While exploring the site of the ancient city of Mastaura in western Turkey last summer, archaeologists discovered something remarkable. Partially buried in the earth and further obscured under trees and bushes, they were able to identify the unmistakable outline of a large circular amphitheater, built in the same distinctive shape as the famous Roman Colosseum.
Initial excavations quickly confirmed the truth. Hidden in an area now occupied by olive and fig trees, the archaeological team from Adnan Menderes University in Aydin, Turkey, had indeed found the remains of a replica of the Roman Colosseum, which had been built to house entertainment shows during a time when Anatolia (modern Turkey) was makingLike its renowned replica in the capital of the empire, the newly founded replica of the Colosseum would also have been the scene of bloody battles.
Surprisingly, the replica of the Colosseum was found largely intact, protected from decay and destruction by its earth cover and vegetation.
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The ruins of Roman amphitheatres have been found before on Turkish territory. But only traces of these ancient structures remain, due to natural erosive forces and the ravages of marauders.
Classical Roman arches found at the site of the replica of the Roman Colosseum in western Turkey.(Hurriyet Daily News)
The replica of the Roman Coliseum in Turkey
"There is no previous example of such an amphitheater in Anatolia and its immediate surroundings," said archaeologist Sedat Akkurnaz , the leader of the Mastaura excavation team. "It is the only example that has survived in this very solid form."
"Most of the amphitheater is under ground," he continued. "The sections under ground are very well preserved.It's solid as if it had just been built."
Searching the underground sections of the building, archaeologists found many structurally sound and well-preserved rooms that would have been occupied by gladiators, important guests, site administrators, and event organizers. The arched doorways and vaulted ceilings revealed an undeniable connection to the signature building style of Roman architects, whichset standards that loyal provincial authorities did their best to emulate.
Some of the many arches, classics of Roman architecture. (TurkiyeTurizm)
The circular design of the Mastaura amphitheater is relatively unique. Most Roman amphitheaters were built in a half-moon or semi-circular form, but it appears that the architects of this particular structure were eager to demonstrate their fidelity to the classical design principles established by the builders of the Colosseum in Rome in the first century CED.
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The dimensions of this long-lost building are quite impressive. It measures approximately 100 meters in diameter and features walls that are 15 meters high at its highest points. Although it is difficult to obtain precise calculations of seating capacity, Akkurnaz estimates that the amphitheater could have held between 15,000 and 20,000 people when it was fully packed. This is dwarfedby the 50,000 to 70,000-seat capacity of the Colosseum in Rome, but would have been perfectly suited to the less densely populated regions of Anatolia.
The Severan Dynasty and the impending decadence of Anatolia
Based on the stonework and masonry techniques used during construction, archaeologists concluded that the replica of the Colosseum had been built sometime during the reign of the Severan Dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire from 193 to 235 DEC.
At that time, the small town of Mastaura was part of the Asian province of Anatolia and would have been roughly equidistant between several larger cities in the region. Mastaura may have been designated as a sort of recreational center, where Anatolians could watch gladiatorial fights and attend plays or concerts at the local theater (the partially preserved remainsof the latter are located above ground and were identified long ago).
There is no telling how often this stadium was actually used after construction was completed. Presumably, expectations were high when the construction project was initially approved, since the province of Asia was relatively prosperous in the early third century. But after the last Severan emperor, Severus Alexander, was assassinated by his owntroops in 235, the entire Roman Empire entered a period of extreme crisis that was destined to have a profound impact on its holdings in Anatolia.
In the 50 years after Severus Alexander's death, 26 different men claimed the Emperor's throne. The crisis of legitimacy and consequent disorder that engulfed the Roman political system after the fall of the Severan Dynasty was both a cause and a symptom of the Crisis of the Third Century, which almost led to the permanent dissolution of the Empire.
The decadence of the Roman Empire and the replica of the Coliseum
The cascade of troubles that struck the Romans and Anatolians included barbarian invasions, civil war and unrest, peasant rebellions, and the Antonine plague of measles or smallpox that swept through Roman lands and left millions of corpses in its wake.
This confluence of factors, plus general political mismanagement, plunged the Empire into a prolonged economic depression that caused a great decline in the fortunes of the cities of Anatolia and the province of Asia in particular. This region of the Empire never again came close to matching its peak of prosperity, and in the fourth century it was divided into several smaller provinces.
The Mastaura amphitheatre was obviously built with the expectation that the good times would continue. Given the economic problems that plagued the region shortly after its completion, this large building may have remained empty and unused for much of the time, as the shows it was designed to host would have been too expensive for promoters with financial resourcesto sponsor. In the post-Severan era, economically challenged, this newly built structure may have been dismissed as waste and a sign of Roman decadence.
Another part of the ruins of the recently discovered replica of the Colosseum in Mastaura, Turkey.(Hurriyet Daily News)
Preservation work to continue in the coming months
During the remainder of 2021, the archaeologists who unearthed the Mastaura amphitheater will begin conservation and preservation work on its most vulnerable sections.
"There are cracks in the walls of the building and some masonry stones are falling down," Akkurnaz explained. "In April, we will first conserve the walls of the building, protecting the building from decay and deterioration."
After that process is complete, Akkurnaz and his team will launch a series of geophysical surveys at the site to gain more information about what the structure looks like underground.
In addition to the support they are receiving from the local government of the nearby town of Nazilli, the archaeologists are also cooperating closely with Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism on this important excavation project.