The amphitheatre at Pula in Croatia is the sixth largest in the world and one of the best-preserved examples of its kind. The Colosseum in Rome was of course the biggest Roman Amphitheatre and could seat a massive fifty thousand spectators, the second largest was Capua, also in Italy but now sadly in ruin, which was only slightly smaller, and the third was in El Djem in Tunisia with a capacity of thirty-five thousand.
The Amphitheatre in Pula was designed for about twenty-five thousand and by modern standards this made it a genuine Premiership ground. The population of Pula at this time was about thirty thousand people so the amphitheatre could seat 83% of the population, Old Trafford by contrast can seat three times as many at seventy six thousand people but this is only about 3% of the total population of Manchester. Similar sized stadiums were constructed in Verona in Italy and at Nimes and Arles in Southern France, Arles I haven’t seen but is said to be the finest example Roman amphitheatre of them all.
I have been to Rome and seen the Colosseum and nothing can really compare with that of course but this building made that assessment a close run thing when I visited in 2007. It towers mightily above the road and the adjacent buildings up into the clear blue sky and looks proud and strong. The area around it is open and accessible and that makes viewing it in many ways easier than looking at the Colosseum surrounded as that is by a busy main road and thousands of visitors, which can make it a bit uncomfortable.
Pula’s amphitheatre is the only remaining Roman amphitheatre to have three levels and a complete external shell that are intact, neither the arena of Verona or the Colosseum in Rome has its outer perimeter anymore. It was built on a hillside overlooking the sea so the part facing the sea has three levels and the side facing the hill has only two
The Istrian peninsula was conquered by the Romans in 177 B.C., starting a period of Romanisation. The town was elevated to colonial status between 46-45 B.C and during that time the town grew and became a significant Roman port with a large surrounding area under its jurisdiction. During the civil war of 42 B.C. the town took the side of Cassius, since the town had been founded by Cassius Longinus the brother of Cassius. This proved to be an unfortunate choice because this proved to be the losing side and after Octavian’s victory, the town was demolished. It was soon rebuilt at the request of Octavian’s daughter Iulia and was then called Colonia Pietas Iulia Pola Pollentia Herculanea’.
There are over two hundred surviving Roman amphitheatres across what was the Roman Empire and this is one of the best to see. There is still a lot missing however as some of it had been dismantled over the years to provide paving for roads and has provided a convenient supply of building materials for later construction projects such as the town’s Venetian fortress built nearby.
Soaring over the nearby buildings the huge structure of the amphitheatre has been narrowly saved from destruction several times over the years, mostly by various Venetians who for example even flirted with plans in 1583 to take it to Venice stone by stone as a demonstration of the might of the Venetian empire. This proved to be too complex but many large stones were actually transported back to Venice to be used as foundations for the Palaces. Over the last two thousand years many stones were taken to build houses and other structures around Pula, but fortunately this vandalism was discontinued before the whole structure was dismantled. During the Second-world-War under an Italian fascist administration, there were further plans to deconstruct the arena and move it to mainland Italy but fortunately these were quickly abandoned due to the prohibitive costs that were involved. Thankfully most of the vandalism was restricted to the internal seating and terracing and the external walls with their towering arches are still left in place to see today.
Underneath the arena there is a small museum housed in the underground corridors where exotic animals and gladiators waited there turn to be raised to the stadium for their part in the bloody show and one can only try to imagine what a brutal and unpleasant place this might once have been. The Amphitheatre remained on the gladiator circuit until the fifth century when the Emperor Honorius finally prohibited gladiatorial combats but it continued to be used for fights between condemned prisoners up until the year 681.
Interesting trivia – the pula is the currency of Botswana