The Roman amphitheatre was the centre of entertainment in Rome, and all over the Roman Empire. Ruins of amphitheaters can be found all over the empire.
The largest amphitheatre in the empire was the Colosseum. It could seat up to 50,000 people at once.
The amphitheatre was the place where people went to see fights. These fights were between slaves, prisoners of war or criminals, and sometimes wild animals.These fights were so popular that schools were set up to train ordinary men as special fighters known as Gladiators
This idea once started out as entertainment at funerals.Two fighters would begin and the crowd would watch. Eventually the crowds got so big, they had to build a place to hold them.
This was not only the reason for building the amphitheatre. When the democratic system was changed to an imperial one, the emperors needed a way to keep the people happy, although they had lost the right to vote. The fights fulfilled this role.
From the ruins of the Colosseum, archaeologists have put together an idea of what happend at these fights.
Underneath the floor of the main arena there was a maze of passages cntaining cells and cages where the animals and prisoners were kept. There was even a lift to bring up the arena.
The fights themselves were bloodthirsty affairs. The gladiators were armed with daggers, swords, forks and nets.They fought with slaves and criminals who are often not armed, or armed only with the net. They fought to the death. If a man was wounded, he would throw down his shield, and raise the index finger of his left hand. This was a plea for mercy, from the crowd. The crowd would then decide whether he should live or die by giving him thumbs up - live, thumbs down - die. If he had fought well, he may have been spared but he would probably have been killed.
When a gladiator was killed, an offical would come on dressed as charon - a demon from the underworld.This official would then check the dead / injured body to make sure he was dead. Then while trumpets played, the body was dragged out of the arena.
Other fights which happened were between men and animals - similar to modern day bullfights. The more exotic the animal the more exciting the fight. Giraffe, elephants, panthers, lions, tigers and any other animals that could be found were slaughtered in the arena.
Sometimes also the main arena was flooded, and naval battles were fought with boats.
This sort of Roman entertainment did not appeal to everyone. Many philosophers such as Pliny, and senators such as Seneca complained the games:
"One day I went to the midday games, hoping to enjoy light entertainment, rather than blood shed. It was the exact opposite, the other shows I had seen were a picnic in comparison. This was pure murder. When one man fell another would immediately take his place. And this went on and on till none are left, even the last was killed. You may say but "that one committed a robbery." So what ? Does he deserve to be curcified? "He committted murder." Even so, does he deserve to die like this? What sort punishment do you deserve for watching him? All day long the crowd cries `kill him, flog him, burn him! Why does he run on the sword so timidly? Why is he so unwilling to die?`"