Today we visited the ancient Roman city of Puteoli, which was an important port city for the Romans. Puteoli had a rather impressive amphitheater, and it was here that we talked about Roman gladiatorial games in-depth. We also visited Cumae, an ancient Greek colony that had one of the famed Greek sibyls in antiquity. There is also an air of mystery about the place given its use in Agrippa’s campaign against the rebellious Sextus Pompey (the son of Pompey the Great) during the time Octavian was centralizing power.

Bus pictures

We got some nice scenery on our bus travels to and around Campania. Mountains and the Mediterranean.




  • North of the bay of Naples is a city called Pozzuoli (modern) or Puteoli (ancient). Puteoli was first established as a Greek colony.
  • Not an urban center until the 5th or even 4th century BC.
  • Romans take over the Greek city in 193 BC.
    • Pushing south, the Romans encounter Greek cultures in the form of the colonies: Hellenization.
  • Puteoli named for the small “wells” that dot this area.
    • Geisers that belched steam and even sulfur.
  • The wider region is known as Campi Flegrei (“the burning fields”)
    • The region is extremely volcanically active.
    • Because of the volcanic nature, there’s an intensely sulfurous smell in places.

Desirable topographical features

  • The bay of Puteoli: a very, very good natural harbor.
    • The Roman’s primary harbor until the mid 1st century AD!
    • Better than the harbor at the end of the Tiber.
  • The bay of Puteoli was probably the primary reason for Puteoli becoming a leading city.
  • But also volcanic soil: extreme fertility, highly productive agriculturally.
    • Puteoli is on the edge of the territory of Campania. Famous in antiquity and even today for agriculture and livestock.
  • Also a favorable location for a less obvious reason: Puteoli had pozzolana, the volcanic sand used as an ingredient in the Roman’s revolutionary concrete.

Puteoli’s amphitheater


  • Puteoli’s 2nd amphitheater.
  • The first amphitheater (an early Republican amphitheater) was replaced c. 69 or 70 AD
  • This amphitheater was contemporary to the Coliseum. Also sponsored by Vespasian.
  • 3rd largest amphitheater on the Italian peninsula.

Architecture and comparsion with the Coliseum in Rome

  • It has been suggested by some that this amphitheater was designed by the same architects as the Coliseum. However, this seems unlikely for a few different reasons, not the least of which being that there are significant architectural differences between the two.
  • Not substantial evidence of engaged columns, but some evidence of free-standing columns supporting a portico.
    • Thought: connected by a roof to the amphitheater to create a shaded walkway.
  • Therefore, whether or not there actually were engaged columns on the upper level (that we presently have no evidence of), the concept is already pretty different from that of the Coliseum.
  • Rome: 81 entrances to the Coliseum. Here, there are only 16. Not as many of the supporting barrel vaults connect.
  • So the second amphitheater at Puteoli was another large amphitheater that was perhaps inspired in part from the Coliseum, but it is by no means an identical sort of structure.
  • Since not all the exterior vaults were used as entrances, they could be used for other things.
    • Particular organizations might own one of these chambers to expand their enjoyment of the games: food, drink, and socialization in proximity to the arena. Cf. modern tailgating at college football games.
    • The priests of Dionysius had one. Evidently, so did a group of businessmen specializing in shipping.

An awning?

  • Free standing columns on the upper level: probably used for an awning?
  • Cape Misenum: largest naval military base for the Roman fleet, relatively close to Puteoli.
    • Sailors who worked the awning for the Coliseum were drawn from here.
    • So it wouldn’t be surprising if there was an awning in Puteoli that worked in a similar manner. While this is entirely conjecture, it is also possible that the Coliseum guys were trained on the “local awning” before graduating to the Coliseum in Rome.

The Romans and gladiatorial games

  • Scholars are divided on where the Romans picked up gladiatorial games.
    • Some: they got them from the Etruscans.
    • Others: they got them from Campania, like those held in this amphitheater. Elliptical arenas do seem to be developed in the late Republic in Campania.

The interior

  • Inside, we have a better idea of the size: ~20–30 thousand people.
    • Since we are missing upper layer(s), we are really not exactly sure how many.
  • Cavea: seating area of the amphitheater.
  • Balustrade: a protective wall down low that separates seating from the arena.
    • Also a net on top of the balustrade, perhaps at an angle. “See-through” protection for the spectators.
    • Since the aristocracy sits up front, it is easy to understand why the construction would focus on the safety of the spectators.
  • In antiquity: arena covered in sand
    • Traction
    • Easy clean-up

Showmanship, theatricality of the events

  • Maintenance crew: dressed like mythological figures, particularly those associated with the underworld.
    • Charon, Thanatos
  • Also “stage sets” (scenery with plants, structures, etc.)
  • Surprise trapdoors
    • For unexpectedly introducing animals, more combatants, etc.
    • Liven things up when the going gets dull.
  • Boars, bears, wolves: local animals made ferocious through starvation and abuse
    • At Rome there were also more exotic animals that were imported. Since Puteoli was an important harbor, it is also possible that they had some of these too from time to time, but since the games probably were not nearly so elaborate as those put on by the emperors in Rome, it is wrong to assume they regularly had fights involving tigers and rhinos here (for example).
  • Also historical reenactments of famous battles.
  • Anything to make things more spectacular and engaging for the audience.


  • Coliseum: substructure added last, by Domitian.
    • But here, the substructure seems to be of the original construction.
    • More evidence of different architects
  • One of the best-preserved amphitheater substructures in the ancient world.
  • Down here: brick-faced concrete, vaults.
  • Not all the openings in the ceiling were trapdoors used for introducing things in media res.
    • The outer walkway openings seem to be trapdoors of this sort, but some of the others were perhaps used for lifting supplies and props when the arena was being reset between events, or other things of this sort.
    • The different types of openings probably had different lifting mechanisms. The notches in the wall for the outer “middle-of-the-fight” surprise trapdoors suggest a slave-driven mechanism whereby slaves pushed bars in a circular path to raise a platform. The supply openings perhaps used a more simple pulley system.
  • In the substructure, there is also a lot of storage space. Think behind-the-scenes for a stage production, but for fights-to-the-death rather than musicals.
    • Weapons
    • Cages for criminals to be executed, as well as cages for animals
    • “Stage set” materials: scenery, props, etc.
    • Waiting areas for gladiators
  • The substructure was thus a complex, multi-functional support for the spectacle above.
  • Since everything was hidden away, the appearance of elements led to surprise.
  • Elevators: men, animals, also scenery
    • Scenery appears: even if not set up right away, audience wonders what it will be used for, suspense. Cf. today with opera and stage productions without a curtain where the audience can see the set being changed, and wonder at what the things brought out will end up doing.

Schedule for a day of games, and background information about the games

  • Starts out early in the morning
  • Morning activities: wild beasts hunts.
    • As above, in Rome, there was definitely a mix of exotic and domestic animals
    • Further away from the major cosmopolitan center, there was inevitably a higher proportion of domestic critters.
  • Midday: lunch break
    • What we can tell: vendors selling food! Cf. vendors at baseball games and the like.
    • People could also leave for lunch.
    • If you stayed, your entertainment was the execution of criminals. Eaten by animals, crucified, etc.
  • Afternoon: taken up by gladiatorial games.
    • Fighting between trained opponents. See below for more on gladiators.
  • The games often coincided with larger religious festivals.
    • But also luck-of-the-draw: if you had the resources to close your shop and attend, great. If not, tough.
    • One reason for multiple days of games was presumably give a wider cross-section of people the ability to attend.
  • There was music at the games.
    • Flutes, trumpets, water organs. Cf. again modern athletics.
  • There would be policing forces to keep large gathering of gladiators in line, but really there was only ever the one rebellion under Spartacus.


  • Gladiators were usually slaves, but free-born Romans could choose to be trained as gladiators.
    • If you dis this, you signed away your right to sue for damages. There was evidently an actual legal document.
    • Motivation for doing this: extreme poverty, nothing to lose, looking for better life.
  • Most gladiators were training by 16, and many were dead by 22. Even those who didn’t die in the arena only had a life expectancy of 32 years. There’s was definitely a profession of short lives and ephemeral glory.
  • Some gladiators are shown with dogs on their tombstones. It was presumably safer emotionally to bond with animals than get chummy with people you might have to kill.
  • Gladiators seemed to particularly honor the goddess Nemesis.
  • Gladiators, along with prostitutes, were in the class of people known as infames.
    • This social status is not something you can recover from.
    • The common theme seems to be selling yourself in some way.
    • This stigma is one of the reasons (aside from the low life expectancy of gladiators, less-certain economic prospects, etc.) that Roman legionaries – who would of course be competent fighters – didn’t end up in the arena.

Gladiatorial games

  • In the high empire there were dozens of different “types” of gladiators.
    • Differed in weapons, armor, style of fighting.
    • Like types didn’t fight each other. Each of the gladiatorial types had distinct strengths and weaknesses. There were definitely “preferred match-ups,” but also some variety.
  • For example, one preferred match-up:
    • Secutor: big metal helmet, but tiny eye-holes. No peripheral vision. Some armor on body, short sword. Short-range and somewhat slow and bulky, but can take hits since armored.
    • Retiarius: no helmet, and only a little bit of armor on one arm. However, has a net to throw, and a three-headed spear. Nimble and swift, but unarmored.
  • The person running the gladiatorial games (the “master of the games,” the one paying for them) gets to decide how the matches end. Often the gladiators would not fight to the death right off the bat, but would fight until one wounded the other or had a clear advantage. The advantaged gladiator then looks to the host, who makes a decision about what happens.
    • The host would need to be cognizant of what the crowd wanted: the people developed preferences and could be driven to anger if the host did not follow their wishes. Additionally, the host would need to balance the cost of ordering a gladiator’s execution. The host would bear all the financial burden for a slain gladiator, and highly-trained and experienced gladiators were enormously expensive.
    • In general, hosts probably wanted to refrain from giving the kill order when possible to avoid paying the fee to the familia that owned the slain gladiator. If the match was not a one-sided blowout, the losing gladiator could be honorably defeated without necessarily being executed. This means that not all losing gladiators were immediately put to death… and in fact it was probably rather rare.
  • The signal for execution comes to us through a Latin phrase meaning “with a turned thumb” (pollice verso). This has been interpreted sometimes in the form of thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but it is also possible that the phrase actually stood for a motion whereby the thumb was turned sideways and brought across one’s neck, explicitly signaling for the loser’s throat to be slit. There is much debate as to the real meaning.

Gladiatorial familia

  • There were multiple gladiatorial familia. Sometimes gladiators presumably fought people from their own familia, since it was probably cheaper to hire the services of one familia rather than two or more. There was no doubt rivalries between competing familia.
  • Some familia may have specialized in style of gladiatorial fighting, on perhaps several. Bigger ones might have all or most styles trained.
  • Familia often had their own doctors and surgeons for their gladiators, as well as cooks etc.

The Macellum of Puteoli



  • Macellum: a building-type dedicated to commercial activity.
  • Purpose-built market structure with shops.
    • Perhaps some shipping companies had offices in the Macellum as well. They would also be important in commerce.
  • Puteoli was a producer of glassware, iron, and ceramics as well as being a trading hub.
  • Square or rectangular footprint
  • In the square: small rooms = shops
    • Some open onto street, some open into a covered portico that ran along the interior part of the square. These seemed to alternate: one outward, one inward, one outward…
  • Because of remains of stairs, we know that there was a second story. Shops would only open to the inside on this second story.
  • The Macellum in Puteoli was, like the amphitheater, also built around the time of Vespasian. What we see now is a refurbishment from the time of the Severan emperors.
    • Even though Rome had another main port at this point, the fact that this was refurbished in Puteoli means it must have still been an important commercial center.
  • The entrance to the Macellum faces the harbor proper.
    • Across the harbor: Baiae – the beach playground of rich Romans.
    • “Vegas rules:” what happens in Baiae stays in Baiae

The tholos of the Macellum of Puteoli

  • In the center of the plaza
  • Tholos: the circular architecture often used of temples was not only used for that purpose (although that purpose was important).
  • Tholos was used as a fish market.
    • No way to preserve fish in antiquity, so anyone who ate fish would eat it fresh.

Religious use of the Macellum

  • As described above, most of the architecture of the Macellum was dedicated to economic functions.
  • But the apsidal (apse-like) structure was a temple, so the space also had a religious use of sorts.
  • A number of sculptures were removed from the room, with perhaps the most important one being of Serapis. Others were of the emperors, of Dionysius, and so on.
    • Serapis = Hellenized/Romanized Egyptian god.
  • Why an Egyptian god in a Greek-turned-Roman city?
    • Until c. 50 AD, this was the main port used by Rome.
    • Much grain was imported to feed Rome’s large population. Where does a lot of grain come from? Egypt.
    • Between March and September every year, massive grain ships traveled between Alexandria and Puteoli. Winter travel on the Mediterranean was avoided due to violent winter storms.
    • There was therefore a tight economic connection between Puteoli and Egypt.
    • So an Egyptian statue is actually not that surprising.


  • Marble gutters in front
  • Seats, holes cut in them
  • These are thus latrines, and here, very nice ones. Marble, frescos.
  • Statues as well. The Romans were fond of putting statues everywhere. In latrines: goddess Fortuna. (May you have good luck with your purposes in the space!)
  • Somewhat surprisingly from our perspective, there did not seem to be gender distinctions for latrines (or even bathing spaces in public baths for that matter, depending).
  • Latrines = a form of public service.


  • Bradyseism: occurs when a pocket of super-heated water is just under the crust of the earth.
    • Water enters chambers = crust rises: positive Bradyseism.
    • Water exits chambers = crust falls: negative Bradyseism.
  • Affects the crust level: the water table is constant, but the crust moves in and out of it. When the crust level falls within the water table, the surface of the crust will be underwater.
  • So you can see mollusk marks on the columns in the Macellum: at points, the bottom of the columns were completely submerged!



  • Cuma (modern), or Cumae (ancient)
  • First Greek colony on the mainland of Italy.
  • Greeks start colonizing in the 8th century BC. North Africa, Spain, Sicily.
    • Early on preferred islands. More defensible.
  • But saw the resource-rich lands inland, and later in the 8th century the Greeks found Cumae on the Italian peninsula.
  • Cumae was likely responsible for introducing the Greek alphabet to Italy.
  • Benefit of site: coast very close. Good harbor.
  • Other appeal: hill itself. Akropolis – part of the city that is elevated – early for defense, and then later for religious use.
  • From Cumae, the Greeks were able to interact with a number of native people, such as the Etruscans. Initial contact seems to have been very positive: lucrative economically, trade.
  • Cumae was the furthest north Greek colony.
  • For several centuries, Cumae thrives.
  • But 4th century, there is conflict. The Etruscans and Greeks clash in a naval battle. The Greek presence in the area was subsequently reduced.
  • The city’s heyday was in the 7th/6th/5th century BC. The city was never as important under Roman rule.

The sibyl’s cave

  • What Cumae was most famous for: it was the site of one of the great Greek sibyls/oracles.
  • At the site, a cave was discovered in the 1930s. Some proclaimed it the cave of the sibyl.
    • There was already a cave at Lake Avernus thought to be the same. However, since the sibyl was said to be “at Cumae,” the nearer, more proximate site has taken priority.
  • The cave at this new site is really not particularly interesting. It’s a cave. And also dark and hard to photograph.

A secret navy, disassembled boats, hidden passages, Agrippa being an even cooler cucumber, and Team Caesar again defeating Team Pompey

  • Massively broad, tall passages that run under the akropolis
    • Relate to sibyl? What was their purpose?
    • Two of these very large tunnels.
  • Son of Pompey the Great: Sextus Pompey.
  • Was in rebellion in the time when Octavian was attempting to centralize power. Seems to have been driven by both revenge on behalf of his father (Octavian being Caesar’s heir) and a hunger for power of his own.
  • Harassing Octavian’s forces on land and sea between Rome and Sicily.
  • Lake Avernus: where Agrippa is thought to have built a fleet after being commanded to counter Sextus Pompey’s forces.
    • Fleet constructed on Lake Avernus, and soldiers trained on the ships here to keep Sextus Pompey in the dark.
    • Then the ships were disassembled in some manner (?) and brought to the port at Cumae.
  • Sextus Pompey is surprised, and in 36 BC, Octavian Agrippa defeats him.
  • It is possible, and perhaps more likely, that the cave supposedly associated with the sibyl was actually something from Agrippa’s works. We may not have any trace of the original cave of the sibyl at Cumae. Or this could be it. Who knows?
  • An imperial fleet was not set up until the 20s BC: prior to this, navies were created more ad-hoc (cf. Pompey the Great fighting pirates in the Eastern Mediterranean) and controlled by individuals, similar to how legions were loyal to their charismatic leaders.

Temple to Apollo

  • Goes back to the Greek period. Supposedly build by Daedalus.
    • Daedalus is said to have landed here after his ill-fated flight with Icarus.
  • Augustus completely refurbishes the temple, but reshapes it in the process. It was a traditional rectangular Greek temple, but after it was refurbished, the temple was T-shaped.
    • This T-shape construction was very rare: this temple is one of three such temples that we have preserved.
    • The “center stroke” in the T (i.e., the vertical stroke in the capital letter) was a porch that pointed towards Roman Cuma.

Temple to Jupiter

  • This space was originally a temple – not entirely certain to whom it was dedicated, but it is called the Temple to Jupiter.
  • At the end of classical antiquity, as was not uncommon, the temple was turned into a church.
  • There is a baptismal font preserved at the site. Was originally faced in spoliated marble.