Removing the Dust of Time off the Stadium of Domitian

Featured in the 1964 Sophia Loren film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Piazza Navona is one of the popular attractions in Rome. However, in addition to featuring monuments such as the Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi), the city square is famous for being home of the Circus Angonalis, or Stadium of Domitian (Stadio di Domiziano).

StadioDomizianoWPDocDownsized2473The Structure of the Stadium

Commissioned in 80 AD by the Emperor Titus Flavius Domitianus, Stadium of Domitian was constructed towards the north of the Field of Mars (Campus Martius).  The structure was to be part of an imperial program to rebuild the buildings damaged by a fire in 80 AD and a new venue for competitive athletic contests. Designed with the Colosseum in mind, the stadium could seat between 15,000 and 20,000 individuals. Moreover, its floor plan featured the same elongated, U-shape of the Circus Maximus.

However, it was smaller in size at approximately 200-250 meters in length, 100 ft. above ground in height and 15 ft. in inner perimeter. This is why it was the perfect venue for foot races. Despite its smaller size though, the substructures and support frames were built with robustness in mind. The Romans used brick and concrete, which are cheap, durable and fire-retardant materials, but had the blocks surrounded by marble.

The Purpose of Stadium of Domitian over the Years

Once opened to the public, it was solely for athletic contests. However, between 217 and 228 AD, it hosted gladiator shows since the fire damaged the Colosseum. In addition, its arcades were used as brothels. Legend has it that Early Christian Saint Agnes was martyred in or near one of the arcades during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. This is why Pope Innocent X decided to rebuild the Sant’Agnese in Agone church there later in the 17th century.

Back to the imperial and post-imperial eras, the economic and political crises turned the stadium into a more public place. The poor were given living quarters in the arcades. However, the barbarian invasions drove the dense population away from the city towards the Field of Mars. Meanwhile, the stadium stood strong until the Renaissance era, which is when it was stripped down for building materials.

Stadio di Domiziano’s Legacy

The Piazza Navona was built on the stadium’s site during the last years of the 15th century. Pope Innocent X was especially interested in the area as it faced his family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili. As a result, he transformed the area with Baroque Roman architecture and art. Till this day, the sculptural and architectural creations he supported, such as the Obelisk of Domitian and Sant’Agnese in Agone, can be visited and explored.

While the current attractions are more artistic in nature, visitors can feel the glory of their surroundings as they walk across what was once Rome’s pride and glory: Circus Angonalis.


Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.