The Roman Colosseum Has a Twin in Tunisia: Discover the Amphitheater of El Jem, One of the Best-Preserved Roman Ruins in the World

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

When Rome con­quered Carthage in the Third Punic War (149–146 BC), the Repub­lic renamed the region Africa, for Afri, a word the Berbers used for local peo­ple in present-day Tunisia. (The Ara­bic word for the region was Ifriqiya.) There­after would the Roman Empire have a strong­hold in North Africa: Carthage, the cap­i­tal of the African Province under Julius and Augus­tus Cae­sar and their suc­ces­sors. The province thrived. Sec­ond only to the city of Carthage in the region, the city of Thys­drus was an impor­tant cen­ter of olive oil pro­duc­tion and the home­town of Roman Emper­or Sep­ti­m­ius Severus, who bestowed impe­r­i­al favor upon it, grant­i­ng par­tial Roman cit­i­zen­ship to its inhab­i­tants.

In 238 AD, con­struc­tion began on an amphithe­ater in Thys­drus that would rival its largest cousins in Rome, the famed Amphithe­ater of El Jem. “Designed to seat a whop­ping crowd of 35,000 peo­ple,” writes Atlas Obscu­ra, El Jem was list­ed as a UNESCO World Her­itage site in 1979. Built entire­ly of stone blocks, the mas­sive the­ater was “mod­eled on the Col­i­se­um of Rome,” notes UNESCO, “with­out being an exact copy of the Fla­vian con­struc­tion…. Its facade com­pris­es three lev­els of arcades of Corinthi­an or com­pos­ite style. Inside, the mon­u­ment has con­served most of the sup­port­ing infra­struc­ture for the tiered seat­ing. The wall of the podi­um, the are­na and the under­ground pas­sages are prac­ti­cal­ly intact.”

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons


Although the small city of El Jem hard­ly fea­tures on tours of the clas­si­cal past, it was, in the time of the Amphitheater’s con­struc­tion, a promi­nent site of strug­gle for con­trol over the Empire. The year 238 “was par­tic­u­lar­ly tumul­tuous,” Atlas Obscu­ra explains, due to a “revolt by the pop­u­la­tion of Thys­drus (El Jem), who opposed the enor­mous tax­a­tion amounts being levied by the Emper­or Maximinus’s local procu­ra­tor.” A riot of 50,000 peo­ple led to the ascen­sion of Gor­dian I, who ruled for 21 days dur­ing the “Year of the Six Emper­ors,” when “in just one year, six dif­fer­ent peo­ple were pro­claimed Emper­ors of Rome.”

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

From such fraught begin­nings, the mas­sive stone struc­ture of the El Jem Amphithe­ater went on to serve as a fortress dur­ing inva­sions of Van­dals and Arabs in the 5th-7th cen­turies. A thou­sand years after the Islam­ic con­quest, El Jem became a fortress dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tions of Tunis. Lat­er cen­turies saw the amphithe­ater used for salt­pe­tre man­u­fac­ture, grain stor­age, and mar­ket stalls.

Despite hun­dreds of years of human activ­i­ty, in vio­lent upheavals and every­day busi­ness, El Jem remains one of the best pre­served Roman ruins in the world and one of the largest out­door the­aters ever con­struct­ed. More impor­tant­ly, it marks the site of one of North Africa’s first impe­r­i­al occu­pa­tions, one that would des­ig­nate a region — and even­tu­al­ly a con­ti­nent with a dizzy­ing­ly diverse mix of peo­ples — as “African.”

via @WassilDZ

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Explore the Ruins of Tim­gad, the “African Pom­peii” Exca­vat­ed from the Sands of Alge­ria

Archae­ol­o­gists Dis­cov­er an Ancient Roman Snack Bar in the Ruins of Pom­peii

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 CE: Explore Stun­ning Recre­ations of The Forum, Colos­se­um and Oth­er Mon­u­ments

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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