BMCR 2001.07.06

The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre

D. L. (David Lee) Bomgardner, The story of the Roman amphitheatre. London/New York: Routledge, 2000. 1 online resource (xix, 276 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 020327122X $60.00.

As one of the most typical Roman monument types, the amphitheatre’s position in the Roman cultural landscape is central. Yet while its design features have become clearer through technical studies, the precise connections between the built form and its social significance have in many ways remained blurred. This book is a welcome addition to what has thus far been a gap in the research literature. Not since Jean-Claude Golvin’s publication of L’Amphithéâtre romain (Paris, 1988) have we been able to find, in one volume, such a broad discussion of the amphitheatre. D. L. Bomgardner (DLB) has delivered a useful tool that is accessible to a wide audience. The detailed sections on the social aspects of the Colosseum’s design, for instance, will be of interest to scholars and a more general readership. And the local case studies, such as the examples of Arles and Nîmes, help the reader to begin contextualizing complex notions such as the “reconstruction” problematic. DLB has quite obviously spent considerable time in assembling the pieces for this well-researched work.

The book is organized into five themes, broadly corresponding to five chapters. The first is a presentation and analysis of the Colosseum, including its design features and its cultural and political implications for the Urbs. While DLB provides no new theory on the monument’s design or physical features (he makes no claim to be doing so) he does, through a synthesis of the research literature and an analysis of circulation and seating arrangements, look at the social and, to some extent, psychological links between monument and spectator. This is an area that is relatively under-appreciated and the contribution is significant. In a detailed footnote, DLB outlines the method used for calculating seating estimates, and, while Golvin also presented a similar method, the methodology is in plain language and highly accessible (234, footnote 40).

The second chapter takes a few chronological steps back and considers the “origin”—a somewhat problematic term—and development of the building type, using the monument at Pompeii as a primary example to buttress the narrative. Gladitorial combats and venationes —fights with wild animals—form the basis of DLB’s introduction, followed by consideration of some of the civic activities that would have been intrinsically linked to the monument. As elsewhere, Golvin appears as the main reference, aside from the classical texts. The chapter brings together a substantial amount of research material, all-the-while presenting specific design tenets.

Chapter Three considers “Imperial amphitheatres”, focussing on appearance and imperial “style” (61). Through case studies (Verano, Puteoli and Capua), DLB looks at key features, relying to a great extent on the work of Mark Wilson Jones, whose drawings appear throughout the book. Social life is woven into discussions on the architecture, decoration, design principles and spatial layouts of the monuments. The technical descriptions, however, can overpower the more subtle cultural aspects. A general conclusion discussing the reconstruction of the amphitheatres at Arles and Nîmes highlights the difficulties in interpreting monuments that have been substantially altered.

Chapter Four is clearly DLB’s area of expertise. After a historical sketch of North Africa as a region, the Carthage amphitheatre is discussed at length; DLB’s regional fieldwork enables a deeper understanding of the monuments sited in difficult terrain and whose documentary evidence is sparse. Other site examples are included: El Jem (Thysdrus), Iol Caesarea (Cherchel) and Tipasa. A compact catalogue of some thirty-four pages is devoted to listings (157-83) as well as chronologies and typologies (184-91) of the amphitheatres of North Africa. The catalogue includes dimensions and seating capacity estimates that are for the most part based on Golvin’s work, as well as other useful details, including commentary and speculative dating by DLB. While geographically limited, the material enhances and complements Golvin’s related inventory and moves the research forward.

Chapter Five looks at the later amphitheatres of the second and third centuries A.D. and what DLB calls “the declining tradition of their construction” (197). The advent of Christianity and the corresponding social disinterest in gladiatorial fighting and venationes are included as individual sections of the book’s conclusions. As with the previous chapters, specific monuments are focussed upon: Salona, Bordeaux (“le Palais Gallien”), Rome (Anfiteatro Castrense) and Castra Albana. The inclusion of sections entitled “conclusion” (223), “epilogue” (223) and “reprise” (226) is confusing; they tend to leave the reader wondering where exactly the chapter ends.

Thus the book contains historical narratives, site descriptions, design elucidations and a catalogue of North African amphitheatres. Each is presented in clear language, although some of the descriptions seem compressed. While references to the ancient texts, personal surveys and the work of specialists like Jones and Gilbert Hallier are included, some authorities are excluded. Where, for example, is Pierre Gros, whose discussion on the amphitheatre is not insignificant? And why is there no consideration for the work of Edmond Frézouls, whose linking of the amphitheatre and theatre types is key to understanding amphitheatres that do not necessarily fit within the “pure” definition alluded to in the present work? Similarly, a clearer link to Vitruvius’ laconic discussion of the building type might have been useful for making connections between Republican times and the “origins” of the amphitheatre. And, while Margaret Bieber’s History of the Greek and Roman Theatre (Princeton, 1961) is not on the amphitheatre per se, it does make relevant reference to the type and might have been useful for readers.

Moreover there is little comparative discussion. With the hypothetical reconstructions of the Colosseum proposed by Jones and Hallier, for instance (26-28), the author’s commentary is perhaps overly diplomatic, leaving the reader wondering why DLB, an expert on the amphitheatre, does not present at least some assessment of the differing theories.

While this book is well researched, it is difficult for the reader to find a cohesive argument; the myriad sections are not as well integrated as they could have been which can leave the reader wandering. Chapters one and two, for example, might have been more effective had their order been reversed. This problem may very well be due to the press’ requirements for book presentation. Moreover each chapter is divided into sections not identified in the table of contents, with up to three or more levels of sub-sections. Chapter one seems clearest, with eleven sections and seven sub-sections. The other chapters are increasingly complicated, using different font types for headings in an effort to differentiate between sections, sub-sections and so on. A less general table of contents (and index) might have helped.

While the headings help the reader to navigate through the text, the sections do not always refer to related issues located elsewhere in the book. Early on, for example, DLB highlights that he uses “the Colosseum in the light of the published resources available as illustrative of wider principles” (xv). The reader is told that “the vast majority of the seating in the arena was reserved for the cream of society with only a limited portion for what might be called popular seating” (xv). Then DLB states that the amphitheatre at Pompeii “reflected the social composition of its community…” (xvi). If most of the seating (in the Colosseum) was reserved for the upper echelons of society, and the seating at Pompeii was intended for an audience that was more representative of local society, then the reader is owed at least some sort of commentary on this important difference. That said, the use of seating and circulation features to study social attitudes remains significant.

These organizational difficulties should not be seen as a scholarly shortfall. This book is at once a starting point and synthesis; with its approach to looking at built form as a method of understanding social/psychological behaviour, it has the potential of triggering new methodologies in classical (architectural) studies. The catalogue of North African amphitheatres alone is a most useful research feature; the inclusion of similar summaries for other regions, while not within DLB’s scope, may very well have established this as a standard in terms of research tools.