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The Cartagena amphitheater. Source: eddy007 /Adobe Stock

Cartagena Amphitheater Dig Unearths Gladiator Chamber


Archaeologists digging at the Roman Cartagena amphitheater have discovered artifacts and a pre-gladiatorial holding chamber, shedding more light on that side of the city’s history.

The archaeological project began in December and was co-financed by the Town Hall and the national Ministry of Development, prior to shoring up the Cartagena amphitheater’s exterior walls. The next major reconstruction phase will reinforce the amphitheater and the bull ring that was discovered built on top of it.

A report in Murcia Today says this recent campaign fully documented all of the amphitheater’s structures and that archaeologists discovered another ‘carcer', or subterranean prison room, that once held gladiators and ferocious captive animals before they were released into the arena to fight to the death.

At the Cartagena amphitheater archaeologists discovered a ‘carcer' that once held gladiators and ferocious animals. (Ayuntamiento de Cartagena)

At the Cartagena amphitheater archaeologists discovered a ‘carcer' that once held gladiators and ferocious animals. (Ayuntamiento de Cartagena)

Colorful, Violent and Sometimes Full of Elephants

Cartagena is a coastal Mediterranean city in the Region of Murcia in south eastern Spain and because it forms a natural seaport the ancient city of Cartagena was strategically important to both Carthage and Rome. Further adding to its appeal, the city’s close proximity to rich silver and lead mines was irresistible to the Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors, assuring the Mediterranean city of Cartagena has a very long and colorful, but somewhat violent, past.

The city of Cartagena was founded in 227 BC by the Carthaginians, and according to a city guide in Europe Up Close it was from here that in 223 BC the famous Carthaginian general, Hannibal, marched his invading army into Iberia and later set off with his elephants over the Alps to conquer Rome. The Roman general Scipio Africanus conquered the city in 209 BC and renamed it Carthago Nova (literally 'New New City’) and Emperor Julius Caesar later gave the city ‘Latin Rights.’  It remained an important Roman colony until it was eventually sacked by the Vandals in 435 AD.

Mosaic pavement from British museum. Excavated at Bordj-Djedid in 1857 (Africa, Tunisia, Carthage). Date: 5thC (late)-6thC (early). Culture: Vandal or late Roman. (Public Domain)

Mosaic pavement from British museum. Excavated at Bordj-Djedid in 1857 (Africa, Tunisia, Carthage). Date: 5thC (late)-6thC (early). Culture: Vandal or late Roman. (Public Domain)

City With a Roman Theatre and Amphitheater

Cartagena is one of only four cities in Spain to have both a Roman ‘theatre’ and an ‘amphitheater.’ The city’s most popular tourist attraction is the famous ‘Roman Theatre of Cartagena,’ regarded as the jewel in the crown of the city, and is currently the most visited museum in the whole of the Murcia Region. Built between 5 and 1 BC at the times of Gaius and Lucius, the grandsons of Caesar Augustus, in the 3rd century AD a market was built over the theatre and then a cathedral was constructed the site in the 12th century. It wasn’t until the 1990s that excavations were begun to restore the site to its former glory and the Roman Theater Museum was opened to the public.

Walking around the well-preserved Roman theatre the visitor is presented with an array of statues and ancient artifacts, and an underground passage leads to a Moorish dwelling near the foundations of an ancient cathedral. Clambering around endless tiers of marble seats it’s not hard to imagine the theatrical drama that once resonated here, in contrast the Roman ‘Amphitheater,’ where only some of the surrounding walls can be seen with parts of the rooms beneath the stands buried within an abandoned bullring.

The Cartagena Amphitheater is Set to Be a Monumental Attraction

Among the new discoveries at the amphitheater the team uncovered ‘18th-century bones’ which are thought to have been discarded by students at the nearby Hospital de Marina. Below the bones a collection of ceramic fragments were discovered dating to between the 2nd and 1st century AD.

This amphitheater is one of only 18 known across the entire Iberian Peninsula, and only six are regarded as ‘monumental remains’, but the new excavations being conducted will soon make this one of the most important of its type in Spain, and as the Murcia Today article added, ‘anywhere outside Italy.’

If it offers anything like the facilities at the 'Theatre Museum,’ when the Cartagena ‘Amphitheater’ is eventually opened on a permanent basis to visitors, it will be a significant addition to the already impressive range of Roman monuments which attract tourists to the city.

And if you ever visit this city be sure to spend time at Cartagena’s harbor were fishing boats and yachts crowd an ancient stone wharf where Phoenician traders once docked their ships. And don’t miss the National Museum of Undersea Archaeology on the Paseo de Muella, which highlights both the Phoenician and Roman eras, including artifacts like amphorae and scale models of ancient vessels including a life-size interactive model of a Roman ship.

Top Image: The Cartagena amphitheater. Source: eddy007 /Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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