There has been a lot of hype lately regarding the imminent opening of the underground corridors, or “hypogeum”, of the Flavian Amphitheater (Colosseum) in Rome this summer. And, while I am very curious to explore them myself, I would like to suggest an alternate, or additional stop on your tour of ancient Roman gladiatorial sport venues: The Flavian Amphitheater in Pozzuoli (ancient Puteoli).
Built at the ancient crossroads between Cumae, Capua and Napoli, it was begun by the Emperor Vespasian and completed by his son Titus. It is the third largest amphitheater in Italy after the Colosseum in Rome, and the amphitheater in Capua. Like Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Flavian Amphitheater in Pozzuoli owes it’s high state of preservation to the forces of nature. Abandoned and subsequently partially buried by eruptions from the still active Mt Solfatara during the late antique period, the amphitheater sat there until the mediaeval period when it’s exterior marble cladding and decorations were stripped away. Archaeological excavation of the buried portions, including the underground corridors, began in the mid-1800s.
Seating almost 20,000 spectators, the oval floor measures 237 x 139 feet. The most compelling feature of the structure, in my opinion, is the very well preserved, almost perfect hypogeum! From in front of the ticket office a ramp takes you down into the guts of the amphitheater, where you can stroll at your leisure, minus the hoards of tourists that flock to the bigger, more famous Colosseum in Rome. Down here the light filters in from openings in the arena floor above, that once served as trap doors for elevators that lifted animals, scenery and fighters up to the light of day and the roar of the crowd. While the corridors and cells are silent now, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine the sense of fear and anxiety condemned criminals, animals for staged hunts and the gladiators must have felt. There is a heavy, foreboding feel to the place, almost haunted. According to local legend, the first Christian martyrdoms took place here, including that of San Gennaro, who was condemned to be thrown to wild bears in the arena but, instead, at the last second was beheaded in the crater of Mt Solfatara to avoid public outcry.
The main corridor takes you around the perimeter of the ellipse, past numerous cells, elevator shafts and lift remains. Custodians have used it to store column drums, statue fragments and other artifacts, which make for an interesting walk. It’s a also great place to escape the heat on a summer day.
The other reason I enjoy the amphitheater in Pozzuoli so much is the fact that hardly anyone is there. Every time I have been there I could count the number of other tourists on one hand. Unlike the Colosseum in Rome, here you are permitted to walk out onto the floor of the arena, gaze up into the “bleachers” and let your imagination go. The crowd screaming for blood, some over-fed toga-clad patrician deciding your opponent’s fate (or yours, depending on your state of mind) with the twist of his thumb…
Pozzuoli is easy to get to: Just take the Naples Metro Line 2 from Napoli to Pozzuoli. Wikinapoli outlines several transportation options. Bring a camera, a good pair of walking shoes (the entire Pozzuoli/Baia/Cumae region is full of archaeology!) and your imagination.