The partly reconstructed Roman amphitheatre in Fréjus, France.

Amphitheatres of the Roman World

The Colosseum in Rome is one of the most iconic monumental, archaeological sites in the World; as well known as the pyramids in Egypt or the Great Wall of China. This is the largest and best preserved of all the surviving Roman amphitheatres, of which there are said to be around 230. The ruins of these ancient buildings can still be visited throughout what was the Roman Empire, from Wales in the west, to Syria in the east, Scotland in the north, and Libya in the south.

Not all surviving amphitheatres are as spectacularly well preserved as the Colosseum in Rome, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre. Although some are so well preserved they are still used for events and concerts today, such as the amphitheatre in Nîmes, there is very little left of others. Of the recently discovered London amphitheatre, for example, all that remains are the foundations of what served as the east gate to the arena. The manner in which these more modest remains have been prepared for display is sometimes quite exceptional – and for anyone exploring the history of this important city, this exhibition should not be overlooked.

Of course there is a whole range of partially and fully reconstructed amphitheatres. In the Provencal town of Fréjus in southern France, the restoration of the amphitheatre (photo at the top of this page) has enabled the remains of the Roman construction to be saved. While the amphitheatre in the Archaeological Park at Xanten in Germany is being rebuilt following the plans of its Roman predecessor. And for some, we just have a marker indicating where the amphitheatre once stood. Such as the amphitheatre in Ulpia Noviomagus Batavorum, modern day Nijmegen – the only known Roman amphitheatre in the Netherlands.

What are amphitheatres?

Some amphitheatres were much more elaborate than others, but the common, basic structure is an open-air oval arena that is surrounded by raised seating.

Across the Empire they varied considerably in size, often reflecting the importance of the city or town which the building served. The Colosseum had an estimated seating capacity of between 50,000 and 80,000 people, while those amphitheatres in smaller Roman towns were only required to accommodate around 5,000 spectators.

Essentially, amphitheatres were used for gladiator combats, chariot races, animal slaying and executions. Other venues were used for other sporting and cultural activities: theatres were used for staging plays, pantomimes, choral events and orations; circuses and hippodromes for racing events; and stadia for athletics. Today amphitheatres are often confused with theatres, but there are differences between the two structures that relate principally to the events stages therein.

As action was the order of the day in an amphitheatre, seeing that action was more important than hearing it. The reverse being true for theatres. Consequently, theatres tend to be smaller and have much better acoustics. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between a Roman amphitheatre and a Roman theatre is the shape, theatres have a semi-circular arrangement of raised seating looking into a stage, whereas an amphitheatre is a ‘theatre in the round’ – amphi is Greek for around.

For more on the relationships between amphitheatres, theatres and odeia (sing. odeon), see this paper by Giulia Privitelli.

The Rise and Fall of the Roman Amphitheatre

Where and when the first amphitheatres were built is not known, but it is thought the earliest amphitheatres were wooden structures. The earliest stone amphitheatres date to the late Republic period, and the most well known example, certainly one of the best researched amphitheatre, can be seen at Pompeii – built after 70 BC. After 27 BC, the start of the Imperial Era, the amphitheatre spread throughout the Empire.

Amphitheatres not only became an important feature on the urban landscape, more crucially they played a significant role in the Romanisation of Provinces. For it was here that the Imperial cults and practices were played out in front of indigenous audiences. During the Imperial era amphitheatres became ever more more monumental and elaborate, with multi-storey, arcade façades decorated with marble and stucco cladding, statues and relief sculptures – everything we see at the Colosseum.

With the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, the kind of events staged in the amphitheatres attracted obvious disapproval. And, because Christian Romans then donated money to charity for divine reward in heaven, as opposed to Pagan Romans who funded public works and events to enhance their status, the financial support to stage the increasingly unpopular gladiatorial spectacles was difficult to find.

As amphitheatres began to have fewer uses, and no funds to maintain them let alone build new ones, they fell into disrepair and were dismantled for building materials, vandalised, or demolished to make way for other buildings. Some (Arles and Leptis Magna) were transformed into fortified settlements, others (Nîmes and Tarragona) became Christian churches, and even the Colosseum became a Christian shrine, when in 1749 Pope Benedict XIV declared it a sacred site where Christians had been slain.

10 Must See Roman Amphitheatres

The Colosseum – Rome

Also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum is the best known of all Roman amphitheatres. At 48 m high with a circumference of 545 m this was by far the largest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire, seating between 50 and 80 thousand people. While the basic style and design was used in cities throughout the Empire, the size and attention to detail was never matched anywhere else. Not to be missed next to the Colosseum is the Ludus Magnus, the main gladiators’ barracks and practice arena.
Maps: Italy | Roman World
More information, visiting details, buying tickets, guided tours, etc.

Remnants of the Roman amphitheatre in London.

London Roman Amphitheatre

Although the first remnants of Londinium’s amphitheatre were uncovered in 1951 it was during excavations in 1988 that archaeologists came across more substantial remains. These included the east gate of the arena. But it was the well preserved timber remains that was of particular interest, including wooden plank lined drains. London’s amphitheatre may not match Rome, however, the presentation of the archaeology of this site beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery makes it well worth the visit. And it is free to enter.
Maps: England | Roman World
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Remains of the amphitheatre in the basement of the Arena di Serdica Hotel, Sofia.

Arena di Serdica Hotel – Sofia

During initial surveys for construction work to follow, workers found the remains of an amphitheatre in the heart of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Built towards the end of the 3rd century AD and with an estinated seating capacity of 25,000, this would have been one of the largest amphitheatres. The building project was for the Arena di Serdica Hotel, which would not only take the name of the Roman amphitheatre, but incorporate the remains into the hotel structure where it is accessible to the public, not just paying guests, free of charge.
Maps: Bulgaria | Roman World

The reconstructed Roman amphitheatre in Paris, now a public park.

Arènes de Lutèce – Paris

Remains of the amphitheatre built by the Romans in the 1st century AD were encountered during building works in the 1860s. The celebrated French author Victor Hugo spearheaded a campaign then to have the remains restored, and the public park of which the restored arena is a feature opened as public square in 1896. All that you see has been restored based on the archaeological finds. The presence of a stage indicates this arena would have served as both theatrical performances and gladiatorial combats.
Maps: France | Roman World
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The amphitheatre in the military city of Carnuntum, Austria.

Amphitheatres of Carnuntum – Petronell

The Austrian town of Petronell was founded on the Roman city of Carnuntum; a major Roman settlement on the edge of the Empire. So important was the city it had not one but two amphitheatres. One of these (photographed here) was built in the 2nd century AD next to the military part of the city, and the other built at the end of the 2nd century AD next to the civilian city. In 2011 archaeologists discovered a training arena next to the civilian amphitheatre, a training arena to rival the Ludus Magnus in Rome.
Maps: Austria | Roman World
Official Website

The large Roman amphitheatre in Trier was built into the side of a hill.

Trier Roman Amphitheatre

The amphitheatre in the German city of Trier along with the other Roman monuments in the city are a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the larger surviving Roman amphitheatres, it measures 120 m by x 145 m and seated an estimated 20,000 spectators. Built into the side of a hill during the 2nd century AD, the amphitheatre was substantially revamped when Constantius I moved to Trier in 293 AD. Besides the grassy banks of the cavea, still visible in the stone walls at the edge of the arena are the cages that would have held the animals.
Maps: Germany | Roman World
Official Website

The seaside position of the Roman amphitheatre in Tarragona, Spain.

Tarragona Roman Amphitheatre

Today the amphitheatre in Tarragona is all but in the city centre, next to the seashore. In antiquity it was situated on the Via Augusta as it entered the Roman city of Tarraco. First phase of construction was during the 1st century AD, but it was rebuilt and developed a number of times after that. Within the arena are the ruins of a Romanesque church. This church was in turn built on a 6th century basilica that was dedicated to the Christian bishop Fructuos and his two deacons who were martyred in the arena in 259 AD.
Maps: Spain | Roman World
Official Website

The Roman amphitheatre in Croatia's port city is the 6th largest ever built by the Romans.

Pula Arena

The amphitheatre in Pula, Croatia, is one of the largest built. Despite having been used as a source of stone up until the beginning of the 18th century, it is one of the best preserved; the only one to have all four side towers preserved. The first amphitheatre was built with wood, during the early years of the 1st century AD. Over the years it was rebuilt at least three times, each time bigger than its predecessor. The rainwater drains beneath the arena have been converted into an exhibition space.
Maps: Croatia | Roman World
Official Website

The Maumbury Rings in Dorchester on a sunny day.

Maumbury Rings – Dorchester

Close to the city centre, and now in a public park, the Maumbury Rings is one of the most interesting archaeological sites in Dorset, England. What started out as a Neolithic henge monument was modified by the Romans to produce a modestly sized amphitheatre. Its origins as a henge explains why it is more circular than most amphitheatres. Its use did not end there. In 1642/3 the site was again modified by Parliamentary Supporters during the English Civil War. A gun platform was raised to protect the town from the south.
Maps: England | Roman World

The well preserved Arènes de Nîmes, with its two levels of 60 arches.

Les Arènes de Nîmes

There may very well be bigger Roman amphitheatres than that of Nîmes, but there are very few that are as well preserved. Most of the original architectural features are still in tact. In fact this is one of the best preserved today. It is still used for live concerts and other events such as the Festival of Nîmes; a grand spectacle of Roman re-enactment that takes place each April. Although exceptionally well preserved, the amphitheatre is currently undergoing a major restoration project. But it remains open for visitors.
Maps: France | Roman World
More information, visiting details, buying tickets, guided tours, etc.

Build Your Own …

The Colosseum reconstructed from Lego bricks.

The Colosseum in Lego

In 2013 the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum (now the Chau Chak Wing Museum) hosted an exhibition on the Colosseum. The main attraction was an extraordinary reconstruction of Rome’s famous landmark made entirely from Lego bricks. Over a quarter of a million of them. The model was created by Lego certified Ryan ‘Vitruvius’ McNaught. For those who like Lego and ancient history, Lego have created a smaller kit (only 9,036 pieces) so you can build your own!
More photographs and information about the Colosseum in Lego, the exhibition and buying your own kit.

Map of Roman Amphitheatres

A map showing the distribution of all the known amphitheatres in the Roman world.

The map shows the spread of all surviving Roman amphitheatres. Click on the map or the following link to go through to the Interactive Map of the Roman World, where you can search for amphitheatres and other Roman sites. Clicking on the map links next to the name of each amphitheatre will take you to that amphitheatre on which ever map you choose, either a country map or the Roman map.

Besides finding the exact location, you can also zoom in on the map to get a bird’s eye view of the amphitheatres. The varying degrees of preservation are immediately apparent when looking from above. Some of the amphitheatres, satellite photograph permitting, are very well preserved and quite a few details can be seen – even from above. Others less so, but the general oval shape is easily discernible. In a few cases, Venafro in Italy or Agioi Deka in Greece, the amphitheatres were razed to the ground and other buildings constructed in its place – the shape and size of the amphitheatre can clearly be seen in the arrangement of the new buildings.

List of Amphitheatres Throughout the Roman World

Albania

Durrës (Dyrrhachium): the largest amphitheatre built in the Balkans. Maps: Roman World

Algeria

Cherchell, Lambèse, Tébessa, Tipasa

Austria

Petronell (Carnuntum): there are two amphitheatres here, one in the military city and one in the civilian city. Military City Maps: Austria | Roman World Civilian City Maps: Austria | Roman World

Bulgaria

Sofia (Serdica): remains of an amphitheatre under a city centre hotel. Maps: Bulgaria | Roman World

Hisarya (Diocletianopolis): initially called Augusta, the city was renamed after the Roman emperor Diocletian visited in 293. Maps: Bulgaria | Roman World

Also: Devnya (Marcianopolis), artefacts in the Museum of Mosaics, and Stara Zagora (Augusta Traiana).

Croatia

Burnum, Pula, Solin

Cyprus

Paphos, Salamis

England

Aldborough (Isurium Brigantum): very little remains of this amphitheatre, but a small hill outside the town hides the surviving remains. Maps: England | Roman World

Charterhouse (Roman name uncertain, Vebriacum or Iscalis): the smallest of the known amphitheatres in England. Maps: England | Roman World

Chester (Deva Victrix): a 1st century AD amphitheatre, the largest in Roman Britain, although only partially exposed. Maps: England | Roman World

Chichester (Noviomagus Reginorum): there is nothing to see, an information panel marks the location of the amphitheathre. Maps: England | Roman World

Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum): the 2nd century walls surrounded the second largest city in Roman Britain. Maps: England | Roman World

Dorchester (Durnovaria): the amphitheatre is called the Maumbury Rings. Maps: England | Roman World

London (Londinium): remains of the amphitheatre in the basement of the London Guildhall Art Gallery.Maps: England | Roman World. Further information and visitor details

Richborough (Rutupiae): a major port for the Romans, and the starting point for Watling Street Roman road. Maps: England | Roman World

St Albans (Verulamium): a theatre that was also used as an amphitheatre. Maps: England | Roman World

Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum): a Roman town was built on top of a Late Iron Age oppidum. Maps: England | Roman World

Also: At Caistor St Edmund (Venta Icenorum) there is a possible amphitheatre. At Colchester (Camulodunum) the presence of artefacts depicting gladiatorial combat and a circus (the only one known in Roman Britain) have led some to suggest that there was an amphitheatre here – no evidence of one has yet been found. Also between Frilford and Marcham, near Abingdon, a ‘semi amphitheatre’ has been excavated (2001 – 2007) that bears a striking resemblance to those at St Albans, Paris and Lillebonne.

France

Arles, Besançon, Béziers, Bordeaux, Drevant, Fréjus, Gennes, Grand, Montbouy, Nice, Nîmes, Lillebonne, Lyon, Paris, Périgueux, Poitiers, Saintes, Senlis, Toulouse

Germany

Castra Vetera, Trier, Xanten

Greece

Agioi Deka, Corinth, Gortyn

Hungary

Budapest (two amphitheatres)

Israel

Beit Guvrin

Italy

Albano-Laziale, Albe, Albenga, Alife, Altinum, Ancona, Aosta, L’Aquila, Arezzo, Asolo, Assisi, Avella, Avellino, Bolsena, Borgia, Cagliari, Carsulae, Cassino, Castelleone di Suasa, Catania, Chieti, Cividate Camuno, Colosseum (Rome), Cumae, Monteleone Sabino, Padua, Paestum, Peltuinum, Pollenzo, Pompeii, Pozzuoli (two amphitheatres), Rimini, Rome (two amphitheatres Ludus Magnus and Amphitheatrum Castrense), Roselle, Rudiae, Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Spoleto, Susa, Syracuse, Telese Terme, Tivoli, Urbisaglia, Veleia, Venafro, Venosa, Vercelli, Verona, Zagarolo

Libya

Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Ptolemais, Sabratha

Morocco

Lixus

The Netherlands

Nijmegen (Ulpia Noviomagus Batavorum): nothing survives of this the only known amphitheatre in the Netherlands. Its position is marked with brick in Rembrandtstraat. Maps: Netherlands | Roman World

Portugal

Bobadela, Conímbriga

Romania

Moigrad-Porolissum, Sarmizegetusa, Veţel

Scotland

Newstead

Spain

Almodovar del Campo, Ampurias, Caparra, Carmona, Cartagena, Italica, Mérida, Segóbriga Archaeological Park, Tarragona

Switzerland

Augst, Avenches, Berne, Martigny, Nyon, Windisch

Syria

Bosra, Dura Europas

Turkey

Bergama, Çavdarhisar, Cyzicus, Dilekkaya,

Tunisia

Acholla, Ain Tounga, Argoub, Bararus, Bouficha, Carthage, Chemtou, El Djem (two amphitheatres), Henchir Bou Cha, Jebel Moraba, Ksar Lemsa, Leptis Minor, Mactaris, Oudna, Oum El Abouab, Sbeitla, Thaenae, Thapsus, Thibaris, Thuburbo Majus, Thugga, Uchi Maius, Ulissipira, Utica

Wales

Caerleon, Carmarthen, Tomen y Mur

Books About Roman Amphitheatres

For anyone wishing to read in more depth about the history and tradition of the Roman amphitheatre, the following two recent books are recommended:

  • The Roman Amphitheatre: From its Origins to the Colosseum by Katherine E Welch (2007, Cambridge University Press)
    Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
  • The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre by D.L. Bomgardner (2002, Routledge)
    Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

Please Note: As an Amazon Associate we earn a commission from qualifying purchases.

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