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Blood sport in the Coliseum at Thysdrus,Tunisia circa 200 AD

A Survey of Saharan Trade, gladiator sport and life in Roman colonies.......Ramdas Iyer

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Standing in the once blood splattered arena of this magnificent coliseum at El jem ( ancient Thysdrus) immediately reminded me of a glorious empire where Romans enjoyed good times in their colonies with wine, women and sport. The mosaics recovered from the villas that once dotted this rich city then known as Thysdrus was an eye-opener for me as to the reach, wealth and governance of the pro consuls and Emperors of Rome. Mosaics unearthed at the coliseum reveal a poor man prodded at spear point toward a leopard. The beast already seems to have drawn blood evident in the red tiles that embellish the lavish mosaic floor that once decorated the arena.


The Thysdrus coliseum was one of the largest in the Roman world seating over 35000. The dungeons that I descended into revealed several holding pens for men and beasts until their fated rendezvous at the arena. The place put goose bumps in Hindu skin!. Scenes from the mega hit "Gladiator" and "Life of Brian " were shot here, yet most of us are not aware of this amazing edifice. Even though incomplete, the construction of the amphitheater at Thysdrus was a remarkable feat. Unlike other coliseums/ amphitheaters that were built into hills, this was built on a plain, and it had no foundation to support its massive weight. It was an entirely freestanding structure supported by an intricate network of vaults and arches. It took an elliptical form, and researchers think that it probably had four floors.
The amphitheater, the largest such Roman monument in North Africa since it was erected, measures 138m by 114m, and it had 2 passageways beneath it for the animals, gladiators, and prisoners whose deaths were to entertain the masses.
While most estimates put the sitting capacity of the theater at 35,000, though some go as high as 60,000, which would make it virtually equal in capacity to the Coliseum in Rome. The amphitheater is ranked as the third largest Roman coliseum/ amphitheater in the world, falling behind the Coliseum in Rome, and the Coliseum in Capua (close to Naples, Italy). I was not, until doing research for this article, realize that there were around 105 coliseums built in the Roman world at the time of 100 AD.
The stones used to build the amphitheater were quarried 50km away, and they were clearly worth the distance. The amphitheater has survived for more than 17 centuries, weathering the elements and man’s numerous attempts at its destruction.
The urge to write this article about the events that lead to the building of the coliseum was paramount to me. In the process of doing research I figured that the history of this area should be partitioned into 4 sections; 1. The Carthaginian empire of Tunisia 2. The Saharan trade during Roman times 3. Life in Thysdrus in 230 AD and 4. the life of gladiators. Since there was no comprehensive source to answer these questions, I decided to assemble this article for those who may find this subject interesting.
The history of Tunisia is a catalog of conquest- The rise and fall of Carthage( Phoenicians) and later that of Rome, followed by the rise of Byzantium, coming of the vandals( Germans), spread of Arabs and the Ottoman Turks and lastly by the French. We Americans were there too. During the Allied invasion of North Africa, US GIs who crossed into Tunisia from Morocco and Algeria faced Rommel's army in Kasserine pass on February20, 1943. " On this day, German General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps launched an offensive against an Allied defensive line. The Kasserine Pass was the site of the United States’ first major battle defeat of the war. Rommel broke through Allied lines, inflicting devastating casualties on the U.S. forces. The Americans withdrew from their position, leaving behind most of their equipment. More than 1,000 American soldiers were killed by Rommel’s offensive, and hundreds were taken prisoner. "The United States had finally tasted defeat in battle." quotes a History Channel report.


1. Carthaginian Empire of Tunisia
We have all heard a lot about the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage. Who were the Phoenicians? The culture known as Phoenician was flourishing as early as 3000 B.C. in the Levant, a coastal region now divided primarily between Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. But it wasn't until around 1100 B.C., after a period of general disorder and social collapse throughout the region, that they emerged as a significant cultural and political force. From the ninth to sixth centuries B.C. they dominated the Mediterranean Sea, establishing emporiums and colonies from Cyprus in the east to the Islands of the Aegean Sea, Sicily near Italy, in current day Tunisia in North Africa, and Spain in the west. They grew rich trading precious metals from abroad and products such as wine, olive oil, and most notably the timber from the famous cedars of Lebanon, which forested the mountains that rise steeply from the coast of their homeland. They also possessed the greatest fleet of sailing vessels known to ancient man.
Acting as cultural middlemen, the Phoenicians disseminated ideas, myths, and knowledge from the powerful Assyrian and Babylonian worlds in what is now Syria and Iraq to their contacts in the Aegean. Those ideas helped spark a cultural revival in Greece, one which led to the Greeks' Golden Age and hence the birth of Western civilization. The Phoenicians imported so much papyrus from Egypt that the Greeks used their name for the first great Phoenician port, Byblos, to refer to the ancient paper. The name Bible, or "the book," also derives from Byblos. The Phoenicians eventually defeated the Greeks in Sicily and set up a large empire controlling the western Mediterranean from Tunisia into Sicily, Cyprus and Lebanon. After the fall of the great Phoenician city of Tyre (Lebanon) to Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, those Tyrians who were able to escape fled to Carthage with whatever wealth they had. Since many whom Alexander spared were those rich enough to buy their lives, these refugees landed in the city with considerable means and established Carthage as the new centre of Phoenician trade. I was so fascinated by the Pheonicians that I immersed myself in museums in Malta and Tunisia where they had made their imprint.

Roaming through the ruins of Carthage, just outside Tunis, I witnessed the terrible destruction wrought by Rome on Carthage.The Romans chose not to reoccupy this beautiful port city on the Mediterranean but instead bent on razing it to the ground and out of the history books. The Carthage museum, The Bardo Museum in Tunis and the Museum of Archeology in Valetta, Malta gave me a full account of Phoenician cultural sophistication garnered from artifacts displayed from their trade with Egypt, Greece, Iberia and the Levant.
The Punic Wars were a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 BC to 146 BC. At the time, they were some of the largest wars that had ever taken place. The term Punic comes from the Latin word Punicus (or Poenicus), meaning "Carthaginian", with reference to the Carthaginians' Phoenician ancestry.
The main cause of the Punic Wars was the conflicts of interest between the existing Carthaginian Empire and the expanding Roman Republic. The Romans were initially interested in expansion via Sicily part of which lay under Carthaginian control. At the start of the First Punic War (264-241 BC), Carthage was the dominant power of the Western Mediterranean, with an extensive maritime empire. Rome was a rapidly ascending power in Italy, but it lacked the naval power of Carthage. The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) witnessed Hannibal's crossing of the Alps in 218 BC, followed by a prolonged but ultimately failed campaign of Carthage's Hannibal in mainland Italy. By the end of the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), after more than a hundred years and the loss of many hundreds of thousands of soldiers from both sides, Rome had conquered Carthage's empire, completely destroyed the city, and became the most powerful state of the Western Mediterranean.
With the end of the Macedonian Wars ( Greece) – which ran concurrently with the Punic Wars – and the defeat of the Seleucid King Antiochus III ( Persia) in the Great Roman–Seleucid War (Treaty of Apamea, 188 BC) in the eastern sea, Rome emerged as the dominant Mediterranean power and one of the most powerful cities in classical antiquity. The Roman victories over Carthage in these wars gave Rome a preeminent status it would retain until the 5th century AD. This ascendance of Rome over its Mediterranean neighbors were made possible by their glorious victory in the third Punic war.
This sets the stage for the rest of my article.

2. The Saharan Trade Routes.
Gold has been the most important and enduring element that has shaped West Africa and its interactions with the wider world for nearly 2000 years. The Garamantes were Berber semi-pastoralists who lived almost directly south of what would become Carthage and controlled the trade going into and coming out of the Sahara from West Africa. It has been suggested that the Garamantians traded directly with the Bambuk around the headwaters of the Senegal and Niger rivers. The Phoenician settlement of Carthage, was fabled for its gold, where many coins were minted for six centuries. It is probable that by the time of the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC trade across the Sahara had come to a standstill. It would be at least another two hundred years before any form of regular trade came to be established across the Sahara again. The camel was introduced from Arabia into North Africa by the Romans around 100 AD making it possible for people to regularly and reliably traverse the Sahara. From at least 400 AD onwards camel mounted Berber established trade routes across the Sahara to West Africa. The camel and the caravans it enabled came to dominate the trans-Saharan trade until the second half of the twentieth century.
The introduction of the camel allowed for constant communication to be maintained between the Berbers on both shores of the Sahara. With their camels these people, bridged the desert, and carried an ever-growing trade, in which southbound salt was exchanged for northbound gold. There were four principal routes across the Sahara: – The Salima trail from Cyrenacia to Wadai ( Chad to Libyan coast); – The Bilma Trail from Tripoli to Kawar ( Western Sudan to Tripoli); – The Gadames Road from Ghat to the Hausa country ( Niger River to Southern Libya); – The Sijilmassa – Walata Road from Morocco to the Middle Niger and Upper Senegal. Each of these routes represented a two month journey, with long waterless stretches between oases. The most important of these routes, Sijilmasa to Walata, was founded on the gold of the Upper Niger that was exchanged for the salt of the Saharan oases of Tagaza and Taodeni. The first Berber traders to reach the southern shores of the Sahel found an already long established and extensive trading system within West Africa. The trans Saharan trade and outside influence did not initiate the initial establishment of West African trading systems; instead the Berber allowed for the intermeshing of two previously wholly separate trading systems, that of the Mediterranean and that of West Africa..
As the nomads learned to know the great value of gold in the Roman world, they started bartering it from the peoples of West Africa for salt and copper. The gold was carried to the north, where it was probably used for payment of dates, corn and such handicrafts which the nomads could not produce themselves. The nomads may have bought also some luxury objects made in the Roman world, which they bartered for gold in the south. The Berbers also controlled the salt mines of the southern Sahara along with providing caravan security and route guidance.
All this gold ended up as coinage minted by the Carthaginians and Romans. There was a constant need for gold and the African colonies supplied it intermittently. Thysdrus lying in the cross roads of these caravan routes enjoyed great prosperity, both through trade, providing sanctuary for caravans and becoming one of the leading exporters of olive oil for the Roma Empire.

3. Life in Thysdrus in 230 AD
The origins of Thysdrus remain obscure. The recent discoveries cast little light on the pre-Roman period. Traces of occupation before the 300 B.C. are rare. From its name the city seems to have Berber rather than Punic origins. The name appeared for the first time in the period of Caesar's African campaign when the city, although closely involved with the events which shook the country, seems to have been no more than a small town. Towards the end of the 200 AD it became a municipium, competing with Hadrumetum ( another Phoenician city 100 miles south of Carthage and a few miles north of Thysdrus, for the second place in the province. Thysdrus lay amid a large olive-growing region, and since olive oil was in great demand in Rome during that period, the town prospered rapidly to become the leading olive-growing center of North Africa. With a population of between 20,000 and 30,000, the town accumulated enormous wealth, much of which - as in other Roman towns - was spent on the erection of both public buildings and private houses
In A.D. 238, its opulence, almost isolated in the midst of the empire in crisis, attracted the covetousness of the Emperor Maximianus. Under severe pressure, Thysdrus initiated a revolt which led to the assassination of a procurator of the treasury and the proclamation of the proconsul of Africa, Gordian I, as emperor. Thysdrus owed its fortune in ancient times to commerce. Its situation made it a market town at a crossroads of the communication routes of Central Tunisia. It served as intermediary between the ports and the hinterland as much for imports as for exports. The merchants of Thysdrus were active as far as the distant regions of the Orient. Yet Thysdrus owed the great part of its fortune to the spread, from the end of the 200AD of its olive plantations and its trade in oil. Today with its remains spread over 150 to 200 ha, it is classed among the most extensive archeological sites in Tunisia. Although an important part of its remains is yet to be explored and other parts are covered over again by modern structures, there are existing or recently excavated monuments in a good state of preservation.
The large amphitheater is the most celebrated and the best preserved of all the Roman monuments in this category in Africa. With a capacity of 35,000 spectators, it is classed among the largest amphitheaters of antiquity. The spectacles on show were fairly bloody but rather than gladiatorial contests, the fashion was to watch slaves, Christians, and criminals being executed. It is thought that lions were used as there were what looked like claw marks gouged in what was left of the marble around the arena. In the absence of an inscription, the exact date of the construction of the building is not known. Some attribute it to Gordian III who, towards the middle of the 200 AD might have built it for the glorification of the town which had brought his grandfather Gordian I to the throne.
Thysdrus also had a Hippodrome or circus maximus , an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium and mass entertainment venue ( It is scarcely visible on the terrain. Its existence was revealed with remarkable clarity by aerial photography.)
At its peak in the second and third centuries AD, the Roman Empire stretched across most of northern Europe and around much of the Mediterranean ( see Roman Empire Map provided). In North Africa the Romans built towns and cities from Alexandria (Egypt) in the East to Lixus and Volubilis (Morocco) in the West ( visited in 2008 by me and can be found in my website). Everywhere, the Romans built on the same general pattern, leaving behind the familiar elements of Roman urban planning and civic life that characterize the archaeological sites that remain today. Roman towns typically had many grand public buildings including a Capitol, Basilica, Amphitheatre and Public Baths, a triumphal arch and Forum (central square), with wide streets laid out on a grid. Water was brought into town via elaborately built aqueducts and the towns were usually surrounded by a defensive wall with grand entrance gates and sentry posts along their length. The houses of the wealthy classes were opulent, with colonnaded courtyards and lavish mosaics in many of the rooms.

Wanting to further investigate the mosaics of Thysdrus, I spent a couple of hours in the museum which contained many architectonic elements that belonged to the decoration of the city’s superb villas and public buildings and in particular, the sumptuous mosaic pavements, undoubtedly amongst the finest of Roman antiquity. The museum was built on the site of a roman villa and reproduces its layout: a central courtyard with a peristyle leading into the rooms where sculptures, mosaics, ceramics etc are displayed. These originate from the excavation campaigns carried out in Thysdrus as well as in the vicinity. It houses an exceptional collection of mosaics, most of them in much better condition than those at the famous Bardo in Tunis. An entire street of Roman villas has been excavated next to the museum; there are still some mosaics in situ, and I could easily make out the layout as I walked around.
4. The life of gladiators
While this article is written around the coliseum at Thysdrus, I have thus far only given the reader a glimpse of the Roman conquest of Carthage, the Saharan trade that made Thysdrus rich and a brief history of Thysdrus. The life of the gladiator as seen in movies like Spartacus and The Gladiator is very different than the reality on the ground. I will venture here to elaborate on the role of gladiators and games in Roman society, which ties in well with the tenor of this article.
Of Romans, the famous Christian theologian (150-240AD), Tertullian exclaims, "Next taunts or mutual abuse without any warrant of hate, and applause, unsupported by affection....The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace" (De Spectaculus, XXII).
Adopted from the earlier Etruscans(of Tuscany) predecessors of Romans, gladiatorial games (munera) originated in the rites of sacrifice due the spirits of the dead and the need to propitiate them with offerings of blood. They were introduced to Rome in 264 BC, Traditionally as an obligatory funerary offerings owed aristocratic men at their death. Elected in 65 BC, Julius Caesar commemorated his father, who had died twenty years before, with a display of 320 pairs of gladiators in silvered armor. In 46 BC, after recent victories in Gaul and Egypt, Caesar again hosted elaborate games at the tomb of his daughter Julia, who had died in childbirth eight years earlier (together with stage plays and beast fights, they included the first appearance of a giraffe). The display was criticized, however, for its extravagance and the number slain, including several of Caesar's own soldiers, who protested that none of the money was being allotted to them .
After the slave revolt of Spartacus in 73 BC, a nervous Senate limited the number of gladiators allowed in Rome. The State assumed greater control of public games and large numbers of gladiators were trained in imperial schools. Most gladiators were prisoners of war, slaves bought for the purpose, or criminals condemned to serve in the schools. (At a time when three of every five persons did not survive until their twentieth birthday, the odds of a professional gladiator being killed in any particular bout, at least during the first century AD, were perhaps one in ten)
Free men also volunteered to be gladiators and, by the end of the Republic, comprised half the number who fought. Often, they were social outcasts, freed slaves, discharged soldiers, or former gladiators who had been liberated on retirement but chose to return for a period of service. Commodus (AD 180-192) enthusiastically participated as a gladiator ( The movie The Gladiator draws on this fact).

The bestiarii were not gladiators, as such, but fought for their lives in the arena against wild beasts. The venatores were specialists of wild animal hunts (venationes). The popularity of these cruel spectacles was such that, by the time they were abolished in AD 523 during the consulship of Flavius Anicius Maximus, tens of thousands of animals had died, and entire species were no longer to be found in their native habitat, all having been captured or driven away. There were no more hippopotamuses in Nubia or elephants in northern Africa; the lions which once had been represented in Assyrian reliefs were gone. Either five thousand or ten thousand animals were reported to have died in the dedication of the Coliseum; eleven thousand died in the celebration of Trajan's conquest of Dacia; and Augustus boasted that, in the twenty-six venationes presented in his reign, thirty-five hundred animals had been killed. When Pompey presented elephants (and the first rhinoceros) at the Circus Maximus, he did so in part to demonstrate his power over even the strongest of beasts.
The day of the games, the gladiators were ceremoniously led in and paraded around the arena before presenting themselves at the emperor's podium .Preliminary events included bloodless, sometimes farcical, duels who likely fought with wooden weapons. Those to be used by the gladiators were demonstrated to be sharp and lethal, lots were drawn, and the war trumpet sounded. Then the games began. If the emperor was not in attendance, the producer of the games decided the fate of the victim. Even if defeated, a gladiator might be granted a reprieve if he fought well. But a gladiator also could be forced to fight again the same day, although that was considered bad form, and there were contests in which no reprieve was granted the loser. Victors were awarded crowns or a palm branch and the prize money stipulated in their contracts, as well as any money awarded by the crowd, which was collected on a silver tray. If a gladiator repeatedly survived the arena and lived long enough to retire, a symbolic wooden sword was awarded as a token of discharge from service.
The gladiator held a morbid fascination for the ancient Romans. Their blood was considered a remedy against impotence, and the bride whose hair had been parted by the spear of a defeated gladiator was thought to enjoy a fertile married life. Although their lives were brutal and short, gladiators often were admired for their bravery, endurance, and willingness to die. In forfeiting their lives in the arena, the gladiator was thought to honor the audience, and glory was what it could offer in return. They remained outcasts of society and were regarded no differently than criminals or members of other shameful professions. And yet, as the blood lust of the spectators, and emperors alike, the brutality of the combat, and the callous deaths of men and animals still disturb modern sensibilities. Certainly, Rome was cruel. Defeated enemies and criminals forfeited any right to a place within society, although they still might be saved from the death they deserved and be made slaves Because the life of the slave was forfeit, there was no question but that it could be claimed at any time. The gladiatorial shows were part of this culture of war, discipline, and death.
The public execution of those who did not submit to Rome, betrayed their country, or were convicted of heinous crimes vividly demonstrated the consequences of those actions. In a society that was deeply stratified (including seating in the Coliseum), the usurpation of undeserved rights could be rectified only by public degradation and death. In publicly witnessing such punishment, citizens were reassured that the proper social order has been restored and they, themselves, deterred from such actions. In this display, the games reaffirmed the moral and political order of things, and the death of criminals and wild animals, the real and symbolic re-establishment of a society under threat. In the arena, civilization triumphed over the wild and untamed, over the outlaw, the barbarian, the enemy.
At the time, only Seneca, the stoic Roman philosopher Statesman protested the carnage of the arena; most other Roman authors were silent or approving. Ostensibly, gladiatorial games were prohibited by the Byzantine emperor Constantine in AD 325 and the remaining schools closed by Honorius in AD 399. But they continued, in one form or another, until AD 404, when Honorius finally abolished munera altogether, prompted by the death of a Christian monk, Telemachus, who had entered the arena, endeavoring to stop the fight, and was stoned to death by the indignant crowd.- a monk, Gibbon observes (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), "whose death was more useful to mankind than his life."
Conclusive remarks.
Visiting the fabled arena had raised several questions in my mind. The answers given by my guide was at best sketchy. Upon return to the US I decided to research the life in Thysdrus, the life of gladiators and the audience at the coliseum who included citizens and caravan merchants seeking entertainment from their arduous journey across the Sahara. The Romano-Berber queen Kahina in her final attempt to stop the Arab invasion around 695 AD destroyed most of the olive trees of the Thysdrus area and used the amphitheater as a last defense, but was defeated. In the next centuries Thysdrus simply "disappeared" with the worsening arid climate that damaged the olive oil production, and by the tenth century many of the Thysdrus buildings were dismantled and used as stones for the Arab Kairouan. In the nineteenth century the French colonists found only a small village, named El Djem, with a few hundred inhabitants living around the remains of the amphitheater and surviving in very poor subsistence conditions.
Drifting sand is preserving the market city of Thysdrus and the refined suburban villas that once surrounded it. The amphitheatre occupies archaeologists’ attention despite no digging required. Some floor mosaics have been found and published, but field archaeology has scarcely been attempted. In the world of writing materials, Thysdrus lay in the Empire of Papyrus, which preserves remarkably well if kept as dry as at El Jem.

Leaving Tunisia behind was bitter sweet for I knew that it may be a long while before I would be able to visit its ancient sites on a truly intimate basis again.


The sources from which this article was extracted were many. Since this is not a for profit venture and serves as an advancement for learning, besides being already available to the general public, I am assuming copyright conditions do not apply.

Ramdas Iyer can be reached at [email protected]

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:13 Archived in Tunisia Tagged theatre museum north africa circus roman tunisia el war coliseum colony carthage trade thysdrus maximus bardo gladiators saharan rommel punic ceaser djem amphi sahar Comments (0)

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