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Panem et circensem in Apulum?
Searching for the Roman amphitheatre

Amphitheatres were among the public structures built in Roman urban settlements in the province of Dacia. The inhabitants of ancient Apulum would have been well acquainted with such a public building, as this was the place where games, shows and contests were organized. Even though the existence of an amphitheatre can be ascertained from both long-known and recently discovered information, certainty about its location is still impeded by a lack of proper data. Evidence for the amphitheatre currently consists of a roof tile bearing the image of the gladiator Herculanus, an inscription attesting a school of gladiators, a map from 1711 and a recently rediscovered photograph by Adalbert Cserni dating from almost 100 years ago. This image shows the ruins of a building which could be a Roman amphitheatre located near the Mureș River, in the area of the Roman Municipium Aurelium Apulensis.

Juvenal’s phrase “panem et circensem” (bread and games), which became one of the defining slogans of Roman decadence, found its most telling manifestation in the gladiatorial arenas. Amphitheatres appeared in the Roman world at the time of Caesar, the most famous being the Coliseum of Rome. Such edifices, on a smaller scale, spread throughout the Roman Empire.

An amphitheatre consisted of an arena where the show took place and cavea (benches) where the spectators sat. The most popular shows were gladiatorial fights (munera). Initially, gladiator games were of a religious nature, but this shifted in the Imperial age, when they became profane entertainment. However, some authors maintain that gladiatorial combat served an educational purpose for youth who wanted to learn the art of fighting. The winners received various rewards, from sums of cash and laurels to social advancement. The games organized in these arenas included competitions, hunting and fights with dangerous beasts.

The entertainment provided in arenas was first introduced to Dacia in the time of Trajan’s presence in the province. Even though amphitheatres were among the earliest constructions to be built in this area, only a few are known with certainty (Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, Porolissum, Drobeta and Micia). Indeed, given that the city was the most important urban centre (consisting of two cities bearing the same name) and the unofficial capital of Dacia, it is extremely likely such a public venue would have existed in Apulum (today’s Alba Iulia) as well.

The existence of the amphitheatre was discussed throughout the last century, based on arguments of varying relevance. Adalbert Cserni, curator of the first museum of Alba Iulia, suggested it might be found in the Lumea Nouă neighbourhood (located in the northern part of the city) where an earth mound indicated its possible remains. Stone blocks similar to those of the Roman fortress and which could be remains of the amphitheatre were discovered in the area of the stadium.

Another possible site is Platoul Romanilor. A map of the city drawn by Giovanni M. Visconti in 1711 indicates a circle with a diameter of more than 50 m, located 250 m from the southwestern corner of the medieval fortress, corresponding to the position of the Unions’ Culture Hall today. During the construction of this building, the basement of a structure with a curved shape was discovered. Visconti’s circle might be the imprint of an edifice whose shape and size would have been on the scale of an amphitheatre. There is other evidence to support this, discovered nearby, within the Roman fortress on its western side. The recent unearthing of a statue of Nemesis, patron goddess of gladiators, and a relief dedicated to Mars by Aurelius Martianus, a former trainer or arbiter of gladiators from Apulum, supports the hypothesis of an amphitheatre outside the walls of the fortress. It also strongly indicates the existence of a school of gladiators (schola gladiatorum) next to the temple dedicated to Nemesis.

Another important piece of evidence discovered in Apulum is a ceramic tile with a caricature of a gladiator, identified as a retiarius (net-fighter) armed with a galerus (shoulder guard) and a trident, scratched onto its surface. The name incised next to the image is Herculanus; he was possibly a favourite among the public.

Unexpectedly, a photograph taken 100 years ago during one of Adalbert Cserni’s archaeological excavations depicts the base of a stone building which probably had an elliptical plan. Thick walls with a height of one meter enclose a large area. However, this area is only partially included in the image, leaving much to interpretation. It is possible to read into the image the outline of an amphitheatre and the inner part of an arena in which a few architectonic elements (the foundations of the amphitheatre and possibly a sewage channel) are preserved. Unfortunately, the location of the building in Cserni’s photograph can only be approximately identified as being in Partoș (Municipium Aurelium Apulensis) area outside the Roman city. Twenty years ago, archaeological investigations were conducted on a building which could have been connected to the amphitheatre. Non-invasive surveys of the area indicated the semicircular plan of a theatre, indicating that the zone possessed public edifices for entertainment. In conclusion, the evidence suggests the existence of a second amphitheatre in Apulum. If so, the one in Partoș could have served the civilian settlement, while the one located on Platoul Romanilor may have been connected with the fortress of the Thirteenth Gemina Legion. We do not know the history of the amphitheatre(s) in Apulum, but the experiences of those who used them can be ascertained by comparison with evidence from the Roman Coliseum. (C.I.P.)