Some 15 miles north of Italy is the town of Capua, situated in a bend of the slow flowing River Volturno. The star attraction is the local Roman amphitheatre. Now in a poor state of repair, at its height it was the second largest amphitheater in Italy after the Colosseum. 60,000 people could watch the games here in four massive 40m-high stories. The amphitheatre itself is cheap to get into and well worth a wander around.
You can also access the tunnels below the main arena for an atmospheric glimpse into the inner workings of the games. Capua, known for its wealth and luxury, was also a hub of a number of gladiator schools, including one where the famous Thracian Spartacus trained. You can see the remains of the older, smaller amphitheatre where he fought and there is a small gladiator museum nearby.
Fighting in the ring was a bloody business, as described by Lord Byron in his poem ‘The Coliseum‘ from “Childe Harold”:
He leans upon his hand,—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low,—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now
The arena swims around him,—he is gone,
Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hailed the wretch who won.
He heard it, but he heeded not,—his eyes
Were with his heart, and that was far away.
He recked not of the life he lost, nor prize;
But where his rude hut by the Danube lay,
There were his young barbarians all at play,
There was their Dacian mother,—he, their sire,
Butchered to make a Roman holiday!—
All this rushed with his blood.—Shall he expire,
And unavenged? Arise, ye Goths, and glut your ire!
As Mary Beard explains in her book Pompeii, gladiators had about a 1 in 6 chance of dying during a game. The life of gladiators was short and their training harsh.
In 73 BC, at the Capuan school, a force of about 70 men including Spartacus seized kitchen implements, fought their way free from their captivity, and seized several wagons of gladiatorial weapons and armour. They escaped into the hills, recruiting more slaves to their revolt until their rebel army grew to over 100,000. The revolt lasted for two bloody years before a climatic battle against the massed legions of Crassus in Calabria. With their comrades dead, the final 6,000 captured slaves were crucified along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua as imagined in this painting by the Russian artist Fedor Bronnikov:
Spartacus died in combat and avoided this cruel fate. His body was not recovered. The Spartacus rebellion was the last of the major slave insurrections that Rome would experience. But gladiatorial combat in the arena continue for almost 500 years. More on Spartacus here.