Archaeologists in Cordoba in Spain have uncovered Europe's biggest Roman amphitheatre after the Coliseum. The site dates from the first century AD, when the city was the capital of Betica, modern Andalusia, in imperial Hispania.
"We initially thought it was a circus, the circular arena the Romans used for horse races and chariot rides," says Desiderio Vaquerizo, professor of architecture at Cordoba University. "But we discovered it was an immense oval amphitheatre - 178m by 145m and up
to 20m high - that would have been used for gladiatorial contests and other bloodthirsty spectacles."
"The discovery is of transcendental importance for the city. It recovers the importance of Roman games, a key aspect of popular daily life," Vaquerizo said. "It shows the continuity of mass spectator sports from the Roman empire to today's fiestas and bullfights.
"The bullring originated in an amphitheatre; it is the historical thread linking today's popular fiestas to ancient times."
The find reveals Cordoba as an imperial city built in Rome's image. "The amphitheatre shows that Cordoba symbolised Rome's authority in the west: it was the setting for imperial ceremonies, the place where the emperor showed himself to the common people and displayed all his power and authority in front of 50 000 spectators," Vaquerizo said.
Less than a tenth of the arena is visible, but archaeologists plan to uncover a sixth of it - 2 000m2 - in coming years. The stadium is bigger and more elegant than that at Italica outside Seville, and the rest is likely to remain buried under buildings piled on over the centuries.
In bloodsoaked contests popular between the first and fourth centuries, gladiators were set against each other, or lions or other wild beasts. Sometimes the huge space was flooded with water for gigantic naval battles.
Archaeologists have found a plaque marking the seats reserved for a prominent Cordoban family honoured by imperial Rome. They also found 20 carved gravestones of fallen gladiators, the biggest such collection outside Rome, prompting experts to conclude that Cordoba was an important training school for gladiators.
"Combatants were between 20 and 25, and their comrades, their concubines or their families carved epigraphs on stone tablets laid on the graves where the fallen were buried inside the amphitheatre," Vaquerizo said.
The inscriptions record the category of the gladiator, his victories, the laurels and prizes awarded, and the age he died.
Cordoba's amphitheatre was abandoned in the fourth century when Emperor Constantine, influenced by Christianity, banned the murderous sports as immoral. Then, in 711, Muslims originally from Damascus occupied Cordoba and, for the next 200 years, built an entire neighbourhood upon the curved terraces, plundering the stonework for buildings of their own.
The university and the city authorities plan to turn the site into an archaeological park. - The Independent