They came, they saw, they conquered, they left behind. . . . The Romans in Tunisia Part IV: The El Jem Amphitheater
If youâ€™ve traveled to Rome, you likely visited and marveled at the Roman Coliseum, the huge amphitheater where gladiators fought wild animals and where Christian martyrs are thought to have died. Even if you havenâ€™t visited the Coliseum in Rome, you probably are somewhat familiar with this iconic structure since itâ€™s been featured in films and other media.
But across the Mediterranean Sea, a fairly short distance from Italy is another, large and better-preserved Roman coliseum: The Roman Amphitheater in El Jem, Tunisia. (1) The Romans liked entertainment, however cruel and unjust it may sometimes have been, and built at least 230 amphitheaters across their empire. (2) They also liked to impress their subjects and the world with grandeur and had the engineering skills to do so. The El Jem Amphitheater is the worldâ€™s sixth largest Roman amphitheater seating 35,000 spectators, more than the population of the town of El Jem.
Why is this great amphitheater in Tunisia, a small country in North Africa? Because Tunisia, though small in size, was the site of nearly 700 years of Roman activity and in the places where the Romans built military outposts, such as Tunisia, they also established communities. El Jem was a thriving market town known as Thysdrus, when the amphitheater was built over a period of eight years beginning in 230 C.E. The theater and its games were famous, and drew people from other parts of Roman Africa.
As part of our tour of Tunisia, my daughter Pam and I have been seeing wonderful examples of Roman architecture and life all over the country. (3) And the El Jem amphitheater, the last Roman architectural wonder weâ€™re scheduled to visit, doesnâ€™t disappoint us. The amphitheater is so grand that unfortunately no photos I take from inside the structure could begin to show its magnificence. Moreover, itâ€™s so large and intricate that we donâ€™t have enough time to explore more than a small part of it.
Many arches at various levels wrap around and form the perimeter of the El Jem amphitheater. The structure is 484 feet long, 403 feet wide, and 117 feet high. It had better viewing and acoustics than the Roman Coliseum. (4)
Just getting the building materials to the site must have been a huge endeavor since the stones for constructing the theater were quarried at Salakta (formerly Sullectum) 20 miles away. Looking around at this grandiose theater built in an era with no power machines, I consider how much slave labor must have gone into its construction. Standing here, all these years later, I remember these builders and mentally thank them for a job well done.
The arena of the El Jem Amphitheater was so large that it could host more than one show at a time. To get a sense of scale, note how tiny the people in the photo appear. The El Jem Amphitheater is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (5)
Pam and I explore a small portion of the theater. We walk in the arena, go through arches, traipse through some dark corridors, and climb steps where we get a good view of the current town of El Jem.
The town of El Jem as seen from atop a section of the El Jem Amphitheater. Some of the town was built with stones taken from the ruins of the amphitheater before preservation efforts began.
To view a more panoramic photo that spans the areas covered in the three photos in the post, click here.
In my travels, Iâ€™ve seen and visited quite a few Greek and Roman amphitheaters, including the Roman Coliseum. But here at the El Jem Amphitheater, I feel more dwarfed and smaller than I did at any of the other sites. I know it would take me at least a day to do a cursory walk through the whole area. Even if I had time to explore the whole amphitheater, I likely wouldnâ€™t have the physical stamina to do it nor the intellectual energy to absorb it.
What does the El Jem Amphitheater mean for us today? Itâ€™s a heritage. As a heritage, itâ€™s a window into the past that teaches us how earlier peoples lived and worked, how they thought and acted. As a heritage, itâ€™s an eye into the future, a source for future peoples to see not just what modern people like us saw in the El Jem Amphitheater, but also to interpret what we did as our response to what we learned. As a heritage, the El Jem Amphitheater is a source of awe and inspiration for all.
(1) Click here to view inset map that shows the location of The El Jem amphitheater in relationship to â€œbootâ€ of Italy
(3) Previous Posts on The Romans in Tunisia
(4) Tomlinson, Michael. Tomkinson’s Tunisia. Michael Tomkinson Publishing, Oxford, UK. Ninth Edition 2008, page 94. ISBN 0 905500 39 3.
(5) El Jemâ€™s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site