Amphitheatre of El Jem

The monument of El Jem is one of the most accomplished examples of Roman amphitheatre construction, approximating to the status of the Colosseum in Rome. The construction of such a polished and complex building, located in a distant province and destined for popular attractions, is symbolic of a certain type of Roman imperial propaganda.

Classical Thysdrus (today El Jem) is now no more than an overgrown agricultural village, 60 km south of Sousse. Nonetheless, it houses the impressive ruins of the largest amphitheatre in North Africa, built during the 1st half of the 3rd century. It most probably accommodated up to 60,000 spectators. Elliptical in form, it is built from large stone blocks and probably comprised four floors. Built on level terrain, rather than into the flanks of a hillside, and supported by a complex vaulting system, it illustrates the grandeur and extent of imperial Rome.

It is a complex building that is well preserved and little altered, one of the last surviving monuments of this type from the Roman world, 138 m long by 114 m wide. Underneath it run two passageways, in which animals, prisoners and gladiators were kept until the moment when they were brought up into the bright daylight to perform what was in most cases the last show of their lives.

Thysdrus prospered especially at the time of Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-38), when it became an important centre of olive oil manufacture. It is in good condition, like the Colosseum in Rome, but parts of its yellow stone walls were used to build the modern town. The construction started in 238 by Gordius I, who was declared Emperor of Rome here. The theatre was never completed, because of political rivalries and lack of funds within the Empire. Stones were quarried from a distance of 50km away, but even so most of the material was too soft to carve. There was no decent water supply available, and so naval battles were never staged in the arena. Later the amphitheatre served for centuries as a stronghold: it was the last Berber bastion against Arab invaders. Following the Roman period, the amphitheatre was used at various times as a citadel, which is the reason it was attacked twice by cannon fire.

Apart from the Roman amphitheatre, the sights of El Jem are still covered by sand. The modern city of El Jem is a sleepy place without much character, but the amphitheatre is massive, almost as large as the Colosseum in Rome. It is in fairly good condition: there is nothing missing which detracts from its grandeur. One area of the walls is gone, damages due to 17th-century ignorance, when dissidents hiding inside were driven out by the ruling Turks: a large hole was blown in the wall in order to uncover their hiding places.