Pula Arena: Exceptional Roman Amphitheater in Croatia Still Alive and Kicking
The Pula Arena is a Roman amphitheater located in Pula, on the southern tip of the Istria peninsula, north-western Croatia. It has been estimated that there are around 230 Roman amphitheaters that are still surviving today. The Pula Arena is unique, as it has often been claimed that this amphitheater is the “only remaining Roman amphitheater to have four side towers and with all three Roman architectural orders entirely preserved”. As a comparison, it has been claimed that the famous Coliseum in Rome has had two-thirds of its original structure destroyed over the millennia.
Architecture of the Amphitheater
The amphitheater in Pula is known as an ‘arena’, due to the sand that covered its inner space since Roman times. The Pula Arena was constructed during the 1st century AD, when the city, which was then known as Pietas Julia, was the regional center of Roman rule. It has often been claimed that the monument was built during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, who was also responsible for the construction of the Coliseum. This is perhaps due to the discovery of a coin dated to the reign of this emperor in the malting (a building in which malt is made or stored). Incidentally, Pula is located along the Via Flavia, which connected Trieste to Dalmatia, and was built during Vespasian’s reign.
The exterior of the Pula Arena in Croatia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Alternatively, the Pula Arena could have been built as a wooden structure during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. It was only during the reign of Claudius that work on a stone version of this monument began. The construction of the Pula Arena was completed during the reign of Titus, the successor of Vespasian.
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The Pula Arena is elliptical in shape. Its longer axis has been measured to be 132.45 m (434.55 ft.), whilst its shorter one is said to be 105.10 m (344.82 ft.). The walls of the Pula Arena, which are still quite well-preserved today, are found to be 32.45 m (106.46 ft.) high. As for the area that was used for the events, it measures at 67.95 m by 41.65 m. (222.92 ft. x 16.64 ft.) It has been estimated that this amphitheater could have accommodated a maximum of 25,000 spectators. Some say that the Pula Arena is the 6th largest surviving Roman amphitheater.
Interior of Pula arena. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Site for Entertainment, both Old and New
Like other amphitheaters located in the Roman Empire, the Pula Arena was also used for gladiatorial combats. This function of the Pula Arena was maintained until the 5th century AD, when such combats were banned by the Emperor Honorius. Nevertheless, battles between convicts, especially those sentenced to death, continued to be staged in the amphitheater until the latter part of the 7th century AD, when that practice too was banned. It has also been claimed that a certain Christian by the name of ‘Germanus’ was martyred in this amphitheater. During the Middle Ages, the Pula Arena was used as a grounds for tournaments by knights, as well as for large regional fairs.
Gladiator in the arena an 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Public Domain)
In 1816, the Pula Arena underwent a restoration that was commissioned by the Austrian emperor, Francis I (who reigned as the last Holy Roman Emperor under the name of Francis II until 1806). The architect responsible for this project was Pietro Nobile, the leading architect of the Habsburg court.
In 1932, the amphitheater was again renovated, which allowed it to be adapted for various functions, including theater productions, military ceremonies, and public meetings. This meant that apart from being a tourist site, the Pula Arena may also be regarded as an amphitheater that is still functioning today.
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Restored arched walls at Pula. (Public Domain)
Events are still taking place in the Pula Arena. One of the biggest is said to be the ‘Pula Film Festival’, which was first launched in 1954 as the ‘Festival of Yugoslav Film’. It was cancelled in 1991, but was launched in 1992 as the ‘Croatian Film Awards Festival’, which is known more commonly as the ‘Pula Film Festival’.
The Pula Arena has also served as a stage for live musical performances. Famous musicians who have performed there include Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras, and Sting. Although these shows are quite different from the bloody gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome, they have a common goal, i.e. to entertain the crowds. Thus, in a way, the Pula Arena is still serving its intended function when it was first built by the ancient Romans.
Featured image: Inside view of the Pula Arena. Photo source: (Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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