View of the interior of the Amphitheatre. (Picture credit: Natasha Sheldon)
Imagine the amphitheatre with gladiators in the arena and spectators in the seating area. This enormous structure may never have been finished. Picture credit: Natasha Sheldon.

Two hundred and ten kilometres south of Tunis is El Djem, a modern Tunisian market town and home of the largest building in Roman Africa.

The amphitheatre of El Djem was built in the late second century AD. A symbol of Roman power and the prosperity of the provincial town of Thysdrus, El Djem’s original name, its impressive remains preserve not only the seating areas but also the working features of the arena.

Roman Thysdrus

Thysdrus was founded by the Romans in 46BC on the site of an original Punic settlement. The area was famed for the quantity and quality of its olives, which quickly led to the prosperity of Thysdrus.

By the second century AD, the town had a population of 30,000 and was regarded as the leading centre for olive oil in Roman North Africa. The corresponding increase in wealth and significance meant Thysdrus could instigate a programme of public and private building works. The amphitheatre was one of these.

The Design of the Amphitheatre of El Djem

The amphitheatre standing today replaced a smaller original structure that seated 8000 people. Built of red limestone, it was the third biggest amphitheatre in the Roman world and would have seated 30,000 spectators. It dominated the skyline of Thysdrus, as it does that of modern El Djem.

The structure measures 149 metres long, 124 metres wide and 36 metres high, and has three stories. Each story consists of a series of arches formed from composite engaged columns (a Roman development combining elements of  Corinthian and Ionic columns). An internal stairway lead to a covered walkway that ran around the circumference of each level allowing access to the seating.

Archaeologists uncovered the basement area of the arena in 1904. It remains remarkably intact and gives a clear picture of how the arena would have functioned. Sixty-five metres long, it is divided into two vaulted galleries containing cells and rooms for housing the wild beasts and gladiators who took part in the games.

The arena floor still has the openings that allowed wild animals to be raised and lowered from these cells via a lift system. A removable strip also ran down the centre of the arena. This was the roof of the basement cells, which was raised when the arena was not in use to air these otherwise confined areas.

Building the Amphitheatre

The arena also preserves unique evidence of Roman building techniques. Many of its stone blocks are pitted with triangular holes. These were deliberately carved at the top of each block just above the centre of mass to accommodate clamps for lifting the stones.