In the arena of the gladiators: Carnuntum's amphitheaters

By Nisa Iduna Kirchengast - Editors: Daniel Kunc, Thomas Mauerhofer
© NÖ Landessammlungen

Bronze statuette of a gladiator (Thraex) © Landessammlungen NÖ, Archäologischer Park Carnuntum

Gladiatorial games were among the most popular events in the Roman Empire and formed a central part of the entertainment culture. These exhibition fights between armed (male and female) opponents not only served to amuse the audience, but also reflected the social and political dynamics of society at the time, such as the propagandistic concerns of emperors and sponsors. In Carnuntum, these so-called spectacula took place in large arenas both in the area of the civilian city and in the military sphere of influence outside the gates of the legionary camp. Today, three amphitheatres (Greek amphi = double, around - "theater surrounded by seats") are known from extensive research in the greater Carnuntum area. 

Amphitheatre I, today located between Petronell-Carnuntum and Bad Deutsch Altenburg and known as the "amphitheatre of the military town", was located north-east of the legionary camp and was (re)built between 72 and 77 AD by legio XV Apollinaris, as can be seen from an inscription discovered in 2009 in the area of the east gate. Between 2007 and 2012, the amphitheater was systematically explored in several excavation campaigns. It was probably used for various activities, including animal rushing, equestrian and drill exercises and possibly executions. The stands around the elliptical arena, which measured 72 × 44 meters, could seat around 8,000 spectators. Additional rooms were found at the entrances to the theater, including an animal kennel and a small sanctuary of Diana Nemesis.

The second amphitheater of Carnuntum was built south of the civil city outside the city walls and excavated between 1923 and 1930; today it is commonly known as the "amphitheater of the civil city". The elliptical arena (68m long and 52m wide) provided space for gladiator fights and other public performances and included symmetrical spectator areas for around 13,000 spectators. This would still make it one of the 10 largest stadiums in Austria today. It was rebuilt several times over the course of time and possibly also used for Christian purposes. A gladiator school was possibly located to the west of Amphitheater II.


In 2010, the area around the amphitheater was investigated and a striking building layout was discovered alongside various commercial premises. The enclosed complex, known as the gladiator school, comprises a large inner courtyard with a circular training arena 19 meters in diameter. Based on the results of the archaeological investigations, further buildings can be assumed to have served as a training hall, administrative areas and living quarters for the gladiators.

© Wallner (Geosphere Austria)

General plan of the Carnuntine civil town with the suburban zones to the west and south and the two amphitheaters (II and III). - © Wallner (Geosphere Austria)

Taken from "C. Gugl - M. Wallner – E. Pollhammer, Carnuntum – Eine antike Siedlungsagglomeration an der mittleren Donau, Roman urban landscape. Towns and minor settlements from Aquileia to the Danube, Opera Instituti Archaeologici Sloveniae 47, 2024, 377–401"

Carnuntum's third amphitheater, no longer visible today and therefore little known, was located in the area of the ancient city wall. It was demolished during the construction of the city wall and replaced by the larger Amphitheater II further south. The well-known building inscription by Caius Domitius Zmaragdus, which was found in the legionary camp and indicates a date between Hadrian and Septimius Severus (between 124 and 193 AD), most probably refers to this older third amphitheatre. 

C(aius) Domitius Zmaragdus / domo Antiochia dec(urio) / municipi Ael(i) Carnunti / [a]mphitheatrum impens[a] / [sua] solo publico fec(it)
Caius Domitius Zmaragdus from Antioch, a councillor of the city of Aelium Carnuntum, had this amphitheatre built on public land using his own capital.
© NÖ Landessammlungen

© Landessammlungen NÖ, Carnuntum Archaeological Park

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