle, for which he ordered to dig the ground near the Tiber, where now is the Wood of Caesars” (Lives of the Caesars, II, 43). 

The venationes (hunts) had their ritual worth as well. Simulating a hunt, they could consist either in fightings between a beast and a gladiator or between two beasts: with the emperor Tiberius (14 – 37 AD), these hunts became part of munera gladiatoria (gladiator fightings). Only literature could make relive fears, excitement and feelings of gladiators and spectators, protagonists and witnesses of a cruel show. Quoting again Martial: “A tiger born between the mountains of Ircania, which was a rare specimen, accustomed to lick the hand of his tamer who entrusted it to her safely, with rabid fangs cruelly mangled a wild lion: a never seen victory, of which there’s no record over centuries. She would never dare such a bravery, as long as she lived in thick woods; after her coming between us, increased her fierceness” (De Spectaculis, 18). And then: “The hand of the strong and still young Carpophorus sticks his Noriker spears with safe blows. He brought a pair of steers on his neck without effort; he defeated a furious buffalo and a bison; escaping from him, a lion threw himself on the spears. Come on people, try now to grouse about the lenghty delays” (De Spectaculis, 23).

Several reasons led to build the Flavius Amphitheatre in Pozzuoli. We could find whether practical, or political and social reasons. Regarding the first hypothesis, the amphitheatre was built next to another one smaller and older, dating back to the 1st century BC, between the end of Republican Age and the beginning of Augustus Principate (27 BC), placed on north – east side, next to the bridge of the railway Naples – Rome, whose building led to its discovery. During the Principate of Augustus, Pozzuoli became a cosmopolite town, important enough to accomodate merchant colonies coming from all Mediterranean shores (an altar dedicated to Dusares, discovered into the sea, led to spot a colony of Nabatean merchants, coming from Jordan), the older amphitheatre became at once unsuited to contain such a big and variegated audience. Tells Suetonius: “The most comprehensive confusion and disorder reigned in performances; Augustus introduced order and discipline, urged by the insult that a senator suffered when in Pozzuoli, at the time of games to which everyone rushed, nobody received him, among many spectators. Induced therefore the Senate to decree that, during public performances, offered anywhere, the first tier of seats had to be reserved to Senators …….”. This amphitheatre was active until the 1st century AD, according to what Cassius Dio tells about it into the most argued passage of his Historia Romana, come down to us through the version that the Byzantine monk Xyphilinus drew up in 11th century. The author in fact describes the games organized in Pozzuoli in 66 AD by Patrobius, a freedman of the emperor Nero, in honour of Tiridates – brother of Vologeses, king of Parthians – who was about to receive, from the hands of the same Nero, the crown of kingdom of Armenia. On this occasion, was set up a venatio, during which Tiridates – in order to flaunt his deftness – from the same platform where he sat, killed two bulls piercing them with arrows” (Cassius Dio, Historia romana, LXIII, 3). Regarding the politic and social reasons, the Flavius Amphitheatre was built during an historical period characterized by serious tensions and civil wars. In the short span of a year, three different emperors succeded one other at the power: Galba, Oto and Vitellius. Two of them were murdered, and one – Oto – committed a suicide. Appointed as emperor by troops established in Judea, Titus Flavius Vespasian contended the power with his predecessor Vitellius, with the support of some cities, such as Pozzuoli that was rewarded with the assignment of some possessions of the nearby Capua, allied with the antagonist. The enhancement of its possessions probably increased the revenues of its Treasury, so that the city was able to complete the amphitheatre, according to what is testified by the marble tablets formerly placed upon the main entrances – and perhaps on some of secondary accesses – bearing engraved this inscription: COLONIA FLAVIA AUGUSTA / PUTEOLANA PECUNIA SUA. In this way the city wanted to pay homage changing simultaneously its toponym from COLONIA NERONIANA to COLONIA FLAVIA AUGUSTA PUTEOLANA.


F. DEMMA, Monumenti pubblici di Puteoli. Per un’Archeologia dell’Architettura, Roma 2007.

F. DUPONT, Gli spettacoli, in A. GIARDINA (a cura di), Roma antica, Roma – Bari 2000, pp. 281 – 306.

 S. DE CARO, I Campi Flegrei, Ischia, Vivara. Storia e archeologia, Napoli 2004.

A. MAIURI, I Campi Flegrei. Dal sepolcro di Virgilio all’antro di Cuma, Roma.

MARZIALE, Gli spettacoli, Roma 1969.

SVETONIO, Le vite dei Cesari. Volume secondo. Libri IV – VIII, Torino 2008.

Per i brani tratti dalla “Vita di Augusto” (SVETONIO, Vita dei Cesari, II), mi sono avvalso della traduzione curata dalla Prof. Maria Rosa Orrù: Blog:

CH. DUBOIS, Puzzoules antique. Histoire et topographie, Paris 1907.



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