The Flavian amphitheater of Pozzuoli, a colossal monument

by Claudia Grillo

The day I visited the Flavian Amphitheater of Pozzuoli it was a beautiful November afternoon. The air was cool and a little cloudy, but every now and then the sun came out to give a pleasant warmth.

As I walked towards the archaeological site, I have to be honest, I expected to find a typical Roman amphitheater, not much different from the Colosseum of Rome or from the arena of Verona. I was completely wrong.

But let's go in order. Arriving at the site, the first thing that struck me was The dimensions of the amphitheater. That of Pozzuoli is in fact the third largest amphitheater, after that of Rome and that of Capua. It was able to accommodate approx 40,000 people, many more than the inhabitants of ancient Puteoli! It was built, as an epigraph makes clear, in the Flavia era (70-81 AD), perhaps by the same architects of the Colosseum. On the other hand, the area is very rich in Roman archaeological remains, let's think, for example, of the nearby Grotta di Seiano.

Ricostruzione anfiteatro flavio
Reconstruction of the amphitheater

The undergrounds of the Flavian Amphitheater

From the entrance it is immediately clear that the structure is spread over two different floors. One in the open air, with the stands and the arena, the other completely underground. Does it seem little to you? Should not! It does not happen very often to see the basement of an amphitheater, and, certainly, it does not often happen to see such suggestive and perfectly preserved ones. 

I walked the walkway that leads to the lower floor and the scene it really was marvelous. In front of me they opened three-way, two lateral and one central. The two lateral ones ran along the elliptical perimeter of the amphitheater, were framed by barrel vaults and studded on the side by hollow cells, like small caverns. The third via, on the other hand, ran straight in the center and had a long opening in the ceiling that looked directly onto the arena. It was the stage pit.

Before explaining its use I would like to try to describe the incredible optic effect that created the light entering from the pit. He banged on the walls and entered the side corridors, but he couldn't get anywhere. Thus, at intervals, the round shadows of the vaults and the completely dark areas of the cells prevailed. This play of opposites made the place look like a mysterious labyrinth. 

But let's get back to us.

L'anfiteatro Flavio di Pozzuoli, un monumento colossale

The scenic pit of the Flavian Amphitheater

The scenic pit it was a fundamental element for the staging of the most avant-garde Roman shows. During the demonstrations, it was closed with wooden planks. At the appropriate time the planks were raised to hoist them onto the arena stage machines stored in the underground area. 

Same use had the smaller cracks that communicated directly with the side corridors of the basement. From there, in fact, through a complex mechanism of weights and pulleys (of which some traces are still visible), they were raised the cages of ferocious animals.

The Martial poet (1st century AD), in Liber De Spectaculis, described how amazed the spectators were to see the animals appear on the scene as if by magic. We have to imagine that the cranes and pulleys visible to the public were camouflaged with foliage or other coverings so that the spectators had the impression of really being in a wood or an oriental forest.

L'anfiteatro Flavio di Pozzuoli, un monumento colossale
Corridor with the scenic pit of the Flavian Amphitheater

The columns of the women's gallery

They were then to hit me busts and capitals of columns placed in the basement. My surprise stemmed from the fact that the only colonnade present in the amphitheater, originally, must have been that of the women's gallery, the corridor located in the highest section of the stands. How the columns in the basement ended up there, if the arena floor has always been perfectly intact? Fortunately, Sergio came to my rescue, a very kind and passionate member of the superintendency, who resolved all my doubts and made my visit even more eventful. Sergio told me that in medieval times i Puteolan peasants they exploited the fertile land that had accumulated inside the amphitheater to cultivate the vine. In the meantime, due to earthquakes and bradyseisms, the columns of the women's gallery had collapsed into the arena, hindering the industrious work of the winemakers. The latter, however, did not allow themselves to be intimidated by the problem: they pushed the columns towards the scenic pit and made them roll into the basement. Nothing simpler! 

The minor amphitheater

To be honest, Pozzuoli not only has one amphitheater, it has two, located a short distance from each other. This one we have talked about so far, the Flavian amphitheater, is bigger and more modern. The other is instead older and smaller, and for this reason it was joined by the larger one in the imperial age. The problem is that the minor amphitheater is almost invisible today. It is in fact for the most part buried by the buildings and by the underground line 2 stop. The latter, in addition to hiding it from view, practically cuts it in half. 

Tragic building errors aside, the Flavian amphitheater of Pozzuoli is a true jewel of Roman architecture. It has a great historical-archaeological value, boasts some undergrounds that no other amphitheater has preserved so well and is truly suggestive to visit! What more do you want?

Claudia Grillo

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