Last week somebody sent a question to my blog: “Why are there no amphitheatres in Greece?” I’ve somehow managed to lose the question but in the hope that whoever asked it is reading – and because I find this an interesting subject – here’s an answer.
At the outset a disclaimer: there’s actually a very good article on this very subject by Katherine Welch*, Professor of Fine Arts at New York University and author of a book about Roman amphitheatres so much of what I’m going to say here is based on her work.
Leaving aside the thorny problem of “Romanisation” familiar to any student of ancient history, it pretty straightforward to see how the culture of northwest Europe was transformed when the area became part of the Roman Empire: an iron age tribal culture was transformed into one in which people lived in cities, used Roman coins to buy Roman goods and went to the baths. It’s always been more difficult to see what exactly changed when the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Mediterranean was conquered by Rome.
After all, the people had lived in cities for hundreds of years, worshipped (more or less) the same gods as the Romans and enjoyed a loosely similar form of political organisation and agrarian economy. Roman culture had of course itself been deeply transformed through contact with the Greek world – Rome had been “Hellenized”. So what did change in the Greek world? There are a few markers that scholars have tended to point to as evidence for a more Roman way of life: worship of the emperor (the Imperial Cult), Roman-style bathhouses and watching the bloody entertainments that have become synonymous with Rome in the modern imagination – gladiatorial games.
And there is, perhaps surprisingly, evidence enough that the Greeks did watch gladiator fights – inscriptions, grave stones and even – at Ephesos in Turkey – what is believed to have been a cemetery full of gladiator skeletons. The person who asked me the question was right, however, there is almost no evidence for the type of building that the Romans used for these fights in other parts of the Empire – the amphitheatre.
Instead the Greeks tended to convert existing structures for that purpose. In Athens a barrier was erected in the orchestra of the Theatre of Dionysus to transform that building into an arena for Roman-style blood sports. I remember pointing the barrier out to a group of students when I was teaching the Roman part of the British School at Athens summer course and a friend of mine, responsible for teaching the Bronze Age component remarked that they must have been very short gladiators – the barrier is, it’s true, only waist high. But I don’t think the idea was to stop the gladiators from running away. We shouldn’t imagine that all gladiators were like Spartacus waiting to rise up and fight for their freedom. It was probably quite rare for gladiators to fight to the death – for one thing that would have been too expensive for their owners – so for slaves of a certain violent disposition being a gladiator was probably not too bad a life. No, I think that the idea of the barrier was more to make sure that no gladiators fell with their swords or tridetnts on the rich, important people who would have been seated in the good seats at the front.
It’s hard to be sure exactly when the barrier was added but we know the theatre was modified by a local elite sycophant at the time of Nero so it seems a reasonable guess that it was around then. That, at least is what Welch and others assume. We can be sure that the barrier was for this purpose and that the theatre was indeed being used for gladiator fights because a Greek author, Dio Chrysostom (the Golden Mouthed – named for his oratorical skills), expresses his disgust at the fact it in the late first century AD – he found it a travesty that this building where great works of tragedy and comedy had been performed and where the Athenian assembly had met to vote, a sanctuary of the god Dionysos – was now being used for this unseemly purpose.
The complaint is repeated in the 2nd century by Lucian and in the early 3rd century biography of a legendary contemporary of Dio Chrysostom, the miracle-working sage, Apollonius of Tyana, written by Philostratos. We shouldn’t imagine, however, that this distaste for gladiator fights was necessarily an anti-Roman sentiment. Some members of the Latin-speaking western elite are also known to have been critical of the games. Enough people in the Greek world must have enjoyed Gladiator fights or else there would have been nothing to complain about so their dislike was probably inspired part by genuine human compassion, part snobbery towards a popular form of lower class entertainment.
Other theatres in Greece were also fitted with barriers so as to accommodate gladiator fights. I know there’s also a barrier in Delphi and I’m sure I’ve seen one at some other theatre in Greece but I can’t remember where now (if anyone knows of any please let me know). I know that at Ephesos they assume gladiator fights were held in the theatre. There instead of having a barrier the cavea (seating area) was raised up above the orchestra. The main reason Greek cities didn’t build amphitheatres is therefore probably that it was simply more cost-effective to convert existing buildings.
In a much later period at other cities it was the stadium, the arena for athletic competitions, that was converted to serve as an amphitheatre. At both Messene, in the southern Peloponnese and Aphrodisias, hundreds of miles away in western Turkey, probably in the 4th century AD, a makeshift curved wall was inserted into the running track to close off one end of the stadium to accommodate gladiatorial fights. At Aphrodisias small rooms were even added around the base of the seating area that were presumably used as cages from which to release animals for beast fights.
I said that there is almost no evidence for amphitheatres in the Greek world but – to come clean – there are actually a few cities that did have them, though not imposing stone buildings like the famous Colosseum. These tended to be cities where there was a particularly strong Roman influence – Gortyn and Knossos on Crete, the first the Roman provincial capital, the second an Augustan colony and, in Greece itself, Corinth, an old Greek city but one also re-founded as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar. There isn’t all that much to see of the amphitheatre today and even in antiquity it was an earth-bank structure. Dio says that in his day the Corinthians watched gladiator fights in a ravine outside the city. In keeping with his negative attitude to this form of entertainment this might have been his sneering way of referring to the amphitheatre.
Finally, it is possible that at some cities gladiator fights might have been held in the agora. We know that in Roman culture gladiator fights were originally held on the Forum and at early Roman colonies in Italy post-holes have been found that may have been for grandstands for such spectacles. Writing in the age of Augustus the architect Vitruvius recommends that Roman fora should be rectangular, unlike Greek agoras that tended to be more square, because that shape was more suitable for spectators watching gladiator fights. For what it’s worth the Forum of Corinth follows his recommendation so maybe – although I’ve never heard of anyone else making the suggestion – that’s where the fights took place before the amphitheatre was built.
At Hierapolis in Asia Minor the excavators have also speculated that gladiator fights took place in the agora. An imposing stoa-basilica that lined one side of the square was decorated with reliefs depicting gladiatorial scenes. The outside colonnade of the building facing the square would have made a suitable grandstand and the unusual propylon (monumental entrance) at the centre of the colonnade might, at times of spectacles, have been where important local dignitaries would have sat. The capitals of the columns of the entrance are unusually decorated with sculpted lions attacking bulls which might have been intended to evoke the beast-fights that along with gladiatorial combats were a popular form of Roman entertainment, the two often being staged together. At the very least the presence of gladiator reliefs in this Greek speaking town in distant, land-locked Phrygia, attest to how deeply this Roman “sport” had become embedded in Greek culture. With the Roman conquest things certainly had changed.