Two thousand years ago, when the mighty Roman emperors ruled over a significant part of the world, they built large public stadium-like entertainment complexes called amphitheatres. These were large, circular or oval open-air venues with raised seating and staged events such as gladiator combats, wild beast shows, races and executions – anything to keep the populace happy. Nearly every town with more than a few thousand people had its own stone amphitheatre, all over the Roman Empire from Syria to Spain, and from England to Tunisia. The larger Roman amphitheatres could hold around 20,000 people while the famous Colosseum in Rome, the largest Roman amphitheatre, could cater for 50,000.
About 230 amphitheatres have been found across the width and breadth of the Roman Empire. Many of these are still standing in different states of preservation, and quite a few of them still holds regular events like music concerts till this date.
Built in the first century, Verona Arena, located in Piazza Bra in Verona, Italy, is one of the best preserved ancient structures of its kind. As in all amphitheatres, Verona Arena held famous gladiator fights and the hunts of fierce exotic animals. Today, its great acoustics and unique location make the Roman arena the ideal location for opera performances that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Verona every year during the Festival season.
The arena in Verona measures 140 metres in length and 110 metres in width. The original outer facade had three stories of arches which was almost completely destroyed in a major earthquake in the 12th century leaving only the outer ring with two stories of arches, all built in local white and pink stone. The arena has 64 entrances and had a capacity to hold 30 thousand people.
The first attempt to recover the arena's function as a theatre began during the Renaissance, and a few opera performances were later held during the 1850s. Then in 1913, on the occasion of the 100th birth anniversary of noted opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, the Verona opera festival was inaugurated and has inspired visitors to the 22,000-seat arena since then. Now events are held almost everyday between June and August, while the local opera and ballet companies perform in winter. The arena has also hosted several rock and pop concerts which saw performances from artists like Pink Floyd, Alicia Keys, Deep Purple, Dire Straits, Rod Stewart, Sting, Björk, and Whitney Houston, to name a few.
The four arches seen at the back are the only remaining part of the outer wall that was destroyed in the 12th century earthquake. Photo credit
The Pula Arena is located in Pula, in Croatia. Constructed between 27 BC and 68 AD, it is among the six largest surviving Roman arenas in the World and the only remaining Roman amphitheatre to have four side towers and with all three Roman architectural orders entirely preserved.
The amphitheatre is 132 meters long and 105 meters wide, and has a capacity of 23,000 spectators. Because the structure is built on a slope, only one part of the exterior wall is three-storeyed while the other has two stories. Each of the four towers had two cisterns filled with perfumed water that fed a fountain or could be sprinkled on the spectators. The amphitheatre had provisions to be covered with large sails to protect the spectators from sun or rain.
The Pula Arena mainly held gladiator fights and remained in use until the 5th century, when emperor Honorius prohibited gladiatorial combats. But it wasn’t until 681 that combat between convicts, particularly those sentenced to death, and wild animals was forbidden. By that time, the local population had already started to plunder the amphitheatre carrying away stones for local buildings. This was stopped by the patriarch of Aquileia in the 13th century. In the Middle Ages the interior of the Arena was used for grazing, occasional tournaments by the Knights of Malta and medieval fairs.
In 1932, the amphitheatre was adapted for modern theatre, military ceremonies and public meetings. Today, with a capacity of 5,000, it holds musical concerts and film festivals and even held two professional hockey games.
Pula Film Festival at Pula Arena. Photo credit
Pula Film Festival at Pula Arena. Photo credit
Leonard Cohen Pula concert at Pula Arena on Aug 2, 2013. Photo credit
The Arles Amphitheatre is a two-tiered Roman amphitheatre located in the southern French town of Arles. Built in 90 AD, the amphitheatre was capable of seating over 20,000 spectators, and was built to provide entertainment in the form of chariot races and bloody hand-to-hand battles. Today, it draws large crowds for bullfighting as well as plays and concerts in summer.
The amphitheatre measures 136 meters by 109 meters and features an oval arena surrounded by terraces, arcades on two levels, bleachers, a system of galleries, drainage system in many corridors of access and staircases for a quick exit from the crowd. It held gladiator games for more than four centuries. After the fall of the Empire in the 5th century, the amphitheatre became a shelter for the population and was transformed into a fortress with four towers. More than 200 houses were constructed within turning it into a real town, with a public square built in the centre of the arena and two chapels. This continued until the late 18th century.
Between 1826 and 1830, the houses were removed to clear the place out and to make it an amphitheatre again. It hosted its first bullfights in 1830 and continues to host them today.
Photo credit: unknown
Arles amphitheatre before houses were cleared (starting 1825). Photo credit
Arena of Nîmes
The Arena of Nîmes is situated in the French city of Nîmes. The building external facade is 21 metre-high decorated with 120 arches divided over two levels. Inside is an elliptical area 133 meters long by 101 meters wide, and surrounded by 34 rows of seats supported by a vaulted construction. In the old times it had a capacity of 24,000 spectators but today holds just over 16,000.
Built around 70 AD, it used to host gladiator fights and animal hunts. After the fall of the Roman empire, Nimes Arena began to play a military role and was transformed from a sports arena to a castle fortress complete with a moat. During those times, Nimes Arena served as a sort of emergency shelter for the people of the town in the event of attack. In the 12th century, the arena became the seat of the viscounty of Nimes and home to a chateau. In the 18th century, it became a town of its own with a population of 700 living within its walls. It was only in 1786 that Nimes Arena began to be restored to its original grandeur. It was finally remodelled in 1863 to serve as a bullring. Today, this amphitheatre constitutes one of Nîmes’s main performance venues. During the famous Ferias festival the arena host several bullfighting shows. In summer, the amphitheatres come alive to the rhythm of the concerts that are held here.
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