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Stadium of Domitian

Stadium of Domitian

This stadium was used for foot races and other Greek athletic competitions. It was part of the entertainment complex built by Domitian (A.D. 51-96) in the Campus Martius next to the Baths of Agrippa and north of the Theater of Pompey. Built in A.D. 86, it was probably on land earlier occupied by wooden structures used for similar purposes. When the Colosseum was closed for repairs in the long period A.D. 217-228, the gladiatorial games were staged here. The modern-day Piazza Navona—one of Italy's most beautiful public spaces—occupies this site. The buildings of the piazza sit atop the ruins of the stadium, one section of which can still be seen on the northern, curved end.

Stadium Domitiani

From Samuel Ball Platner, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, rev. Thomas Ashby. Oxford: 1929, p. 495-496.

The stadium which Domitian built in the campus Martius for athletic contests (Suet. Dom. 5; Eutrop. vii.23; Chron. 146; Hieron. ad a. Abr. 2105; Not. Reg. IX). After the Colosseum was injured by fire in 217, it was used for several years for gladiatorial combats (Cass. Dio LXXVIII.25). Its arcades were occupied by brothels (Hist. Aug. Elag. 26) as were those of the circus Maximus. The stadium was restored by Alexander Severus (id. Alex. 24), and hence was sometimes called in the Middle Ages circus Alexandri (Ordo Bened. 143). In the fourth century it was one of the buildings that are said to have aroused the special admiration of Constantius (Amm. Marcell. XVI.10.14). It had 30088 loca (Cur.), that is, seats for about 15,000 spectators (HJ 593). According to the legend, S. Agnes met a martyr's death in the brothels in the arcades of this stadium, and in her honour a church was built in the ninth century in the middle of the cavea on the west side, which was afterwards known as S. Agnese in Agone or de Cryptis Agonis (Arm. 383-384; HCh 168), the word agon being used both for a gymnastic contest and for the place of its celebration (Lydus, de mens. iv.30; Pr. Reg. 171). There was also a church of S. Nicolas de Agone (HCh 389 — that of S. Caterina de cryptis agonis (cf. Arm. 388) never existed). The Piazza Navona, the largest in the city, now called officially Circo Agonale, preserves almost exactly the shape and size of the stadium. The piazza itself corresponds closely with the arena, the length of which seems to have been about 250 metres, and the surrounding buildings stand on the ruins of the cavea. Under the church of S. Agnese remains of brick and concrete walls, travertine pilasters and the seats of the cavea are still to be seen, and other traces have been found beneath the existing buildings at other points. For excavations in the sixteenth century, see LS II.228-231; iii.224-225; iv.190; LR 498-500; HJ 592-594. For the obelisk of Domitian which was erected there in 1651, see Obelisci Isei Campensis (4). Cf. also Mem. L. 5.xvii.521.

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Additional source material

  • Ancient Library Sources (from Peter Aicher, Rome Alive: A Source Guide to the Ancient City, vol. 1, Bolchazy-Carducci: 2004) [Works cited]

    89. Stadium of Domitian; Concert-Hall (Odeum). Commentary.

    The Stadium of Domitian is conspicuously located by the Piazza Navona, which preserves the shape of the ancient running track. The buildings lining the piazza today are also built upon the substructures of the stands, as can be seen from the street that runs tangent to the north end of the stadium.

    The stadium was built as a venue for Greek-style athletic competitions. Foremost among them must have been foot-races. The Latin stadium comes from the Greek stadion, which was first a measure of distance (approximately 600 feet), and then a race-track (the most famous of them, at Olympia, being exactly one stade long). But as the sources make clear, other competitions took place here.

    Less certain is what role, if any, Apollodorus and Trajan played in the Stadium's construction, which Suetonius ascribes to Domitian [89.2]. If Apollodorus had a hand in it, he may have put the finishing touches largely carried out under the direction of Domitian's architect Rabirius. But even this Domitianic stadium may have had a forerunner in the temporary wooden structure Augustus erected on the Campus to house similar competitions [89.1].

    Borromini's St. Agnese in Agone, built over ancient substructure on the west side of the Stadium, commemorates the martyr's death of the 13-year old St. Agnes, which, tradition has it, occurred in a brothel located in the stadium. Prudentius [89.9] recounts one version of her death, which he locates in a brothel in an open square, but does not specify which square. The passages from the Imperial Lives [89.7, [89.8]] locate a brothel in the Stadium, at any rate. Brothels in Rome were often called fornices, “archways,” of which the Stadium had plenty and thus a like place for “fornication.”

    The Odeum was a covered auditorium. Most archaeologists identify it with ruins found between the Theater of Pompey and the Stadium of Domitian. The order of buildings in Ammianus's passage [89.3] would seem to corroborate this, but his list of the fabulous architecture that met Constantius's eyes has no overall topographical order.

    89. Stadium of Domitian; Concert-Hall (Odeum). Sources.


    [In 28 BC] Augustus held gymnastic competitions in a temporary wooden stadium constructed in the Campus Martius.

    Dio, History 53.1.5


    Domitian's construction projects in Rome included both the Stadium and the Odeum.

    Suetonius, Domitian 5


    [The Emperor Constantius, entering Rome for the first time in AD 357, gazed in amazement on one after another of its monuments:] … the Pantheon, which seems to vault an entire neighborhood with its beautiful, lofty dome; the columns inside of which one can climb to platforms that hold statues of former emperors; the Temple of Rome, the Forum of Peace, the Theater of Pompey, the Odeum, and the Stadium, among other marvels of the Eternal City. But when he came to the Forum of Trajan….

    Ammianus, History 16.10.14


    The architect Apollodorus, Trajan's builder in Rome who designed his Forum, the Concert-hall, and the Stadium, was first banished and eventually killed by Hadrian.

    Dio, History 69.4.1


    In this period of Septimius Severus's rule [AD 200], gymnastic competitions were held. So many athletes were compelled to participate that we were amazed that the Stadium had room to hold them. Women also took part in these contests, and they competed against one another with such ferocity that the jeering remarks of spectators began to be aimed at distinguished women in the audience as well as the female athletes. As a result, women, whatever their background, were subsequently forbidden to participate in one-on-one wrestling.

    Dio, History 75.16.1


    [In AD 217 the Colosseum was struck by lightning and badly damaged in the resulting fire.] As a result, gladiatorial combats were held in the Stadium for many years.

    Dio, History 79.25.3


    The Emperor Alexander Severus [c. AD 230] placed a tax on pimps as well as on both male and female prostitutes, with the stipulation that the income thus raised go not into the public treasury but towards the cost of restoring the Theater, the Circus, the Amphitheater, and the Stadium, [all structures rich in “archways”].

    Imperial Lives, Severus Alexander 24.3


    The emperor Elagabalus [AD 218-22] rounded up into a public hall all the prostitutes from the Circus, the Theater, the Stadium, the baths and everywhere else they frequented. Addressing them like a general would his troops, he called them his fellow soldiers and reviewed with them the various positions and techniques of their profession.

    Imperial Lives, Elagabalus 26.3


    The Romulean city boasts the body

    Of Agnes, courageous girl and famous martyr.

    Her faith enraged a pagan judge in Rome,

    Who sentenced her to serve in a public brothel

    Unless the maiden kneeled at Minerva's altar

    And begged forgiveness from the virgin goddess

    She scorned, though proud of her own virginity.

    When she refused, he ordered her exposed

    Outside a brothel in the corner of a square.

    But no one turned his head to look at her;

    Appalled, they glumly passed. [After this failure

    To defile the girl, a soldier was sent to kill her.]

    When Agnes saw the savage man approach

    With naked sword in hand, she gave a cry

    Of happiness. “A suitor such as this—

    Violent, rough, uncouth, and armed—

    Is lovelier to me by far than a youth

    Of smooth and pretty ways, whose soft embrace

    Would kill me with the loss of chastity.

    This soldier, I confess, has won my maiden heart!”

    He gave his sword one swing, and she lost her head.

    Prudentius, Crowns of Martyrdom 14, selections

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