Florentia, the name of the ancient Roman city of Florence founded between 30-15 B.C. under the first emperor Augustus, had a population of circa 10,000 people at its height of prosperity at the beginning of the second century A.D. It had a 16km long aqueduct bringing fresh water into the city from Mount Morello, public baths, a forum with splendid civic & religious buildings cased in marble, a thriving cloth industry, a theatre & of course an amphitheatre – a truly Roman building.
Unlike all the other things listed above, the amphitheatre was situated outside of the city’s walls. The amphitheatre (amphi - from Greek -means on both sides, or around, so the name indicates that the form is constructed by putting two theatres, in Greek meaning a place for viewing, together, thus forming an elliptic shape) was used only for blood sports or Ludi (games); animal against animal, animals & men together, gladiatorial fights & executions, and so it was therefore opportune to place them outside the walls.
In Florence, the roman amphitheatre was in the area of Piazza Peruzzi near Santa Croce. This was outside the walls of the ancient city as the street behind the Palazzo Vecchio, via Proconsolo, marked the Eastern city wall. Indeed, thinking of the topography in the area of the amphitheatre, one thinks of via torta (crooked street) so called as the buildings are constructed on top of the ancient ruins of the amphitheatre structure, and consequently the street curves in an elliptical form. Nearby, via Benticordi & the palaces in Piazza Peruzzi are all curved for the same reason.
The amphitheatre of Florentia could hold circa 20,000 spectators, accounting also for the population of nearby Roman Fiesole which, perched on a hill, didn’t have its own arena.
The Romans took much from the Greeks (art, politics, culture) but an amphitheatre was purely their own invention, both in form & in function. The Greeks didn’t know how to build the arch, thus explaining why they built their theatres always into a hill, so that the elevated tiered seating to watch the spectacle was achieved from the natural rise of the land. As their temples were usually on top of hills and hence, near to the theatres, the plays took on a decidedly moralistic and didactic undertone. Nor was it, in any case, in the Greek mentality to think of entertainment as a bloody fight between beasts & man.
The Romans, on the other hand, with the extensive use of the arch, were able to build aqueducts covering miles and so could build many colonies & then build theatres wherever they wanted on flat land, achieving height with the arch structure. But more important than theatre entertainment (which they viewed suspiciously fearing that it would make their men soft) they could build stadiums for blood sports, something they really sank their teeth into. The average Roman had no interest in theatre, he didn’t care for the deep & meaningful, he wanted games!
The biggest amphitheatre in the Roman world was the one in Rome, built by the Flavians (the rulers after the Julio-Claudians) at the end of the first century A.D. and dubbed the Colosseum in the medieval period. It is estimated to have a capacity of 50-70,000 people. Games were publicised like rock concerts today, the posters listed the lead up of events & they were free for all citizens and slaves. Tickets were necessary before the event in order to allocate seats which were assigned according to rank. They would often perfume the air to cover up the stench of blood and the arena floor was covered with sand (the word arena means sand in Greek) so as to better soak up the spilled blood and give a greater foothold to the combatants.
Blood sports in the amphitheatres were banned in the Empire at the beginning of the fifth century, however the next time that you are walking to Santa Croce don’t be alarmed if you hear a roar…..