3D reconstruction of a Roman Amphitheatre (by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0 via WikiCommons)
Continuing our walk, we get closer to the south-western perimeter of the ancient city, leaving behind us what was the roman countryside of the 4th century CE. Back in Roman times, this area would probably be filled with shacks, farmer houses, peasants’ buildings, and small markets. However, for a traveller of that time on his way to Mediolanum, all this would probably be insignificant when faced with the notorious roman building: the Amphitheatre.
The amphitheatre is an open-air venue for various types of entertainment and performances, a popularly known place for gladiators’ combat. The term derives from the ancient Greek “amphitheatron”, a word composed of “amphi”, meaning “on both sides” or “around”, and “théātron” meaning “place for viewing”.
So yes, even Milan had its own “Colosseum” located just outside the ancient city walls, whose impressive size and incredible architecture captured everyone’s attention.
It is no coincidence that this enormous arena stood outside the citadel. Often, games and performances were anything but playful and could fire people’s tempers. Provoked by bloody fights and gamblings, the audience would often literally go wild. To avoid such situations, it was common for amphitheatres to be erected outside the city walls to ensure safety and facilitate imperial guards’ control.
The building was finished in the 1st century CE, and according to excavation studies, the arena could accommodate around 20,000 people, an incredible number for the time. We can imagine the crowds’ roars and breathtaking performances that amazed the ancient Roman citizens of Mediolanum. It was a world incredibly different from today, where distances fuelled curiosity and excitement for other cultures, habits and traditions. The historical representations of battles, exotic animals, and fights between gladiators from different borders and distant lands were perhaps the only opportunities for citizens to learn about their empire’s greatness and imagine far almost unreachable worlds.
This hunger for curiosity, and knowledge blended with excitement, attracted thousands of Roman citizens to participate in the prestigious games. Among these events were the famous “venationes”, hunting representations with ferocious and often exotic animals, and the “naumachie”, real naval battles that required the arena to be completely flooded.
Today, part of the structure’s foundations are still visible in the archaeological park, brought into light after years of excavations. The amphitheatre extended in an elliptical shape, covering a large part of the surrounding area now occupied by buildings and houses. The remains of the western and eastern sectors have been found under the neighbouring buildings. Also noteworthy is a portion of a line in the central area of the archaeological park. This line, in front of the foundations, marked the beginning of the ground on which the gladiators fought.
Visitors can discover a fascinating ancient reality inside the museum, with anecdotes and personal stories, such as that of the gladiator Urbicus, who died at what we consider an early age of 22.
Today, the museum is dedicated to Alda Levi, a Jewish archaeologist active in the years before the Second World War. Due to the racial laws, she lost her job and had to abandon her projects, spending the period of the Nazi occupation in Rome under the threat of deportation. She was the only official responsible for archaeological protection in the region during years of intense urban development. We owe her much of the work done and inherited today.