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Forum Novum: Amphitheatre

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Georadar survey had provided the plan of an amphitheatre whose existence was previously unknown. Although an inscription records gladiatorial combats held at Forum Novum in the 1st century AD, the lack of any evident structures had led scholars to suppose that an amphitheatre did not exist and that the contests were held in the campus. The survey plan however, clearly showed an arena wall measuring circa 25 x 45 m with two main entrances and six secondary entrances.
 
Georadar survey at Forum Novum
 
In 2000 excavations of the main north west entrance revealed part of an arena wall. The latter was circa 90cm wide, composed of mortared cobble, it was recessed into the natural gravels and stood to a height of 1.3 m, originally however it would have stood at least two metres high. The lower parts of the wall were faced with red plaster. Within the arena, the earliest identifiable surface was cobbled and covered by a thick layer of soil that may represent repeated resurfacing.
 
A series of drystone walls, composed mainly of large cobbles, were identified to the rear of the arena wall and formed a series of cells. The precise nature of these structures is uncertain. It has been suggested that they functioned as a base for massive sleeper beams from which vertical timbers would have sprung to support wooden seating. The timbers would have been infilled by earth from the excavated arena, serving as the support for the wooden seating. If this is the case, the amphitheatre at Forum Novum represents a rare, excavated example, at least in Italy, of a timber structure on stone foundations which may once have been common in Roman Italy. Such a model has been suggested, for example, for the amphitheatre built by Statilius Taurus in Rome in 29BC and destroyed by the Neronian fire of AD 64, that of Ampurias in Spain of the first century AD and that of Silchester (Calleva Attrebatum) in Britain of the early 2nd century AD.
 
Roman amphitheatre at Forum Novum  
However, it is probable that these stone ‘cells’ were not bases for timber structures but that they were originally much greater in height. The earth from the arena would have been used to infill the stone structures and form on embankment which would have supported wooden seating. If this is the case, we are dealing with a type of amphitheatre structure which was common in Italy.
 

A sub-type of Golvin’s ‘les amphitheatres a structure pleine’ which is defined by Golvin as ‘les amphitheatres a cavea supportée par des remblais compartimentés’ (F. Coarelli pers comm.). Amphitheatres of this type are documented, for example, at Ancona, Asculum Picenum, Carsulae, Casinum, Spoletium, Venafrum and Verusia. Provisional calculations estimate that the amphitheatre at Forum Novum would have held circa 2000 people. Analysis of the pottery suggests that the amphitheatre was constructed in the early 1st century AD, the same period to which the inscription referring to gladiatorial games at Forum Novum is dated, however by the late 2nd to early 3rd centuries AD it had fallen into disuse.

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