First, the city called Santa Maria Capua Vetere (Saint Maria Old Capua) has an ancient Roman amphitheater that competes with Emperor Vespasian Flavius’s Colosseum in Rome.  And we’ll talk more about that soon.  Second, the name of the city where the amphitheater stands is so frustratingly long that locals usually abbreviate it to SMCV.  I’ll gladly take their lead.

From Rome, I hopped on a train to Caserta, where an adorable room in a B&B was waiting for me.  I checked in, strolled around, and then visited the Reggia di Caserta.  This indecently large palace with sprawling gardens was built to compete with Versailles.  I wasn’t there for the palace per se.  it was just 1700s foreplay to ease me into time traveling to antiquity.

The Day of My Visit to the Amphitheater in Santa Maria in Capua Vetere

The next day, I took a regional train from Caserta to SMCV.  The morning was cool and gray. That did nothing to dampen my spirits.  After all, I am archeology junky.  And the shadowy and insubstantial me, who lived a pre-SMCV amphitheater existence, felt itself flesh out into a much fuller and more complete me as I neared the object of my addiction.  I even showed up at the gates twenty minutes too early.  Afraid of long lines at ticket office?  Naw.  Predictably, no one was there.  Simply put, I was jonesing.  I had been in Italy for over 25 years, and had even popped into Verona’s rink-a-dink and mostly rebuilt sorry excuse for an amphitheater 15 years ago.  My visit to the one in SMCV was long overdue. Perhaps it would sound nobler if I called it an archeological pilgrimage.

Why visit the Ancient Amphitheater in SMCV?

What does the ancient amphitheater in Santa Maria Capua Vetere have that the Colosseum in Rome doesn’t?  Ha, that’s easy!  A sizable portion of its ancient pavement still skirts it.  And in it, someone etched a blueprint or a user’s manual. That’s right, the SMCV amphitheater was proto-IKEA!  The picture (that I pirated from another site) shows the template photo-shopped for clarity’s sake.  I couldinstead post one of the 36 photos that I excitedly took of it…  But it was a gray day, and the etching blends in with the gray pavers like, well, a different shade of gray. 

template of the amphitheater's arches seen in the pavement

Let the photo-shopped etching seduce you. Think about a master builder double-checking blocks with the help of that template. Compare it with one of the amphitheater’s remaining arches. That template clearly broke the most free-spirited novice stone-cutter’s will with its inflexibility. “The blocks,” the template said, “have to be just like this, and this, and this.” I felt honored to be in its presence and in the presence of such great builders, albeit 2000 years after the fact.

Presumably, a similar template was etched in the pavement that surrounded the Flavian Amphitheater in Rome. If only that pavement had not been scavenged! But it has. So, that’s a point in favor of SMCV’s amphitheater.

Violence and Freedom: Spartacus Was Here

Do you want a second reason to visit the SMCV amphitheater?  Unlike the Colosseum, which replaced Emperor Nero’s reflecting pond, the SMCV amphitheater replaced an older one.  How do we know?  Archeologists uncovered its remains near its mammoth replacement.  And it was hardly an anonymous arena.  Spartacus fought there.  Yup!  Spartacus the gladiator turned freedom fighter.  The entertainer who terrified ancient aristocrats as he organized escaped slaves, gladiators, and the scum of the earth into a military powerhouse that challenged Rome’s armies.  Now that’s exciting!  And the Colosseum just doesn’t boast high profile players like Spartacus.

So Whose Amphitheater Is Bigger?

If size matters, SMCV’s amphitheater is second only to the Colosseum.  A very close second.  Compare both arenas’ long axis: SMCV’s measures 165 meters, while the Colosseum’s 188.  And sure, the short axis of SMCV’s amphitheater was just 135 meters wide, while that of the Colosseum topped out at 156 meters.  But when it came to height, you could effectively commit suicide by launching yourself off either one.  SMCV’s was 46 meters tall.  The Colosseum’s just 2 more meters than that.  (Since I’m numerically challenged, I’m quoting the Ministry of Beni Culturali’s stats.)

Of course, Rome the capital of the Empire would have the Guinness Book of World Records amphitheater!  But think, building the largest amphitheater must have cost the emperor’s engineers time and concern.  They were, after all, challenging the limits of large architecture.

But wait!  Here’s the teaser: the two amphitheaters may be contemporaries.  The Colosseum was completed in circa 80 A.D., while the amphitheater in Santa Maria Capua Vetere was either finished around then or shortly after that.  Can you imagine Emperor Vespasian Flavius’s exchange with his engineers in Rome?  “Ok, so what are those folks down south up to?” His question would sound nonchalant, if he didn’t follow it up with: “So how much bigger can we make ours?”  Ah, amphitheater envy.

More awesome discoveries

I spent over an hour and half circling the amphitheater’s collapsed bulk, studying its building techniques and engineering.  During some of that time, I lingered in front of two of its surviving arches.  One had a bust of Diana sculpted into its keystone, and the other Juno. The implications were insane.  At Rome’s Colosseum, each intact archway’s keystone bears a Roman numeral.  When it was new, there were just over seventy entrances, and each one was numbered.  Furthermore, each number was rubricated (i.e. painted red).  That made the numbers more visible, providing you weren’t colorblind…  Roman spectators used numbered entrance gates, expediting entering and exiting the Colosseum.  And that makes sense.

Here instead gods and goddesses marked the 80 entrances.  “Ignosce mi, domina, Mercuri fornix ub’est?”  (Pardon me, ma’am, where’s Mercury’s gate?)  Sure, the use of divinities in the place of numbers could constitute a perfect pick-up line.  But was it an efficient way of getting spectators in and out of the amphitheater?  Who knows!  In the first photo, you’ll see the goddess identified as Diana.  And, in the second, both Juno and Diana.  When the ancient amphitheater in Santa Maria Capua Vetere was intact, dozens of other gods and goddesses proudly scanned the horizon from their lofty keystones.  Their remains are now housed at the Campania Museum in Capua, the Archeological Museum in SMCV, and the National Archeological Museum of Naples.

bust of diana at the capua amphitheater

Exploring the Amphitheater’s Underground

Remember, Rome’s Colosseum is my standard of measure.  Getting tickets for its underground is an endeavor.  Then, when you’re there, you’re unceremoniously marched through it.  The group you’re in is supervised, just like the slave entertainers were 2000 years ago.

Now shift gears.  I walked down the ramp that led to the underground of SMCV’s amphitheater.  I was alone.  No supervision.  No large groups snapping photos.  The slow descent was terrible.  In the silence, my phantom antenna were going crazy.  When I bottomed out in the underground, the cold wind warped the innocent cooing of nesting pigeons.  It echoed around the walls of the underground like the laments of gutted and dying “entertainers.”  I stopped in my tracks, until my mind stopped playing tricks on me. And then I thought, this is where humans’ survival instincts were coerced into going berserk for the benefit of an audience.

I tuned out the ancient waves of psychosis that inundated the underground.  I focused on its structure, and studied it in depth. Sketched it like an inept 21st-century Piranesi, I annotated the placements of ramps and stairs, metal-lined post holes for winches in the floor, and areas potentially used as cells.  The engineering complexities were the same as those at the Colosseum.  Except here I could concentrate and formulate questions that my future research will hopefully answer.

underground of ancient amphitheater at SMCV

For more information, take a look at Professor Wikipedia’s article on the Santa Maria Capua Vetere Amphitheater.  Or do yourself a favor and plan a side trip that focuses on it and other sights in the area!

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