The Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls

The Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls, in French “Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules”, was an early first century amphitheatre in Lyon.

The amphitheater of the Three-Gauls is located on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse. Lyon was once the Roman city of Lugdunum. Whilst the city was founded in approximately 44 BC, the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls is thought to have been constructed in around 19 AD. The monument was dedicated to the cult of Rome and Augustus, Emperor under which Lugdunum became Capital of the Gauls. The reference to the “Three Gauls” relates to Gaul’s main three provinces at the time, Belgica, Aquitania and Lugdunensis, and of which Lugdunum was the capital.

Intended to host the imperial games in the city, the amphitheatre was a hub of Roman activity. But it is especially for the martyrdom of the first Christians which occured in the course of the campaign of persecution, that the place is known, since according to some historians it is here that the killings of St. Blandine and St. Pothin took place.

The monument was extended a century later at Hadrian's request, making it possible to host up to 20,000 people.

In 1961, it was classified as a historic monument.

Only a fraction of the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls remains, the rest seemingly swallowed up by modern roads and buildings which surround it. What does remain includes a section of its walls, its northern gate and some of its foundations.

Roman amphitheatres are large, circular or oval open-air venues with raised seating, built by the ancient Romans. They were used for events such as gladiator combats, venationes (animal slayings) and executions. About 230 Roman amphitheatres have been found across the area of the Roman Empire. Early amphitheatres date from the republican period, though they became more monumental during the imperial era.

Amphitheatres are distinguished from circuses, hippodromes, which were usually rectangular and built mainly for racing events and stadia, built for athletics. But several of these terms have at times been used for one and the same venue. The word amphitheatrum means "theatre all around". Thus an amphitheatre is distinguished from the traditional semicircular Roman theatres by being circular or oval in shape.

The Roman amphitheatre consists of three main parts; the cavea, the arena, and the vomitorium. The seating area is called the cavea (enclosure). Cavea is formed of concentric rows of stands which are either supported by arches built into the framework of the building, or simply dug out of the hillside or built up using excavated material extracted during the excavation of the fighting area (the arena).

The cavea is traditionally organised in three horizontal sections, corresponding to the social class of the spectators:

The ima cavea is the lowest part of the cavea and the one directly surrounding the arena. It was usually reserved for the upper echelons of society.
The media cavea directly follows the ima cavea and was open to the general public, though mostly reserved for men.
The summa cavea is the highest section and was usually open to women and children.

Similarly the front row was called the prima cavea and the last row was called the cavea ultima. The cavea was further divided vertically into cunei. A cuneus (Latin for wedge; plural, cunei) was a wedge-shaped division separated by the scalae or stairways.

The arched entrances both at the arena level and within the cavea are called the vomitoria (Latin "to spew forth"; singular, vomitorium) and were designed to allow rapid dispersal of large crowds.

Early amphitheatres

It is uncertain when and where the first amphitheatres were built. There are records attesting to temporary wooden amphitheatres built in the Forum Romanum for gladiatorial games from the second century BC onwards, and these may be the origin of the architectural form later expressed in stone.  In his Historia Naturalis, Pliny the Elder claims that the amphitheatre was invented during the spectacles of Gaius Scribonius Curio in 53 BC, where two wooden semicircular theatres were rotated towards each other to form one circular amphitheatre, while spectators were still seated in the two halves.  But while this may be the origin of the architectural term amphitheatrum, it cannot be the origin of the architectural concept, since earlier stone amphitheatres, known as spectacula or amphitheatera, have been found.

According to Jean-Claude Golvin, the earliest known stone amphitheatres are found in Campania, at Capua, Cumae and Liternum, where such venues were built towards the end of the second century BC.  The next-oldest amphitheatre known, as well as one of the best-researched, is the amphitheatre of Pompeii, securely dated to be built shortly after 70 BC.  There are relatively few other known early amphitheatres: those at Abella, Teanum and Cales date to the Sullan era (until 78 BC), those at Puteoli and Telesia from the Augustan (27 BC–14 AD). The amphitheatres at Sutrium, Carmo and Ucubi were built around 40–30 BC, those at Antioch and Phaestum (Phase I) in the mid-first century BC.

Imperial era

In the Imperial era, amphitheatres became an integral part of the Roman urban landscape. As cities vied with each other for preeminence in civic buildings, amphitheatres became ever more monumental in scale and ornamentation. Imperial amphitheatres comfortably accommodated 40,000–60,000 spectators, or up to 100,000 in the largest venues, and were only outdone by the hippodromes in seating capacity. They featured multi-storeyed, arcaded façades and were elaborately decorated with marble and stucco cladding, statues and reliefs, or even partially made of marble.

As the Empire grew, most of its amphitheatres remained concentrated in the Latin-speaking western half, while in the East spectacles were mostly staged in other venues such as theatres or stadia.  In the West, Amphitheatres were built as part of Romanization efforts by providing a focus for the Imperial cult, by private benefactors, or by the local government of colonies or provincial capitals as an attribute of Roman municipal status. A large number of modest arenas were built in Roman North Africa, where most of the architectural expertise was provided by the Roman military.


The late Empire and the decline of the amphitheatre tradition

Several factors caused the eventual extinction of the tradition of amphitheatre construction. Gladiatorial munera began to disappear from public life during the 3rd century, due to economic pressure, philosophical disapproval and opposition by the increasingly predominant new religion of Christianity, whose adherents considered such games an abomination and a waste of money.  Spectacles involving animals, venationes, survived until the sixth century, but became costlier and rarer. The spread of Christianity also changed the patterns of public beneficence: where a pagan Roman would often have seen himself as a homo civicus, who gave benefits to the public in exchange for status and honor, a Christian would more often be a new type of citizen, a homo interior, who sought to attain a divine reward in heaven and directed his beneficence to alms and charity rather than public works and games.

These changes meant that there were ever fewer uses for amphitheatres, and ever fewer funds to build and maintain them. The last construction of an amphitheatre is recorded in 523 in Pavia under Theoderic.  After the end of venationes, the only remaining purpose of amphitheatres was to be the place of public executions and punishments. After even this purpose dwindled away, many amphitheatres fell into disrepair and were gradually dismantled for building material, razed to make way for newer buildings, or vandalized.Others were transformed into fortifications or fortified settlements, such as at Leptis Magna, Sabratha, Arles and Pola, and in the 12th century the Frangipani fortified even the Colosseum to help them in Roman power struggles. Yet others were repurposed as Christian churches, including the arenas at Arles, Nîmes, Tarragona and Salona; the Colosseum became a Christian shrine in the 18th century.

Of the surviving amphitheatres, many are now protected as historic monuments; several are tourist attractions.

First building

The amphitheatre was built at the foot of the La Croix-Rousse hill at what was then the confluence of the Rhône and Saône . An inscription on one of the blocks found in 1957 (Inscription latine des Trois Gaules) connects the amphitheatre with the sanctuary of Rome and Augustus and allows its origins to be identified.

The figures who financed its construction belonged to an old Gallic family in Saintes which had held Roman citizenship since the Gallic Wars and also built the arch of Germanicus there.

Other stones bear the names of Gallic tribes (Arverni, Tricasses, Bituriges) confirming its identification as federal sanctuary.

Excavations have revealed a basement of three elliptical walls linked by cross-walls and a channel surrounding the oval central arena. The arena was slightly sloped, with the building's south part supported by a now-vanished vault. The arena's dimensions are 67.6m by 42m, analogous to those at the arenas at Nîmes and Arles, though with a smaller number of rows of seats (probably only 4 levels) that gave the amphitheatre external dimensions of 81m by 60m.

This phase of the amphitheatre housed games which accompanied the imperial cult, with its low capacity (1,800 seats) being enough for delegations from the 60 Gallic tribes.



The amphitheatre was expanded at the start of the 2nd century, according to J. Guey by C. Julius Celse, procurator of Gallia Lugdunensis from 130 to 136. Two galleries were added around the old amphitheatre, raising its width from 25 metres to 105 metres and its capacity to about 20,000 seats (though this was still modest compared to the amphitheatres at Nîmes and Arles). In so doing it made it a building open to the whole population of Lugdunum and its environs. Historians identify the building as the site of Saints Blandina and Pothinus's martyrdoms as part of the persecution in 177 and a post in the middle of the arena commemorates this event and Pope John-Paul II's visit to Lyon in 1986.



A 16th century plan of Lyon indicates the survival to that date of some arches (probably substructures) and a hollow (the arena) known as "Corbeille de la Déserte". The first excavations between 1818 and 1820 revealed the perimeter of the arena before re-covering it, allowing urban expansion in the 19th century to destroy the south half of the amphitheatre remains. From 1956 serious excavations were begun, followed by 1966/67, 1971/72 and 1976/78 campaigns, leading to the exposed remains on show today. The modest remains which had survived (the supporting walls for half of the amphitheatre's superstructure) were integrated into the Jardin des Plantes and opened to visitors.

The martyr

It was at this amphitheater that the first Christian martyrs in Lyon were thrown to the lions in 177 AD. The most famous martyr to suffer here, as mentioned above, was St Blandine. According to tradition, Blandine was thrown into the amphitheatre with the lions, but they refused to harm her. The lions were replaced by a bull, which also refused to harm her. Finally, Roman soldiers took matters into their own hands and killed St Blandine with their swords.


Amphiteatres and gladiators


Very few people at the time found the deadly combat of gladiator immoral. And the gladiators' own epitaphs mention their profession without shame, apology, or resentment. So who were these gladiators, and what was their role in Roman society?

Most gladiators were slaves. They were subjected to a rigorous training, fed on a high-energy diet, and given expert medical attention. Hence they were an expensive investment, not to be despatched lightly. For a gladiator who died in combat the trainer (lanista) might charge the sponsor of the fatal spectacle up to a hundred times the cost of a gladiator who survived. Hence it was very much more costly for sponsors to supply the bloodshed that audiences often demanded, although if they did allow a gladiator to be slain it was seen as an indication of their generosity.


Criticism and popularity

Both pagan philosophers and Christian fathers scorned the arena. But they objected most vociferously not to the brutality of the displays, but to the loss of self-control that the hype generated among the spectators.

Gladiatorial displays were red-letter days in communities throughout the empire. The whole spectrum of local society was represented, seated strictly according to status. The combatants paraded beforehand, fully armed. Exotic animals might be displayed and hunted in the early part of the programme, and prisoners might be executed, by exposure to the beasts.

As the combat between each pair of gladiators reached its climax, the band played to a frenzied crescendo. The combatants (as we know from mosaics, and from surviving skeletons) aimed at the major arteries under the arm and behind the knee, and tried to batter their opponent's skull. The thirst for thrills even resulted in a particular rarity, female gladiators.

Above all, gladiatorial combat was a display of nerve and skill. The gladiator, worthless in terms of civic status, was paradoxically capable of heroism. Under the Roman empire, his job was one of the threads that bound together the entire social and economic fabric of the Roman world.

The Burdeau Fountain


This monument was built in 1903 in memory of  Auguste Burdeau.

Auguste-Laurent Burdeau (10 September 1851 – 12 December 1894) was a French politician.

He was the son of a laborer at Lyon. Forced from childhood to earn his own living, he was enabled to secure an education by bursarships at the Lycée at Lyon and at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris.

In 1870 he was at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, but enlisted in the army, and was wounded and made prisoner in 1871 (during the Franco-Prussian War). In 1874 he became professor of philosophy, and translated several works of Herbert Spencer and of Schopenhauer into French.

His extraordinary aptitude for work secured for him the position of chef de cabinet under Paul Bert, the minister of education, in 1880s. In 1885 he was elected deputy for the département of the Rhône, and distinguished himself in financial questions. He was several times minister, and became minister of finance in the cabinet of Casimir-Perier (from 3 November 1893 to 22 May 1894). On the 5 July 1894 he was elected president of the chamber of deputies. He died on the 12 December 1894, said to be worn out with overwork.

His bronze statue on the fountain was removed during the World War II.

It represented him standing as an orator in the room with his left hand leaning on the desk. Two lions frame this monument, and a mouth feeds the fountain. On the back, also missing, there was a bronze woman which inscribed his main works.