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Roman Architecture - Amphitheatres

( Originally Published 1921 )



Amphitheatres, unknown to the Greeks, are characteristically Roman buildings found in every important settlement and are good exponents of the character and life of the Romans, who preferred displays of mortal combats, considered to be a good training for a nation of warriors, to the tame mimicry of the stage. Gladiatorial combats had their origin in funeral religious rites connected with human sacrifices to the manes of the dead. The oval amphitheatre, with its rising tiers of seats, may be regarded as a compound of two theatres, stage to stage, thus making an auditorium round an elliptical arena. In addition to their normal purposes, they were also used for naval exhibitions, and water-pipes for flooding some of the arenas still exist. Spanish bull-rings of to-day give some idea of the arrangement and uses of Roman amphitheatres. The arena, a Latin word meaning sand or beach, was so called because of the sand with which it was strewn to absorb the blood of the combatants.

The Colosseum, Rome (pp. 162, 165, 166), also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, was commenced by Vespasian (A.D. 70) and completed by Domitian (A.D. 82), with the exception of the upper storey, added in the third century. It is situated in the level valley between the Esquiline and Caelian Hills, and in plan it is a vast ellipse, 62o ft. by 513 ft., with eighty external arcaded openings on each storey; those on the ground floor forming entrances from which the various tiers of seats were reached (p. 162). The arena proper is an oval 287 ft. by 18o ft. surrounded by a wall 15 ft. high, behind which was the podium, with the Imperial throne and seats for the Pontifex Maximus, Vestal Virgins, Senators, Praetors and other officers of State. Behind the podium rose the seats of the auditorium for 8o,000 spectators, with corridors and stairs beneath, while dens for the wild beasts were under the lowest tier, on a level with the arena (pp. 165 B, 166 B). The seats, which have been removed, were in four main divisions, the two lower or grand tiers for those of equestrian rank and for Roman citizens, separated from the third tier by a high encircling wall, above which was the top range and colonnade, all of which were reached by stairs from the surrounding corridors placed at intervals between radiating walls (p. 165 B). The construction is notable for the skilful combination of materials, according to the purpose to which they were applied. The component parts of the concrete vary thus : (i) lava was used for solid foundations, (ii) tuf a and brick for the supporting walls, (iii) pumice stone for the vaults to reduce their weight (p. 162 B). Travertine blocks, set without mortar and held together with metal cramps, were used in the facade, while marble was employed for the columns, seats, and ornament. The supporting mass has been calculated to occupy as much as one-sixth of the whole area of the building, and consists of wedge-shaped piers, radiating inwards and supporting concrete vaults sloping downwards towards the centre, all producing a structure of great inherent strength and consequently difficult to destroy—a fact well expressed by the line :

"When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall."

The external facade, 157 ft. 6 ins. high, is divided into four storeys, the lower of which are pierced with arches and ornamented with half-columns of the Tuscan, Ionic, and Corinthian Orders, while the top storey has Corinthian pilasters, with corbels between to support the masts of the velarium which was drawn across the auditorium (pp. 162 A, B, 166).

Some of the special architectural features of this wonderful building are : (i) the massive piers which support the three tiers of apparently countless arcades which encircle the exterior and form covered ambulatories; (ii) the decorative use of the Classic Orders of architecture, which are superimposed and are thus in strong contrast to the Greek use of single Orders ; (iii) the grand sweeping lines of the unbroken entablatures round the building (p. 166 A). The proportions of the attached columns, which all have the same diameter, are unusual, for the Tuscan columns are about 9 1/3 diameters high, and the Ionic and Corinthian about 81 diameters.

The Colosseum is of a type unique among ancient buildings. The structural problems involved were engineering in character, and all the more so because the Romans built up the whole gigantic edifice without that extraneous support which the Greeks secured in theatre building, by scooping the auditorium out of the earth. Here, then, is an entirely new departure made possible by the invention and use of concrete, employed not only in corridors and cells, even under the arena itself, but also in multitudes of raking vaults, which formed the almost indestructible foundations of each of the four tiers of seats reared one above the other in a great ellipse, to the crowning colonnade. Greek architecture had been simple in appearance and self-evident in design, with columns standing on a stylobate below and supporting an entablature above. Roman architecture, especially as carried out first in the Theatre of Marcellus and afterwards in numerous amphitheatres, became complex in appearance and hidden in design ; for not only were columns placed in front of piers, but there were columns above columns, entablatures above entablatures, and arches above arches, while radiating vaults round the whole building were hidden supports to the auditorium seats. In the Greek theatres the steps which radiated at regular intervals to the various ranges of seats were slabs of marble between the seats ; in a Roman amphitheatre the stairs emerged at intervals from the vaulted supporting corridors which swept round the building. Stupendous in proportions, complex in structure, and yet consistent in the constant repetition of the external design, the Colosseum compels alike awe and admiration of a nation who conceived and carried to completion such an immense undertaking to serve popular amusements. The Colosseum is still magnificent, even in its ruin, and recalls the gladiatorial contests, the naval displays, and the martyrdom of Christians which took place within its giant walls before it became a Mediaeval fortress or was plundered to provide building materials for Renaissance palaces and churches.

The Amphitheatre, Verona (A.D. 290) (p. 171), is in unusually good preservation, and nearly all the stone seats are intact, although only four complete bays of the upper part of the external wall are standing.

There are Amphitheatres at Pompeii (B.C. 70), Pozzuoli, Capua, Syracuse, Pola, Nimes, Arles, and El Djem (near Carthage), and there are some rough remains known as the " Maumbury Rings " at Dorchester in England.



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