The Amphitheatre of El Djem

The Amphitheatre of El Djem: Gladiatorial Arena of Tunisia

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The amphitheatre is one of the most iconic architectural contributions of ancient Rome. The most famous example of such a structure is the Colosseum in Rome, where brutal gladiatorial battles took place. Nevertheless, amphitheatres were built all throughout the Roman Empire, with around 230 known amphitheatres that are still surviving today. One of the most magnificent examples can be found in the Tunisian city of El Djem, considered to be home to the most impressive Roman remains in the whole of Africa, and famous for its starring role in the Hollywood epic ‘Gladiator’.

As a matter of fact, there are two amphitheatres located in El Djem. The smaller one is much less famous than the large one, and is not as well preserved. It is believed that this amphitheatre underwent three separate building phases. It was first worked in tufa (a type of limestone), then reconstructed, before finally being redone and enlarged. The primary attraction of El Djem, however, lies about 7.2 km to the north of this smaller amphitheatre, and is known as the Amphitheatre of El Djem.

The Amphitheatre of El Djem

The Amphitheatre of El Djem ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Amphitheatre of El Djem is a free-standing monument, and is built entirely of stone blocks without foundations. It is said that in these respects, it is modelled after the Colosseum in Rome. Whilst the Colosseum holds the title for being the largest Roman amphitheatre, the Amphitheatre of El Djem is not too far behind. The larger axis of the Amphitheatre of El Djem measures at 148 m, whilst its smaller axis measures at 122 m. In addition, the rows of seats rose to a height of 36 m. It has been estimated that the amphitheatre would have been capable of holding up to 35,000 spectators at any one time. Given the grandness of this structure, it would only be natural to be under the impression that the amphitheatre was built when the Roman Empire was experiencing a period of prosperity and peace. Yet, this is not the case.

Tunnel leading into the main arena at El Djem.

Tunnel leading into the main arena at El Djem. Source: BigStockPhoto

Whilst the exact date of the amphitheatre’s construction is uncertain, it has been speculated that work began in A.D. 238. This year is also known as the ‘Year of the Six Emperors’, as there were six people recognised as emperors of Rome during this year. The amphitheatre may have been commissioned by one of these emperors, Gordian I or his grandson (also one of the six emperors), Gordian III. The year A.D. 238 was not exactly a peaceful year for the Roman Empire, and it was an uprising in the Roman-ruled areas of Africa that made Gordian I, who incidentally was nearly 80 years old at that time, the emperor of Rome.

Marble bust of Gordian I

Marble bust of Gordian I ( Wikimedia Commons )

The uprising was sparked by dissatisfaction with the emperor Maximinus Thrax. In order to pay for the expenses of his campaign on the Danubian frontier, Maximinus was compelled to extact more and more revenue from the Roman aristocrats and landowners. In order to meet the demands of the emperor, some unscrupulous procurators were willing to make false judgments to issue fines and confiscate property. One such procurator in the province of Africa was assassinated in El Djem, and led to the proclamation of Gordian I as emperor. This was also acknowledged by the Roman Senate several days later, as they had no love for Maximinus.

Gordian I’s reign, however, lasted less than a month, as the governor of the neighbouring province of Numidia, Capellianus, marched his troops against him. Whilst Capellianus had a formidable army at his command, Gordian I could only muster a mob from amongst the residents of Carthage, where he was now residing. Capellianus is said to have been involved in a lawsuit against Gordian I in the past, which could indicate that the governor bore a grudge against the new emperor. Additionally, Gordian I had sent someone to replace Capellianus as governor as he was a loyal supporter of Maximinus. Gordian I’s forces, led by his son, Gordian II, were easily defeated, and the emperor is said to have committed suicide. Later in the year, Gordian III became emperor.

Another sign that the amphitheatre was not built during a period when Rome was prosperous is that the structure seems to have not been completed. This may be attributed to the lack of funds and the political turmoil within the Empire. Thus, although Gordian I intended to bestow a grand amphitheatre on his birthplace, or that Gordian III intended to honor the memory of his grandfather with this monument, it might not have materialized. Nevertheless, the Amphitheatre of El Djem, completed or not, is still an impressive tourist attraction today, and its historical importance was recognized in 1979 when it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site.

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