A few months ago I had the great fortune of partaking in one of my favorite hobbies: nerding out on cool historic sites. This gem – a 2,000 year-old Roman amphitheater in the beautiful seaside city of Pula, Croatia – was one of the highlights of a whirlwind five-country roadtrip taken with my parents through southern Europe last October.
Pula Arena is among the six largest surviving Roman arenas in the world; it is also the only remaining Roman amphitheater to have four corner towers intact and all three Roman architectural styles represented and preserved. First constructed of timber during the reign of Caesar Augustus (2-14 AD), it was replaced by a small limestone structure during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54AD). Enlarged to its current footprint between 79 and 81 AD, the amphitheater once held as many as 23,000 spectators seated around a central field. The seating area was covered by velaria (large sails) to protect the crowd from sun or rain, and two cisterns in each of the four towers held perfumed water that could be sprinkled on the audience for additional cooling. Stores and shops were located beneath the seating area, and a series of underground passageways beneath the arena held animals and fighters awaiting gladiatorial combat.
The amphitheater remained in use until the 5th century, when Emperor Honorius outlawed imperially sanctioned combat between gladiators and condemned criminals. The arena fell into further decline when combat with wild animals, and between convicts, was forbidden in 681. Between the 5th and 13th century, the arena was plundered for its stone by the local populace. In 1583 the Venetian Senate proposed dismantling the arena and rebuilding it in Venice; this proposal was ultimately rejected. In 1709, stone from the arena was used in the foundation of nearby Pula Cathedral, marking the last time it served as a source for local building material.
Restoration of the amphitheater began in the early 19th century. In 1932, it was adapted for theater productions and public meetings. The arena currently seats 7,000 (with standing space available for 12,500), and has served as a venue for musical performances, sporting events and film adaptations.
My parents and I visited Pula Arena on a beautiful, windy afternoon in early October. With the exception of a small tour group, we were the only people inside. As the photos below attest, the amphitheater is a well-preserved remnant of the region’s incredible past, and the highlight of our visit to Pula.
Many thanks to my wonderful parents – pictured below – for joining me on this roadtrip of a lifetime! Their company was, as always, the best part of the journey.
Note: While we don’t often share lodging recommendations on this blog, I would be remiss in not mentioning our amazing accommodation in Pula. We stayed just steps away from the arena in the Captain Emo City Apartments, and were blown away by the kindness, hospitality and flexibility of the owners. The apartment was spotlessly clean, beautifully furnished and well appointed (great wifi); it also had lovely views of the sea. I couldn’t recommend it more highly for a stay in Pula!!
Thank you for joining us on this adventure! -B. June
Next week’s journey: Glen Coe, Scotland