Astonished Archaeologists Find Roman Colosseum Replica in Anatolia
While exploring the site of the ancient city of Mastaura in western Turkey last summer, archaeologists discovered something remarkable. Partially buried in the earth and further obscured beneath trees and bushes, they were able to identify the unmistakable outline of a large, circular amphitheater, built in the same distinctive shape as the famed Colosseum in Rome.
Initial excavations quickly confirmed the truth. Hidden in an area currently occupied by olive and fig groves, the archaeological team from Adnan Menderes University in Aydin, Turkey had indeed found the remains of a Colosseum replica, which had been constructed to host entertainment spectacles during a time when Anatolia (modern Turkey) was a part of the Roman Empire. Like its renowned counterpart in the empire’s capital city, the newly found Colosseum replica would also have hosted bloody battles that pitted man-against-man, man-against-beast, and animal-against-animal.
Amazingly, the Colosseum replica was found to be largely intact, protected from decay and destruction by its earthen and vegetative cover.
The ruins of Roman amphitheaters have been found in Turkish territory before. But only traces of these ancient structures remain, due to natural erosive forces and the ravages of looters.
Classic Roman arches found at the Roman Colosseum replica site in Western Turkey. (Hurriyet Daily News)
Turkey’s Colosseum Replica
“There is no previous example of such an amphitheater in Anatolia and its immediate surroundings,” declared archaeologist Sedat Akkurnaz, the Mastaura excavation team leader. “It is the only example that has survived in this very solid way.”
“Most of the amphitheatre is under the ground,” he continued. “The sections under the ground are very well preserved. It is solid as if it was just built.”
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Searching through the stadium’s subterranean sections, the archaeologists found many structurally sound and well-preserved rooms, which would have been occupied by gladiators, important guests, venue administrators, and event planners. Arched entryways and vaulted ceilings revealed an indisputable link to the signature construction style of Roman architects, who set standards that loyal provincial authorities did their best to emulate.
Some of the many arches, classic to Roman architecture. (TurkiyeTurizm)
“In the parts of the building above ground, some of the rows of seats, the arena where the gladiators fought, and the supporting walls outside the building are visible,” Akkurnaz added.
The circular design of the Mastaura amphitheater is relatively unique. Most Roman amphitheaters were built in a half-moon or semi-circular shape, but it seems the architects of this particular structure were anxious to demonstrate their fealty to the classic design principles established by the builders of the Colosseum in Rome in the first century AD.
The dimensions of this long-lost building are quite impressive. It measures approximately 330 feet (100 meters) in diameter and features walls that are 50 feet (15 meters) tall at their highest points. While precise calculations of seating capacity are difficult to obtain, Akkurnaz estimates that the amphitheater could have held between 15,000 and 20,000 people when it was fully packed. This is dwarfed by the 50,000 to 70,000 seat capacity of the Colosseum in Rome, but would have been perfectly suitable for the less densely populated regions of Anatolia.
Left entrance of the ancient theatre in Miletus, Turkey (rebuilt on a Grek site by the Roman emperor Trajan) another testament of Roman presence in Anatolia and what they left behind. (Bernard Gagnon / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Severan Dynasty and Anatolia’s Impending Decline
Based on the stonework and masonry techniques that were used during construction, the archaeologists concluded that the Colosseum replica had been built sometime during the reign of the Severan Dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire from 193 to 235 AD.
At this time, the small city of Mastaura was part of the Anatolia’s Asia province, and would have been approximately equidistant between several larger cities in the area. Mastaura may have been designated as a kind of recreational center, where Anatolians could come to witness gladiator fights and attend plays or concerts at the local theater (the partially preserved remains of the latter are located above ground and were identified long ago).
There is no way to tell how often this stadium was actually used after construction was complete. Presumably, expectations were high when the building project was initially approved, since the province of Asia was relatively prosperous in the early third century. But after the last Severan emperor, Severus Alexander, was murdered by his own troops in 235, the entire Roman Empire entered a period of extreme crisis that was destined to have a profound impact on its holdings in Anatolia.
In the 50 years after Severus Alexander’s death, 26 different men lay claim to the throne of emperor. The crisis of legitimacy and ensuing disorder that engulfed the Roman political system after the fall of the Severan Dynasty was both a cause and a symptom of the Crisis of the Third Century, which nearly led to the permanent dissolution of the Empire.
Aspen dos, present-day Turkey, is known for well-preserved theatre. The theatre provided seating for 7,000. It was built in 155 AD by the Greek architect Zenon, a native of the city, during the rule of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 and the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors. (Saffron Blaze / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Decline Of The Roman Empire And The Colosseum Replica
The cascade of troubles that hit the Romans and the Anatolians in the third century AD included barbarian invasions, civil warfare and unrest, peasant rebellions, and the Antonine Plague of measles or smallpox that swept across Roman lands and left millions of dead bodies in its wake.
This confluence of factors, plus political mismanagement in general, plunged the Empire into a prolonged economic depression that caused a major decline in the fortunes of the cities Anatolia and the province of Asia in particular. This region of the Empire never again came close to matching its peak prosperity, and in the fourth century it was divided up into multiple smaller provinces.
The amphitheater at Mastaura was obviously constructed with the expectation that the good times would continue. Given the economic troubles that beset the region sometime shortly after its completion, this grand edifice may have sat empty and unused for much of the time, since the spectacles it was designed to host would have been too costly for financially-strapped promoters to sponsor. In the economically challenged post-Severan era, this newly built structure may have been dismissed as wasteful expenditure and a sign of Roman decadence.
Another part of the Colosseum replica ruins recently discovered in Mastaura, Turkey. (Hurriyet Daily News)
Preservation Work to Continue in the Coming Months
During the remainder of 2021, the archaeologists who unearthed the Mastaura amphitheater will begin conservation and preservation work on its most vulnerable sections.
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“There are cracks in the walls of the building and some masonry stones are falling off,” Akkurnaz explained. “In April, we will first conserve the walls of the building, protecting the building against decay and deterioration.”
After that process is complete, Akkurnaz and his team will launch a series of geophysical surveys at the site, to gain more information about what the structure looks like underground.
In addition to the support they’re receiving from the local government of the nearby town of Nazilli, the archaeologists are also cooperating closely with Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism on this important excavation project.
Top image: An aerial photograph of the recently discovered Roman Colosseum replica in Western Turkey Source: Hurriyet Daily News
By Nathan Falde