El Djem: The Colosseum in Rome has a twin sister in Tunisia and she’s exquisite

Comparing siblings is always a mean thing to do, but I just can’t help it. Did you know that the Colosseum in Rome has an attractive slightly younger sister? She’s a free-standing, solidly-built stone wonder. A bit more exotic and set up in Tunisia, skirting the golden Sahara fringed in olive groves. She’s positively stunning, towering over the town of El Djem edged with cactus fields and grazing camels.

Why didn’t we ever hear about this Roman wonder?

Well, it’s complicated.

Like many sisters, the Roman Empire had its rivals. This Roman battle was long and complicated. You’ve probably heard of it: the Roman/Carthaginian (Punic) Wars: In the end, Carthage (the Punic Republic) lost.

That’s when the rubric changed: Invaders moved in, locations were renamed and buildings were erected.

Photo by Alice Verberne

Changing names and changing hands

As a matter of fact: The whole country where this colosseum is located was given a new identification, it went from “the Punic Republic” to “Africa.” Around this time, the Romans built this colosseum, the largest in North Africa, located 130 miles south of Carthage in the ancient Roman town of Thysdrus (pronounced This-druss).

El Djem has managed to hold up better than her older sister in Rome. The older colosseum had a harder time in the big city, where she lost two thirds of her structure through neglect, pillaging and earthquakes. The younger one in El Djem managed to avoid these troubles since she’s located in a smaller town about 130 miles from Carthage.

Photo by Alice Verberne

The Colosseum of El Djem could hold 35,000 spectators, 10,000 more people than the entire population of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Fun fact: The remains of 230 amphitheaters exist from the Roman Empire. Three of the Top 10 are located in the tiny country of Tunisia. All are UNESCO World Heritage sites (El Djem, Carthage and Leptis Magna).

El Djem once had a population of over 30,000 due to the fact that this Punic city sided with Rome and when Carthage fell, the citizens were rewarded with building projects to include the arena. It is an interesting aside that modern-day Tunisia was the first place to be given the name Africa before the continent of Africa itself.

Humans and animals suffered

Then the Romans lost and the renaming practice happened again. Thysdrus became El Djem in Tunisia. Once the Colosseum at El Djem was finished, it was immediately put to use entertaining the masses with performances, executions and exotic animal demonstrations.

It’s too bad we didn’t have the World Wildlife Fund back in 200 AD, because the Romans decimated the North African elephant, ostrich and large cat populations. Artwork preserved in their museum illustrates, in riveting detail, the tormented expressions of dejected animals. All for the Glory (or was that gory) of Ancient Rome.

Too bad we can’t go back in time and deploy an army of PETA people on those folks.

But cruelty to animals wasn’t the preeminent crowd-pleaser. It was the potential battle to death – the gladiator games. “Gladiator” means “swordsman” in Latin. Tunisians will tell you that the Ridley Scott film “Gladiator” starring Russell Crowe was made here. Some say it was used only for CGI. What we know for sure is that real gladiators did some intense fighting in this pit.

Proof of their valor is enumerated in detail. It’s all illustrated on what used to be wall and floor surfacing of Roman buildings. These images show that the most unfortunate were the prisoners. The Romans decorated their homes and public spaces with a highly durable covering composed of tiny cubed stones called “tessera.” They are like a super-mini version of tiling placed in grout, graphically preserving the fate of those unfortunate victims being served as cat food in this very arena.

I could not stop myself from reconstructing a bizarre scene in my own mind of the event: A crowd of 30,000 stomps to the beat of “We Will Rock You” while martyrs anticipate their lurid dissolution.

Taxed to death

Who are these doomed victims at the mercy of the perverse Roman entertainment business: war hostages, scapegoats, Christians? Could they have been wealthy young aristocrats singled out by the tax collectors under the Roman Emperor Thrax?

Thrax’s tax collectors squeezed an unbelievable amount of graft from the citizens of Thysdrus. His functionaries even faked charges against wealthy townspeople, literally taxing them to death. Here again, it gets complicated. It was a tough time known as the “Crisis of the Third Century”. Leadership had “changed hands” several times. As a matter of fact, it’s a historical exclamation point in Roman history.

The amount of emperors who were assassinated across the empire would make your hair curl. More than 20 emperors rose and fell in the 50 years between 235-284 AD! That’s a 2.5 year lifespan. Naturally, a few of those rulers had no scruples. The unfortunate citizens paid the price – in crippling taxes (or death).

Probably right there in the arena.

In those days, citizens of the Roman republic were each expected to take an active role in governing – so
(drumroll) the 50,000 inhabitants rioted. The situation ended with the death of the tax collector. It’s just a fantasy of mine, but I wonder if it might just be Thrax’s flunkies in the pit being chased by large cats?

Nope, it probably was the citizens since Thrax managed to quell the uprising. It’s not unlike the scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” (Which, by the way, was shot on location here).

Today the amphitheater hosts a much more charitable type of entertainment, a music festival. Every year in July and August the International Festival of Symphonic Music performs concerts for contemporary spectators. I wonder if they ever perform “Now We Are Free,” the theme song from “Gladiator”? I can imagine the deep resonate sound reverberating through the underground corridors.

But on this day, all that surrounds this sophisticated and complex structure is silence. A marvel of Roman engineering and tribute to those ancient connoisseurs of atrocity.

Read more about Alice’s expat life in France here.

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Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in France where she enjoys visiting former French speaking colonies and discussing history with the locals.


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