Search for Rome on a map of the Ancient Mediterranean World circa 500 BC. What’ll you find is nothing more than a little dot in Central Italy. Fast forward 600 years, and it’s as if the city is the epicenter of a biblical earthquake expanding outward thousands of miles in every direction. All the former sovereigns from Armenia to the Iberian Peninsula, and from Upper Egypt to the Wall of Hadrian had submitted to it by 117 AD — a jaw-dropping territorial acquisition.
But even more impressive than its physical expansion was Rome’s aptitude for incorporating conquered peoples into Roman culture. And one of its signature tools in this effort was the Roman coliseum. As new territories were annexed into the empire, the Romans, among other things, built amphitheaters in their principal cities: in Gaul, Britannia, and Hispania, in North Africa amongst the ruins of the defeated Carthaginians, in Alexandria, the former throne of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs of Egypt, and elsewhere.
The Roman coliseum was a manifest symbol of Rome’s presence and domination in whichever corner of the world it stood. It communicated a clear message to conquered peoples: You are now living in Rome. There are extant remains of many of these amphitheaters spread out across the lands of the former empire. Below is a list of some of the most interesting ones:
Roman Coliseums In Europe
Arènes De Nîmes, France
The city of Nîmes in southern France is home to what is considered the best-preserved Roman coliseum in the world. Its construction began in 90 AD, not long after that of the famous Colosseum in Rome. And its style is clearly modeled after it, too.
In the early years of Rome’s expansion into Gaul, the cities hugging the Mediterranean coast of France became important administrative hubs. Augustus, the first emperor, granted Nîmes special privileges which aided in its development. And by the middle of the first century AD, the city had become so populated and prosperous that the Pont du Gard aqueduct was constructed to funnel water into its homes and public spaces.
During its heyday, the city’s characteristically Roman coliseum was host to characteristically Roman gladiatorial games. As the empire fell into decline it was converted into a makeshift defensive fortress against invading barbarians. And by the time the Franks inherited it in 750 AD, it was a fraction of its former glory.
The French recovered the coliseum in the 1700s, and in the 19th and parts of the 20th centuries, it was used for bullfighting. Today, the Arènes de Nîmes is mainly a tourist attraction with occasional stints as a concert venue.
Arènes d’Arles, France
Neighboring Nîmes is the city of Arles, which also has Roman roots. Though magnificent, its coliseum is not considered to be as well-preserved as the one in Nîmes. But, ironically, the Arènes d’Arles is a UNESCO World Heritage Site while the Arènes de Nîmes isn’t.
Like Nîmes, Arles is a typical southern French city plastered with terracotta roofs and a cheerful blue sky most of the year. When Vincent van Gogh lived there in the mid-20th century, he painted scenes of the bullfights that took place inside the arena.
Similar to the Roman coliseum in Nîmes, the one in Arles served as a refuge for citizens terrorized by the invading barbarians around the time of the empire’s decline. The ancient inhabitants of Arles actually built a small city within the coliseum, as well as protective towers around its circumference. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the French cleared out the remaining residential buildings inside the monument.
Just north of Seville, in the small city of Santiponce, lie the remains of an epic Roman coliseum and its associated complex. It was constructed in 206 BC, back when the Roman Republic was still struggling with Carthage for hegemony of the ancient world. In later years it would be the birthplace and childhood home of Hadrian, who went on to become Emperor of Rome in 117 AD. He’s best known for his eponymous wall which marked the end of the ‘civilized’ world — or in modern terms, Scotland.
Italica’s real claim to fame, however, probably isn’t Hadrian, but rather its appearance as a location in HBO’s Game of Thrones. The ancient coliseum is the setting for the meeting between Cersei and Daenerys at the end of Season 7.
Pula Arena, Croatia
The Pula amphitheater is on the coast of Croatia, directly across the Adriatic from Ravenna, Italy. Its remains are in excellent condition with all surrounding limestone walls completely intact. The coliseum’s construction date is thought to be sometime around the turn of the first millennium AD. And it was host to gladiator games leading up to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Today, besides tourism, its primary function is to serve as the location for the Pula Film Festival every summer.
Arènes De Lutèce, Paris, France
Many readers may be surprised to learn that the City of Light was a substantial Roman center in its nascency. Though it couldn’t hold a candle to its modern equivalent, Lutetia, or “place by the swamp,” was home to several important Roman figures including Emperor Julian.
The Roman amphitheater in Lutetia was constructed in the 1st century AD and was rather small — 15,000 spectators — compared to others throughout the empire. What remains of the site is the inner wall of the arena and some rows of seats.
The impressive aspect of the Arènes de Lutèce is how unassuming it is. Located in the busy 5th arrondissement and enclosed by high rise apartment buildings, it was lost for centuries despite the surrounding neighborhood always retaining the name “Arènes.” It was only rediscovered in the 19th century after long being relegated to the dusty shelves of Paris’s legendary history.
London Amphitheater (Guildhall Yard), United Kingdom
The Roman coliseum beneath the modern city of London is in the poorest condition of all the monuments on this list. It was originally constructed with wood in 70 AD but was renovated several times over the centuries. Though one does not associate Great Britain with gladiator games and public animal fights, they happened in Londinium when it was the Roman administrative capital of Britannia.
Today the remaining sections of the coliseum’s stone walls lie beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery. Light design is used in the space to give visitors a 3D sense of what it would have looked like in Roman times.
After Rome fell, its ruins, like those under Guildhall Yard, were buried by time and succeeding civilizations. But during the height of the empire its employment of the Roman coliseum, among other tools, helped foster some form of universal identity from the foothills of Caledonia to the gates of the Sahara and everywhere in between. Subjects and citizens from far and wide quickly got the message: when in Rome — even if you’re not — do as the Romans do.
Roman Coliseums In North Africa
Leptis Magna, Libya
Leptis Magna was founded around the 7th century BC as a Phoenician city on the coast of modern-day Libya. Like El-Djem, it came to be a possession of Rome after the fall of Carthage.
The entire city was designated a UNESCO site because of its multitude of well-preserved ancient structures, among them a Roman coliseum built to accommodate 16,000 spectators.
Thankfully, the ruins of Leptis were hidden in the sand as early as the century following the fall of the Roman Empire and until the 20th century. This preserved them from many successive waves of hostile invaders.
Today the coliseum and its surrounding ruins are in jeopardy like never before. In 2011, NATO forces threatened to bomb Libyan rebels camped out around Leptis Magna. Luckily this was avoided, and the site has remained intact. But Libya is still in a state of upheaval, and the fate of the coliseum at Leptis is insecure.
El Djem, Tunisia
Towering over surrounding desert dwellings on a plain in North Africa, the Roman coliseum at El Djem is unlike any other. Whereas most African monuments were built against some form of elevation, El Djem stands on completely flat ground and without any foundations.
This UNESCO site was constructed around 230 AD on land that had come under Rome’s control after it defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War three centuries prior. It seated up to 35,000 spectators, almost rivaling the Colosseum in Rome in size. For perspective, the current city of El Djem, a two-hour drive from the ruins of Carthage, has a population smaller than that.
The coliseum has three levels with arched openings separated by beautifully ornate Corinthian columns. And presently it’s in fairly good condition despite the tumult it has endured over the centuries: After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Vandals ravaged North Africa by way of Spain; similar to the case in other Roman cities, locals barricaded themselves inside the monument for protection.
The coliseum was also defaced significantly during the Muradid War in the 17th century.
Kom El Deka Amphitheater, Alexandria, Egypt
Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 331 BC and founded a new coastal capital in his own honor. Alexandria would go on to be the seat of power of the Ptolemaic Dynasty — the Hellenistic Pharaohs who ruled from the time of Alexander’s death until the Romans ripped Egypt from the grips of Cleopatra in 30 BC.
Under the Ptolemies, Alexandria developed into a place of great wealth and esoteric knowledge. When the Romans gained control, they built a small amphitheater in the high-class Kom El Deka neighborhood of the city. The amphitheater was constructed with marble, and its limited seating capacity of only 800 suggests an exclusive venue. It was likely used for performances and speaking events rather than games.
Efforts to recover the theater were led by the University of Warsaw over the course of almost 50 years. And today, it’s in superb condition.
The nation that’s now called Morocco, formerly the Roman province of Mauretania, had two ancient centers of administration: Volubilis and Lixus. The city of Volubilis sits in a fertile valley nearby the Islamic holy site of Meknes. U.S. General George Patton famously declined a guide when visiting its ruins after the allied forces captured Morocco in World War II. He claimed that he’d recalled being stationed there as a Roman centurion in a past life.
Lixus doesn’t share in this mythic revelry. Its ruins on the windswept shores of Atlantic Morocco are often overlooked by travelers. But it is home to one of the Roman coliseums of the ancient world.
Little is known about the amphitheater, and, unfortunately, it’s in a state of utter ruin. The remains of the Roman city are, however, evident. It’s also a unique site because elements of every occupation both before and after the Romans, excluding the Vandals, are still extant.