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Largest construction disaster of ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The Amphitheater in Pula Croatia
Amphitheater in Pula, Croatia

The Romans left behind many wonderful buildings, many of them have survived to this day in a better or worse condition. Amphitheatres, where crowds of people gathered to see gladiatorial battles, enjoyed great popularity among the Romans. Unfortunately, one of them resulted in a huge tragedy as a result of miserliness, which resulted in a number of deaths compared to the losses of Roman legions in the battle of the Teutoburg Forest 9 CE.

Today, we can admire the remains and ruins of stone arenas, but in the cities of the empire also built amphitheatres built of wood, which, however, over time were supplanted by the former. One such construction was erected in Fidana, 8 kilometres north of Rome, wherein 27 CE became the site of the largest stadium crash in the history of Rome. The course of the whole event was described by the Roman historian Tacitus in his Annals, where he mentions Attilius – probably an entrepreneur from a family of liberators who wanted to organize gladiator games. To this end, he undertook the construction of a wooden amphitheatre, but he was very skimpy and saved on materials for its construction. He did not build foundations on stable ground or strengthen the above-ground part of the structure with solid rafters. According to Tacitus, he did so because he did not do it with excess money or ambition, but for the greatest greedy gain.

When construction was completed, gladiator fights were organized, crowds of spectators filled the arena to the last place. Unfortunately, under the pressure of the filled stands, the wooden structure did not last and collapsed partly inwards and partly outside, crushing and burying a lot of people both in the stadium itself and in the shopping arcade around it. Those who were killed immediately died relatively quickly and painlessly. Much worse fate happened to those who were covered with building elements or had crushed or torn out limbs suffering terrible suffering. Many of them probably died only a few days after these events. Tacitus says that the number of victims killed and mutilated was about 50,000. In turn, another historian Suetonius in The Lives of the Caesars reported that only the number of fatalities alone amounted to over 20,000 people. This is comparable to the losses of Roman legions in a bloody battle in the Teutoburg Forest where 25,000 to 30,000 legionaries were killed.

After these events, the Roman Senate decided that the organization of gladiator games can only be dealt with by people whose assets are at least 400,000 sestertii, and that from now on the amphitheatre can only be built on land whose stability has been previously tested. The perpetrator of the entire event, Attyliusz, was banished and it is not known how his fate went on. As you can see, saving on building materials, and thus on safety did not pay him, he was remembered as guilty of the deaths of thousands of people disgracing himself.

Author: Bartosz Kareciński (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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