The largest amphitheater remaining is, of course, the Colosseum. Although the prodigious structure has been used as a quarry for a thousand years and a large part of Medieval Rome was built with stone taken from it, much still remains, Byron wrote:
A ruin! Yet what ruin! from its mass
Walls, palaces, half-cities, have been rear'd;
Yet oft the enormous skeleton ye pass,
And marvel where the spoil could have appear'd.
You can crawl through the "enormous skeleton" with a copy of J. H. Middleton's The Remains of Ancient Rome and go nuts trying to find all the places he mentioned.
You can see the huge traventine blocks used in the construction, some seven feet long, and held together with iron clamps as mere mortar couldn't carry the fantastic strain put on them.
In the Middle Ages when iron was desperately needed, people dug thousands of these clamps out of the stone, a murderously laborious job.
Although as late as 1756, a French archeologist computed that there was still 17,000,000 francs (roughly about $80,000) worth of marble remaining in the Colosseum, almost all of it is now gone. However, you can still see many of the, carved marble curule chairs used by the patricians on the podium. They're in Italian churches being used as episcopal thrones.
Next to the Colosseum, the largest of the remaining amphitheaters is in Verona, Italy. It is 502 feet long by 401 feet wide and 98 feet high. It held about thirty thousand people and is still used for the mild Italian bullfights.
The next largest remaining circus is in Nimes, France. It measures 435 by 345 feet and held about twenty thousand people. It is two stories high with 124 entrances.
The Pompeian amphitheater is comparatively small but interesting because it is so well preserved and the gladiator barracks are nearby.
In the Middle Ages these amphitheaters were regarded with superstitious awe. People living in Pola, Italy, thought the amphitheater there must have been built by supernatural beings as no mortal man could accomplish such a task.
They claimed that the stadium was a fairy palace, built in a single night. They explained the fact that the building had no roof by saying that a cock was awakened by the hammering and crowed: the fairies thought it was daybreak and left without finishing the job.
Many of the amphitheaters were used as fortresses during the Middle Ages. Some of them were used as barns and crops were planted in the arenas. The farmers were astonished at how well the crops grew, not knowing that the soil was well fertilized.
The ludi, as the Romans called the games, were not, of course, games in our modern sense. Nor were they merely spectacles or shows as we understand the terms. They were a vital and integral part of Roman life and psychology.
The closest modem parallel would be the Spanish bullfight which to a Latin is an emotional experience rather than a sport or an exhibition of skill.
For over five hundred years the ludi continued in one form or other. Hundreds of generations of Romans were born, grew up, and died under their influence.
At last, they came completely to dominate the life of the average inhabitant of Rome. His one interest—almost his one cause of living—was to attend the ludi.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Chapter Fourteen, Part 10 is next.
Roman Events: Those about to Die, Index or Table of Contents