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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Roman arena at Arles, inside view.

An amphitheatre (alternatively amphitheater) is an open-air venue for spectator sports, concerts, rallies, or theatrical performances. There are two similar, but distinct, types of structure for which the word 'amphitheatre' is used: Ancient amphitheatres, built by the ancient Romans, were large central performance spaces surrounded by ascending seating, and were commonly used for spectator sports; these compare more closely to modern open-air stadia. They were given this name because their shaped resembled that of two theatres joined together. Modern amphitheatres (incorrectly so named, but the word has come to be used in this sense) are more typically used for theatrical or concert performances and typically feature a more traditionally theatrical-style stage with the audience only on one side, usually at an arc of less than a semicircle; these compare more closely to the theatres of ancient Greece, and have been more commonly built throughout history as performance spaces. Amphitheatres are typically man-made, though there are also geological formations used in the same manner which are known as natural amphitheatres. Special events and games were held in ancient Roman amphitheatres, such as the gladiator games.

The term derives from the ancient Greek amphi-, meaning "around", or "on both sides" and théātron, meaning "place for viewing".[1]


Roman amphitheatres

The Colosseum.

The earliest permanent Roman amphitheatre known was built at Pompeii after a colonia of Roman veteran soldiers was established there in 80 B.C. Before this, gladiatorial contests would take place in the forum of Rome and other cities. There are many famous examples from the Roman Classical period. Being particularly associated with ancient Rome, amphitheatres were used for various types of public spectacles. In the Roman Empire, amphitheatres were nearly square, or oval in shape (the name suggests that they were thought of as resembling two theatres joined together,[citation needed] hence the name "amphi"-theatre),[citation needed] forming a complete near-circle or ellipse, and were used for spectator sports, games and displays.

Profile of the Colosseum.

This is in contrast to a Greek or Roman classical theatre, which was semicircular and used for theatrical performances (but also for gladiators in areas where amphitheatres were not available).[citation needed] An amphitheatre also differed from a Roman circus or Greek hippodrome, both of which were used for chariot racing and horse racing and were shaped more like a very long, narrow horse shoe. The best-known amphitheatre in the world is the Colosseum in Rome, which is more correctly termed the Flavian amphitheatre (Amphitheatrum Flavii), after the Flavian dynasty who had it built. An amphitheatre in a community became a prized symbol of Roman citizenship in the outlying areas of Italy and could fit up to 2,000 people. The remains of some 230 amphitheatres have been located in widely scattered areas of the Roman Empire. (See:List of Roman amphitheatres)

Contemporary amphitheatres

Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre.

A contemporary "amphitheatre", in the sense in which the word has come to be used now, is a curved, acoustically vibrant performance space, particularly one located outdoors. Contemporary amphitheatres often include standing structures, called bandshells, sometimes curved or "bowl" shaped, both behind the stage and behind the audience, creating an area which echoes or amplifies sound, making the amphitheatre ideal for musical or theatrical performances. Most are semicircular in shape, so they should not properly be called amphitheatres. Notable modern amphitheatres include the Gibson Amphitheatre and the Hollywood Bowl; the largest amphitheatre in North America is Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee, with a seating capacity of 160,000.

Natural amphitheatres

A natural amphitheatre is a performance space located in a spot where a steep mountain or a particular rock formation naturally amplifies or echoes sound, making it ideal for musical and theatrical performances. The term amphitheatre can also be used to describe naturally occurring formations which would be ideal for this purpose, even if no theatre has been constructed there. Notable natural amphitheatres include the Drakensberg amphitheatre in Drakensberg, South Africa, Slane Castle in Ireland, the Supernatural Amphitheatre in Victoria, Australia, and Echo amphitheatre, Red Rocks Amphitheatre and The Gorge Amphitheatre in the United States.


  1. ^ Hoad, T.F. (1996). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford University Press. pp. 14, 489. ISBN 0-19-283098-8. 

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

AMPHITHEATRE (Gr. a�cl)i, around, and NaTpov, a place for spectators), a building in which the seats for spectators surround the scene of the performance. The word was doubtless coined by the Greeks of Campania, since it was here that the gladiatorial shows for which the amphitheatre was primarily used were first organized as public spectacles. The earliest building of the kind still extant is that at Pompeii, built after 80 B.C. It is called spectacula in a contemporary inscription. The word amphitheatrum is first found in writers of the Augustan age.

In Italy, combats of gladiators at first took place in the forums, where temporary wooden scaffoldings were erected for the spectators; and Vitruvius gives this as the reason why in that country the forums were in the shape of a parallelogram instead of being squares as in Greece. Wild beasts were also hunted in the circus. But towards the end of the Roman republic, when the shows increased both in frequency and in costliness, special buildings began to be provided for them.

The first amphitheatre at Rome was that constructed, 59 B.C., by C. Scribonius Curio. Pliny tells us that Curio built two wooden theatres, which were placed back to back, and that after the dramatic representations were finished, they were turned round, with all the spectators in them, so as to make one circular theatre, in the centre of which gladiators fought; but the story is incredible, and must have arisen from the false translation of agg5t Earpov by " double theatre." It is uncertain whether Caesar, in 46 B.C., constructed a temporary amphitheatre of wood for his shows of wild beasts; at any rate, the first permanent amphitheatre was built by C. Statilius Taurus in 29 B.C. Probably the shell only was of stone. It was burnt in the great fire of A.D. 64.

We hear of an amphitheatre begun by Caligula and of a wooden structure raised in the year A.D. 57 by Nero; but these were superseded by the Amphitheatrum Flavium (known at least since the 8th century as the Colosseum, from its colossal size), which was begun by Vespasian on the site of an artificial lake included in the Golden House of Nero, and inaugurated by Titus in A.D. 80 with shows lasting one hundred days. was several times restored by the emperors, having been twice struck by lightning in the 3rd century and twice damaged by earthquake in the 5th. Gladiatorial shows were suppressed by Honorius in A.D. 404, and wild beast shows are not recorded after the reign of Theodoric (d. A.D. 526). In the 8th century Bede wrote Quamdiu stabit Coliseus, stabit et Roma; quando cadet Coliseus, cadet et Roma. A large part of the western arcades seem to have collapsed in the earthquake of A.D. 1 349, and their remains were used in the Renaissance as a quarry for building materials (e.g. for the Palazzo di Venezia, the Cancelleria and the Palazzo Farnese).

Rome possesses the remains of a second amphitheatre on the Esquiline, called by the chronologist of A.D. 354 Amphitheatrum Castrense, which probably means the " court " or " imperial " amphitheatre. Its fine brickwork seems to date from Trajan's reign. It was included by Aurelian in the circuit of his wall. The remains of numerous amphitheatres exist in the various provinces of the empire. The finest are - in Italy, those of Verona (probably of the Flavian period), Capua (built under Hadrian) and Pozzuoli; in France, at Nimes, Arles and Frejus; in Spain, at Italica (near Seville); in Tunisia, at Thysdrus (El-Jem); and at Pola, in Dalmatia. The builders often took advantage of natural features, such as a depression between hills; and ruder structures, mainly consisting of banked-up earth, are found, e.g. at Silchester (Calleva). The amphitheatre at Pompeii (length 444 ft., breadth 342 ft., seating capacity 20,000) is formed by a huge embankment of earth supported by a retaining wall and high buttresses carrying arches. The stone seats (of which there are thirty-five rows in three divisions) were only gradually constructed as the means of the community allowed. Access to the highest seats was given by external staircases, and there was no system of underground chambers for wild beasts, combatants, &c.

In contrast to this simple structure the Colosseum represents the most elaborate type of amphitheatre created by the architects of the empire. Its external elevation consisted of four storeys. The three lowest had arcades whose piers were adorned with engaged columns of the three Greek orders. The arches numbered eighty. Those of the basement storey served as entrances; seventy-six were numbered and allotted to the general body of spectators, those at the extremities of the major axis led into the arena, and the boxes reserved for the emperor and the presiding magistrate were approached from the extremities of the minor axis. The higher arcades had a low parapet with (apparently) a statue in each arch, and gave light and air to the passages which surrounded the building. The openings of the arcades above the principal entrances were larger than the rest, and were adorned with figures of chariots. The highest stage was composed of a continuous wall of masonry, pierced by forty small square windows, and adorned with Corinthian pilasters. There was also a series of brackets to support the poles on which the awning was stretched.

The interior may be naturally divided into the arena and the cavea (see annexed plan, which shows the Colosseum at two different levels).

The arena was the portion assigned to the combatants, and derived its name from the sand with which it was strewn, to absorb the blood and prevent it from becoming slippery. Some of the emperors showed their prodigality by substituting precious powders, and even gold dust, for sand. The arena was generally of the same shape as the amphitheatre itself, and was separated from the spectators by a wall built perfectly smooth, that the wild beasts might not by any possibility climb it. At Rome it was faced inside with polished marble, but at Pompeii it was simply painted. For further security, it was surrounded by a metal railing or network, and the arena was sometimes surrounded also by a ditch (euripus), especially on account of the elephants.

Below the arena were subterranean chambers and passages, from. which wild beasts and gladiators were raised on movable platforms (pegmata) through trap-doors. Such chambers have been found in the amphitheatres of Capua and Pozzuoli as well as in the Colosseum. Means were also provided by which the arena could be flooded when a sea-fight (naumachia) was exhibited, as was done by Titus at the inauguration of the Colosseum.

The part assigned to the spectators was called cavea. It was divided into several galleries (maeniana) concentric with the outer walls, and therefore, like them, of an elliptical form. The place of honour was the lowest of these, nearest to the arena, and called the podium. The divisions in it were larger, so as to be able to contain movable seats. At Rome it was here that the emperor sat, his box bearing the name of suggestus, cubiculum or pulvinar. The senators, principal magistrates, vestal virgins, the provider (editor) of the show, and other persons of note, occupied the rest of the podium. At Nimes, besides the high officials of the town, the podium had places assigned to the principal gilds, whose names are still seen inscribed upon it, with the number of places reserved for each. In the Colosseum there were three maeniana above the podium, separated from each other by terraces (praecinctiones) and walls (baltei), and divided vertically into wedge-shaped blocks (cunei) by stairs. The lowest was appropriated to the equestrian order, the highest was covered in with a portico, whose roof formed a terrace on which spectators found standing room. Numerous passages (vomitoria) and small stairs gave access to them; while long covered corridors, behind and below them, served for shelter in the event of rain. At Pompeii each place was numbered, and elsewhere their extent is defined by little marks cut in the stone. The spectators were admitted by tickets (tesserae), and order preserved by a staff of officers appointed for the purpose.

The height of the Colosseum is about 160 ft.; but the fourth storey in its present form is not earlier in date than the 3rd century A.D. It seems to have been originally of wood, since an inscription of the year A.D. 80 mentions the summum maenianum in ligneis. It is stated in the Notitia Urbis Romae (4th century) that the Colosseum contained 87,000 places; but Huelsen calculates that the seats would accommodate 45,000 persons at most, besides whom 5000 could find standing room. The exaggerated estimate is due to the fact that space was allotted to corporate bodies, whose numbers were taken as data. The greatest length is about 615 f t., and the length of the shorter axis of the ellipse about 510 ft. The dimensions of the arena were 281 ft. by 177 ft.











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Julia Caesarea .





Italica (Seville)



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Thysdrus .










Pozzuoli .





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The following table, giving the dimensions of some of the principal amphitheatres, is based mainly on the figures given by Friedlander (l.c.): - Bibliography. - Arts. ' Amphitheatrum " in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (3rd ed., 1890), and in Daremberg and Saglio's Dictionnaire des antiquites; Friedlander, Darstellungen ausder Sittengeschichte Roms (6th ed., 1888-1890), vol. ii. pp. 551-620; Durm, Geschichte der Baukunst, II. 2 (1905), 360 ff. Of older works, J. Lipsius, De Amphitheatris (1585); Carlo Fontana, L'Anfiteatro Flavio (1725); and Maffei, Verona Illustrata, vol. ii. (1826), are worthy of mention. For the amphitheatre at Pompeii, see Mau-Kelsey.

Photo, Dr. T. Ashby.

Exterior Of The Amphitheatre At Pola (Pietas Julia), Istria.


Photo, Neurdein. Exterior Of The Amphitheatre At Nimes (Nemausus).

Pompeii, its Life and Art (2nd ed. 1904), chap. 30; for the Colosseum, Middleton, Remains of Ancient Rome, ii. pp. 78 -110, and Huelsen's art. " Flavium Amphitheatrum " in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopadie. (H. S. J.)

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Simple English

An Amphitheatre (or Amphitheater) is a type of structure. It can be either man-made or natural. It is an flat area, sourrounded by an area that ascends gradually. In the ascending area, people can be seated. Today, such structures are used for presentations, but also spectator sports. In Ancient Rome these structures were used to entertain the population. Gladiator combats, animal hunts, and executions were staged there.



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