In Ancient Turkey, Gladiators Fought at This Colosseum-Like Amphitheater

The 1,800-year-old arena housed up to 20,000 spectators eager to bet on the bloody battles

Aerial view of Roman amphitheater in Turkey
The ancient amphitheater dates to around 200 A.D., when the Severan dynasty ruled the Roman Empire. Aydın Provincial Director of Culture and Tourism / Adnan Menderes University

Archaeologists in western Turkey have unearthed an 1,800-year-old amphitheater similar to Rome’s famed Colosseum.

“This might be the only arena preserved in its entirety here in Turkey,” Umut Tuncer, head of the Directorate of Culture and Tourism in Aydın, tells Daily Sabah. “The preservation was maintained as it was buried for years.”

Residents of the ancient town of Mastaura probably used the oval structure for sports and gladiator fights. Though other historic amphitheaters once stood in western Turkey, they have largely fallen into ruin. Relatively well-preserved arenas exist in other parts of Turkey, including the 2,300-year-old city of Kibyra and Anavarza, a southern site whose name translates to “invincible.”

The newly discovered amphitheater dates to about 200 A.D., when the Severan dynasty ruled the Roman Empire, reports Laura Geggel for Live Science.

“During this dynasty, the city of Mastaura was very developed and rich,” Tuncer and excavation leader Sedat Akkurnaz, an archaeologist at Adnan Menderes University, tell Live Science. “There is a great increase and variety of Mastaura coins during this period.”

Compared to the Colosseum, which could hold more than 50,000 people, the Turkish arena had a maximum capacity of between 15,000 and 20,000. The two structures had similar features, including rooms where gladiators would wait for their turn to fight and private entertainment areas. The archaeologists say that people from around the surrounding area probably traveled to Mastaura to bet on wild animal fights and gladiator battles.

“People from neighboring cities were coming to Mastaura ... to watch the big events in this building, specially designed for bloody shows,” Tuncer and Akkurnaz tell Live Science.

The team found the arena last summer and has spent the past several months clearing away trees and brush that had grown over the site. As İhlas News Agency reported in August 2020, the archaeologists located the amphitheater using records written by people who visited the region more than 200 years ago.

“When European travelers came to visit Anatolia in the 18th century, they also visited Mastaura and shared information about it,” Akkurnaz told the agency. “When we examined the notes of those travelers, we saw that they gave very interesting information about Mastaura.”

Per the Greek City Times, the area where Mastaura once stood is an earthquake zone. Different cultures, including the Spartans, Ionians, Persians and ancient Romans, repeatedly rebuilt the city over the centuries. About 80 percent of Mastaura was ultimately buried under soil.

The team also discovered evidence of other settlements in the area, including the remains of four cisterns, a grave and a mill, according to Daily Sabah.

“We believe that there are numerous small settlements around the ancient city of Mastautra, and the cistern and tomb we [found] here are the obvious evidence of this,” Akkurnaz told Demirören News Agency last October. “So, Mastaura was a center and there were rural villages like this.”

Live Science notes that the researchers are now working with the Aydın Archaeological Museum and the Nazilli Municipality to fix cracks in the arena’s walls and otherwise repair the structure. They plan to conduct geophysical surveys to learn about the portions of the buildings that remain underground, as well as use laser scans to create a virtual 3-D image of the arena.

As Monika Kupper and Huw Jones reported for BBC News in 2007, a graveyard found in the ancient Turkish city of Ephesus suggests that life as a Roman gladiator wasn’t as straightforward as one might think. An analysis of 67 individuals’ bones showed that many had healed wounds—a clear sign that they were “prized” fighters who received high-quality medical treatment. Rather than participating in mass brawls, the researchers wrote, the evidence pointed to gladiators undertaking one-on-one duels governed by a precise set of rules.

Some gladiators died of wounds sustained in combat, while others were executed for lacking courage or skill. But a select few survived this deadly profession, fulfilling their three years of required fighting to earn their freedom. One likely free man buried at Ephesus had multiple healed wounds, none of which had proved fatal.

“He lived quite a normal Roman lifespan,” study co-author Fabian Kanz, a pathologist at the Medical University of Vienna, told BBC News. “And I think, most probably, he died of natural causes.”

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