A Gladiator Arena, Possibly the Last Ever Built, Discovered in Switzerland

Archaeologists unearth a fourth century amphitheater that stood on the far reaches of the Roman Empire more than 1,400 years ago

Overview of amphitheater site
An ancient Roman amphitheater that may have been one of the last built was discovered during construction of a new boathouse on the Rhine River in Switzerland. © Kanton Aargau

Archaeologists monitoring the construction of a new boathouse on the Rhine River in Switzerland have discovered the remains of what may be the last Roman gladiator arena ever built. Dating to the fourth century C.E., the oval-shaped amphitheater was found in an abandoned quarry used through late antiquity, reports Laura Geggel for Live Science.

Jakob Baerlocher, lead archaeologist at the site, believes it is the youngest arena of its kind. He tells Live Science in an email that the style of construction is similar to those built near the end of the Roman Empire.

According to Callum Hoare of the Express, the amphitheater where gladiators likely battled was unearthed in Kaiseraugst, a municipality named for the ancient Roman city of Augusta Raurica, Located in the canton of Aargau, the community is about 45 miles east of Zürich and near the border with Germany.

The archaeological team unearthed several clues establishing the date of the amphitheater to the fourth century, including a coin minted between 337 and 341 C.E. Baerlocher tells Live Science that the stone blocks and mortar used to build the arena are “reminiscent of that of the late antique fort wall” for that era.

Per Sahir Pandey of Ancient Origins, archaeologists found two large gates with thresholds made of large sandstone blocks at the complex. The inner walls of the stadium were plastered and showed signs of wooden grandstands. In addition, the team found evidence of a wooden post for a seat that a tribune, or Roman official, would have occupied.

“All the evidence together—the oval, the entrances and the post placement for a tribune—speak for the interpretation as an amphitheater,” according a statement by the Canton of Aargau Department of Education, Culture and Sport, which is supervising the site.

Large gray stone block from ancient ampitheater
The Romans used large sandstone blocks to build the arena's large gate entrances. © Kanton Aargau

According to archaeologists, the amphitheater measures about 164 feet by 131 feet. Per Aaron Sittig of Swift Headlines, it is one of three Roman arenas discovered in the region, not far from Castrum Rauracense, a fort situated on what was the northern border of the Roman Empire in 300 C.E.

“The [amphitheater] underlines the importance of the Castrum Rauracense in the fourth century,” the translated statement declares. “The fort was an important settlement with a military function on the Roman border, but also an administrative center.”

By comparison, the Swiss amphitheater is much smaller than the Colosseum in Rome, which was built about 70 C.E. That grand arena measures about 600 feet by 500 feet and could hold more than 50,000 people, who watched a wide array of spectacles, including gladiatorial combat, animal fights and naval battles.

gray stone foundational wall in dark mud
The foundation for one of the walls of the oval-shaped amphitheater  © Kanton Aargau

The Swiss structure was uncovered while workers were building a new boathouse for the Basel Rowing Club next to the Rhine River in December by an excavation team of Aargau Cantonal Archaeology. Experts speculate the arena may have been one of last built before the collapse of the Roman Empire.

According to historians, the civilization began to fall apart in 395 C.E. when large numbers of Goths and other people began entering the Roman region to escape invading Huns from central Asia. In 476 C.E., the western part of the empire ended when Rome was sacked by Germanic barbarian king Odoacer. At its peak about 230C.E., the civilization’s dominion extended across Italy and the Mediterranean region to as far away as Great Britain, Turkey and Africa.

Finding ancient Roman amphitheaters is not unusual, though the relative recent age of this one makes it important, per the Express. Last spring, archaeologists in Turkey unearthed a stadium that had seating for 20,000 spectators.

A total of eight ancient Roman amphitheaters have been discovered in Switzerland, the canton statement says. Audiences typically watched gladiator fights, chariot races, animal fights and executions at these sites.