In the year 27, around the time Emperor Tiberius decided to leave Rome in order to spend the rest of his reign in isolation, an enterprising former-slave by the name of Atilius launched his plan to make a fortune by profiting from the insatiable Roman appetite for entertainment. The infamous result of his scheme was notable enough to be mentioned by the historians, Tacitus (c. 56-117) and Suetonius (c. 69-122).
Atilius’ plan, according to Tacitus, was to make as much money as he could by entertaining the Roman population, while at the same time minimizing his business expenses as much as possible. With this in mind, he began constructing an amphitheatre in the town of Fidenae, located a short distance to the north of Rome. Atilius obtained a full docket of gladiators and pressured for the arena to be completed with utmost speed so that he could start making money.
In this greedy frame of mind, Atilius encouraged his builders to cut corners, exchanging safety for haste. For his first error, he did not lay a sturdy foundation for his amphitheatre. Instead, he started building on uncertain ground. The amphitheatre, itself, was built of wood—which was not uncommon—but, once again, speed of construction was emphasized over quality. Despite the questionable assembly of the haphazardly made structure, Atilius’ amphitheatre must have looked convincingly presentable once it was completed. After running a laudable advertising campaign, his opening gladiatorial show managed to attract the attention of tens-of-thousands of spectators.
The Roman population must have either been ignorant of Atilius’ construction methods, or simply did not care, for on the day of the grand opening, endless masses of Romans arrived at Fidenae to see the show. Thousands upon thousands of spectators shuffled into the rickety wooden amphitheatre to find their splintery seats. Just as he had dreamed, Atilius achieved a full house on his opening day, packing men, women and children into his cheaply made venue. There is no telling how long the show actually lasted. Hopefully, the unsuspecting onlookers received some enjoyment before tragedy brought the gladiatorial games crashing to an end.
Although Atilius’ amphitheatre had enough enticing aesthetics to lure tens of thousands of people inside, it was not adequately built to handle the weight of so many people. Eventually, the creaking of the wood gave way to loud cracks, and the cheering of the crowds turned into screams. While the structure was fully packed, the amphitheatre suffered a total collapse, crushing and trapping thousands of people in the rubble. Many of those who did not die instantly during the collapse, later succumbed to their injuries during the days it took to excavate the survivors from the debris. The casualties resulting from the incident were enormous—Suetonius claimed 20,000 people died in the collapse, but Tacitus raised the number to 50,000. Ironically, Atilius was not among the injured.
According to Tacitus, the incident inspired an outpouring of good will from the leading Roman citizens. The wealthy were said to have opened up their villas to provide shelter to the injured. Medical aid, as well as food and drink, was also donated in great abundance to those affected by the catastrophe. The Roman Senate, too, did their part in the aftermath of the tragedy. They hunted down Atilius and sentenced him to exile. Finally, to prevent future deaths, the Senate also imposed heavy regulations on the entertainment industry.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Roman amphitheatre painted by Viviano Codazzi (1604-1670) and Domenico Gargiulo (1609-1675), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.