Tag Archives: Roman Gladiator

On This Day – The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

Without doubt the most important and most impressive building in Pula is the first century Roman Amphitheatre.  It is the sixth largest in the world and one of the best-preserved examples of its kind.

The Coliseum in Rome was built at about the same time and is the biggest Roman Amphitheatre and could seat a massive fifty-thousand spectators (Some estimates suggest eighty thousand but generally about fifty thousand is the agreed capacity of the stadium), the second largest was Capua, also in Italy but now sadly in ruin, which had only a slightly smaller capacity, and the third was in El Djem in Tunisia with a capacity of thirty-five thousand.

The Amphitheatre in Pula was designed for about twenty-five thousand and there were similar sized stadiums in Verona in Italy and at Nimes and Arles in Southern France so this was more of a Championship rather than a Premiership Ground.

I say this but it seems that no one can be absolutely sure about which was the largest in terms of capacity and it is generally agreed that this was the Coliseum but we can be more certain about physical size and there was a plaque nearby that claimed that this was the third largest in the Roman Empire. Interestingly that using this particular criteria the plaque only listed the Coliseum as second largest but it’s like I have always said – size isn’t the most important thing!

We walked around the external walls and I was immediately struck by the grandeur and magnificence of the building.

I have been to Rome and seen the Coliseum and in my opinion nothing can compare with that but this magnificent building made that assessment a close run thing. It towered mightily above us stretching up into the clear blue sky and looking proud and strong. The area around it is open and accessible and that makes viewing it in many ways easier than looking at the Coliseum surrounded as that is by a busy main road and a constant throng of tourists jostling for photographic opportunities.

There are over two hundred surviving Roman amphitheatres across what was the Roman Empire and this is one of the best to see. There is still a lot missing however as parts of it had been dismantled over the years to provide ready prepared paving for roads and a convenient supply of building materials for later construction projects such as the Venetian fortress built nearby.

Thankfully most of the vandalism was restricted to the internal seating and terracing and the external walls with their towering arches are still left in place to see today. Underneath the arena there is a small museum housed in the underground corridors where exotic animals and gladiators waited their turn to be raised to the stadium for their part in the bloody show and one can only try to imagine what a brutal and thoroughly unpleasant place this might once have been.

The amphitheatre was built on sloping ground so that the part facing the sea has three levels and the other side facing the land has two. The great plinths which form the base are visible, along with two orders of arches divided by pilasters and an attic of rectangular windows.

The amphitheatre was part of the primary gladiator circuit and remained in use until the fifth century and in that time it is impossible to imagine how many men and animals died in this place.

When it was in use large beams supported awnings which protected the spectators from the sun or the rain. Four towers around the perimeter had cisterns containing perfumed water that could be sprinkled on the crowd because the smell of animals, butchered bodies and fear must have been rather distressing even for a blood-thirsty mob. Under the fifteen entrances was a ditch served by elevators for beasts, people and stage sets to be moved easily about.

It was late afternoon now so having completed our tour of the amphitheatre and the underground museum it was time to leave and drive to our hotel which was in the nearby fishing village of Fažana.

Postcard From Pula, Croatia

Pula Croatia 1

I have visited the city of Pula twice, the first time in 2007 and then again in 2011.

Here are some pictures…

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Travels In Spain, The Romans in Merida

Merida 21

Extremadura is often considered to be the traditional boundary between Moorish and Christian Spain and Mérida itself has previously passed between Christian, Moorish, and even Portuguese control.  Because of its rich and busy history it was declared a UNESCO World heritage site in 1993.

To begin with we walked along a busy main road towards the crimson and saffron Plaza de Torres and near here was our first excavation to visit.  We bought an all sites pass for €12 each which seemed like a good deal and went inside to see the remains of a house that had been the home and office of an important Roman citizen in the first century A.D. and after that we visited an adjacent ancient Roman burial site and cemetery.

It was getting hot as we made our way to one of the main attractions, the amphitheatre and theatre and as we walked we were aware of hundreds of school children arriving in buses, far too many for this to be a normal school trip occasion and we wondered what they were all doing here.  We found the entrance to the site and all was revealed because today, and all week, there was a production of the Greco-Latin Youth Festival Theatre which meant that the theatre was in use and access was restricted.  I was annoyed about that and wondered just how restricted?

First we went to the amphitheatre which was completed in 8 B.C. and was able to seat up to fifteen thousand spectators within the elliptical stadium.  The previous month we had visited the amphitheatre at Pula in Croatia which accommodated twenty-thousand spectators but this seemed just as huge.  It wasn’t in such good shape however because a lot of it has been subsequently dismantled for alternative building projects.  If UNESCO had been around two thousand years ago then it would still be there.

Mérida was the capital city of the most westerly Roman Province of Lusitania so this was a very important place and the amphitheatre here would have been on the main gladiatorial and events circuit of the Empire and it continued to be used for this purpose until the fourth century.  Today, on account of its past Mérida is a sister city of Rome.

The site was beginning to fill up now with the school children and the volume levels inside the Roman Theatre were beginning to build so we left the amphitheatre and walked the short distance to the theatre next door.

Two thousand years ago this would have been a massive entertainment centre for the city and I suppose that we were lucky because today we were going to see it being used for its original purpose.  Although we couldn’t get down close to the stage area and the columns and the statues and the central seating area was full of chattering and excitable school children we could make our way around the upper circle and visitors were invited to stay awhile and watch the production.  We sat and watched for about half an hour but it was a three hour show and struggling with interpretation we finally gave up, left and moved on.

Merida 15

After a drink and the inevitable dish of olives we made our way to the Roman Circus which would have been quite a way outside the walls of the Roman city.

Although we have now visited a number of Roman amphitheatres we had never been to a racetrack before and this place was stunning in its layout and sheer size.  There is nothing left of the grandstands now because these have all been dismantled and the stone used elsewhere but it was easy to imagine what it might have looked like simply by thinking about the Charlton Heston film ‘Ben Hur’ because it was in such a place as this that the Roman chariot races took place.

Inside what was the arena it was peaceful and quiet with a carpet of rough grass and wild meadow flowers but with a little imagination it was possible to imagine what a place like this would have been like on race days when there was capacity for thirty-thousand boozed-up rowdy spectators!

Merida 18

Leaving the circus we walked along another busy road looking for the site of the aqueducts because although they are not as spectacular or as complete as that of Segovia there are approximately five miles of aqueduct running into and through the city.  We found the largest and most complete, the Aqueducto los Milagros in a green park on the edge of the town with each towering arch topped with an untidy nest of twigs and a family of Storks.

We had been walking for four hours now so this was a good time to find somewhere for lunch.  It proved surprisingly difficult to find something suitable and one thing that Mérida did seem to lack was a good selection of street cafés and bars.  The ones we liked were full and those that weren’t didn’t tempt us.

Eventually, after we had passed underneath Trajan’s Arch on the way back to the centre we came across a place in a side alley off the main shopping street where, partly our own fault it has to be said, although we had a nice salad, we paid a hefty price for it and then sulked for half an hour or so afterwards.  It seemed that we had paid the full price for a menu of the day even though we hadn’t chosen or eaten all of the courses. Another language and interpretation issue and a lesson learned!

Merida 13

A Life in Ruins – Roman Amphitheatre at Pula, Croatia

Pula Croatia

The flights to Pula were an irresistible bargain at only £16 return, which effectively meant that they were being subsidised by Ryanair because we didn’t even have to pay the full Government flight taxes.  Sitting next to us was a couple from Kenilworth who had an impressive capacity for drinks from the sky-bar.  They loaded up with beers and whiskey on its first pass down the aisle and they restocked when it returned back the other way.  I like a gin and tonic to help pass the flight but I couldn’t possibly compete with these two heavyweight boozers.

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Italy 2011, Rome, The Roman Forum and Italian Unification

Rome The Forum

The tour began from outside the Colosseum and went first past the Arch of Constantine where Silvio explained that this was the only Roman monument that still had its marble reliefs intact because successive Christian regimes in Rome after the fall of the Empire were reluctant to destroy a monument commemorating the first Christian Emperor.  And then we made our way into the Forum and began to climb towards the top of the Palatine Hill stopping frequently to listen to and absorb more information from Silvio.

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Istria 2011, The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The first century amphitheatre is the most important and most impressive building in Pula because it is the sixth largest in the world and one of the best preserved examples of its kind.

The Coliseum in Rome was the biggest Roman amphitheatre and could seat a massive fifty-thousand spectators (Some estimates suggest eighty thousand but generally about fifty thousand is the agreed capacity of the stadium), the second largest was Capua, also in Italy but now sadly in ruin, which had only a slightly smaller capacity, and the third was in El Djem in Tunisia with a capacity of thirty-five thousand.

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Pula, Amphitheatre and other Roman Ruins

Arch of Sergii, Pula, Croatia

I have to say that the town didn’t look especially interesting or picturesque as we walked along a busy industrialised harbour front that was fronted with bleak marine associated offices and was sadly without bars and cafés, but things improved as we walked back from the dockside and into main town street behind and we found a pleasant looking restaurant called the café Orfej advertising very reasonably priced meals.

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Pula, Croatia

Pula Croatia

A week or two after returning from Riga there had been a very minor snow fall over the south of England, certainly no more than a flake or two, but predictably this had resulted in total travel chaos and the motorways and the airports had been brought to a ridiculous standstill.  I had contrasted this with the heavy snowfall in Riga on the day that we arrived that had been dealt with quickly, efficiently and caused no disruption to transport arrangements at all.

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Spartacus, Freedom Fighter or Bandit?

Writing about my visit to Italy, Vesuvius, Capua and Rome has reminded me of the story of Spartacus.

Admired by, among others, Karl Marx and Che Guevara, Spartacus  was the most famous leader of the Roman slaves in a major uprising against the Republic in  the Third Servile War but although the iconic leader of the uprising has become a cult and a legend little is known about him beyond the events of the rebellion and surviving historical accounts of the Roman historians Plutarch and Appian that were written at least a hundred years after his death and are sometimes contradictory.

Contemporary sources all agree that Spartacus was a Thracian, which in ancient times occupied the area on the southwestern fringes of present-day north-eastern Greece and south-western Bulgaria.  Plutarch described him as ‘…of Nomadic stock, more Hellenic than Thracian’.  Appian provides  some more detail and says he was ‘a Thracian by birth, who had once served as a soldier with the Romans, but had since been sold for a Gladiator’.  Florus described him as one ‘who from Thracian mercenary, had become Roman soldier, deserter and robber, and afterwards gladiator’.

According to the differing sources therefore there are two explanations of how he became a Gladiator.  Spartacus was either an auxiliary from the Roman legions later condemned to slavery, or a captive taken in war.  Whichever is true, it is generally agreed that Spartacus was trained at the gladiatorial school near Capua, which became the site of the second largest Roman Amphitheatre after Rome.

In 73 BC, Spartacus was involved in a plan to escape and about seventy men seized improvised weapons, fought their way free and seized several wagons of gladiatorial supplies. They defeated a small force sent after them, plundered the region surrounding Capua, recruited many other slaves into their ranks and eventually encamped on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.

The gladiators chose Spartacus and Crixus as their leaders and most probably they lived and fought together as a matter of convenience rather than as a single homogenous unit.  Classical historians were divided as to what the motives of Spartacus were, Plutarch believed that he merely wished to escape northwards into Gaul but Appian and Florus wrote that he intended to march on Rome itself.  There is no real evidence however that he had any noble ambition or aimed at reforming Roman society or abolishing slavery.

Events in late 73 and early 72 BC suggest independently operating groups of slaves, it seemed that some preferred to plunder Italy rather than escape over the Alps, and modern historians have identified a factional split between those under Spartacus and those under Crixus, who wished to stay in southern Italy to continue raiding and plundering.

The response of the Roman authorities was hindered by the absence of the army, which was fighting a revolt in Iberia. The Romans considered the rebellion a trivial incident and a simple policing matter. Rome dispatched militia under a praetor, which besieged the slaves on the mountain, hoping that starvation would force them to surrender but was outmaneuvered by Spartacus who left the mountain and attacked and defeated the unfortified Roman camp from the rear.  The slaves also defeated a second praetorian expedition and with these successes, more and more slaves flocked to the rebel forces increasing their numbers to an estimated seventy thousand.

Spartacus was an excellent tactician and although the slaves lacked formal military training, they displayed ingenuity in their use of available local materials and in imaginative tactics when facing disciplined Roman armies.  They spent the winter of 73–72 BC training, arming and equipping new recruits and operating in two groups under Spartacus and Crixus and expanding their area of influence.

In 72 BC, they began to move northwards and at the same time, the Senate, alarmed by the defeat of the praetorian forces, dispatched two consular legions which were initially successful, defeating a group of thirty thousand slaves commanded by Crixus but then were subsequently defeated by Spartacus.

Worried now by the rebellion and a perceived threat to Rome (it was one thing to deal with an uprising in Spain or Germany but this was only a few kilometres from the capital itself) the Senate charged Marcus Crassus with ending the rebellion and he was given command of eight legions, approximately fifty-thousand trained Roman soldiers. Crassus engaged Spartacus in a running battle forcing him farther and farther south as he gradually gained the upper hand and by the end of 72 BC, Spartacus was running out of options and getting trapped against the sea near the Strait of Messina.

If his objective was to cross the Alps it is unclear why he moved south in the first place (perhaps Crixus got the upper hand) but he began to move north again in early 71 BC and Crassus deployed six of his legions on the borders of the region and detached his other two legions to move in behind Spartacus in a pincer movement.  Spartacus had some initial success against the legions behind him but after this Crassus’ legions were victorious in several engagements, killing thousands and forcing Spartacus to retreat south once again to the straits near Messina.

Spartacus tried to escape to Sicily but he was betrayed by pirates after having negotiated and paid for a passage for himself and two thousand men and then thwarted by Crassus who took strategic measures to prevent a crossing to Sicily and Spartacus was forced to abandon this plan and retreat further south.  Crassus’ legions followed and built fortifications and the rebels found themselves under siege and cut off from their supplies.

At this time the legions of Pompey returned from Spain and were ordered by the Senate to march south to assist.  Crassus feared that Pompey’s arrival would rob him of the glory and Spartacus unsuccessfully tried to exploit this and reach an agreement with him but after this failed the rebel army began to disintegrate and flea toward the mountains with the legions in pursuit.  When the army caught up discipline among the slave forces broke down as small groups were independently and ineffectively attacking the oncoming legions.  With few options, Spartacus turned his forces around and brought his entire remaining strength to bear in a desperate last stand, in which the slaves were completely routed and defeated.  The eventual fate of Spartacus himself is unknown, but he is reported by historians to have died in battle along with his men.


Related Articles:


The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman City of Herculaneum

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

The Roman Ruins at Segóbriga

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles


Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

Pula Croatia 1

The amphitheatre at Pula in Croatia is the sixth largest in the world and one of the best-preserved examples of its kind.  The Colosseum in Rome was of course the biggest Roman Amphitheatre and could seat a massive fifty thousand spectators, the second largest was Capua, also in Italy but now sadly in ruin, which was only slightly smaller, and the third was in El Djem in Tunisia with a capacity of thirty-five thousand.

Read the full story…