Hidden Rome: The Stadium Underneath Piazza Navona

Go to Rome’s Piazza Navona on a Saturday night in July and you’ll find yourself having to pick your way through the crowds of locals and tourists, some standing in large semi-circles watching a unicyclist juggle with fire or a guitarist play his Led Zeppelin back catalogue, others perusing the displays of gaudy paintings on wooden easels and trying to avoid buying a rose from street sellers. It’s one of the main hubs of Roman night life: the area’s bars and granita vendors are usually thronged and groups of barefoot college students jostle with each other around Bernini‘s famous Fountain of the Four Rivers. It’s a lively place to take an evening stroll and there is enough people-watching to last several beers at one of the piazza’s pricey cafs.

Piazza Navona has long-been a hive of Roman social life and entertainment. It’s popularly believed that its name derives from its shape (Navona = big ship). And the square’s association with water doesn’t end there: strange though it sounds, between 1652 and 1866 the piazza was regularly flooded and used as a centre for water games by the Pamphilj family.

The square’s importance as a centre of spectacle and popular entertainment actually goes back much further than the Renaissance, but to find out about that you have to avoid the crowds and find a small doorway to the north of the square in piazza di Tor Sanguigna. Passers-by can look down over the railings and see part of the northern entrance to the Stadium of Domitian about eight metres below street level and this is about as much as you can usually see of the structure that was built shortly after the Colosseum and once rivalled it as one of ancient Rome’s premier entertainment venues. But as part of Rome’s summer initiatives to open up archaeological sites usually closed to the public, guided tours are taking place at weekends during July, August and September (see below for more info).

The stadium was built in 86 AD, less than a decade after the Colosseum, during the reign of Domitian the third Flavian emperor, second son of Vespasian. It was built on the Campus Martius, near to the thermal baths of Nero. Made of travertine stone, it is the only example of a stone stadium from the Roman empire. It was 275m long and 106m wide and was to form a blueprint for Piazza Navona, which follows the shape of Domitian’s stadium beneath it. The piazza is superimposed over the ancient racetrack, while the stadium’s terraces form the foundations for the baroque buildings that surround the modern piazza.

Domitian built it as a gift to the people and as a venue for a sporting event called the Certamen Capitolino Iovi, dedicated to the Capitoline Jupiter, which included games inspired by the Greek Olympics, such as wrestling (pancrazio), discus, javelin, horse racing and athletics (the word stadium comes from the Greek unit of measurement, stadion, which was the standard distance for short sprints). The stadium was known as the Circus Agonalis (meaning competitive games circus) and it is more likely that the modern piazza’s name is actually a derivation of this (from ‘in agone’ to ‘navone’, to ‘navona’).

Unfortunately, Domitian‘s love of Greek games was not shared by the plebeians of Rome. When he built his stadium, the cultured, educated emperor simply hadn’t figured on the people’s taste for violence, blood and sensation. By the latter half of the third century AD, his grand 30,000-seater stadium fell into disuse, while the Colosseum, with a crowd capacity of 70,000, continued to attract the hoards with its cruel gladiatorial battles, wild animals and condemned victims forced to fight for their lives. (The ancient venues don’t compare badly with super-modern stadiums such as 90,000-seater Wembley in north London or the Millennium Stadium in Wales which seats 74,500).

Today the only part still visible of Domitian’s stadium is the north curve. As with modern stadiums, the terraces were divided and each section had its own entrance. Part of the steps up onto the terraces can still be seen, as well as the supporting walls with their niches that once contained statues. The stadium was built with two levels of arches (it was slightly lower than the Colosseum) and would have been embellished with hundreds of statues of athletes in each niche. Most of these statues have been lost in time, but one example (just the torso remains) is thought to be the work of the famous Greek sculptor Praxiteles and depicts the god Apollo.

Opening Times

The entrance to the Stadium of Domitian (Stadio di Domiziano) is at Piazza di Tor Sanquigna, 13.
Open on the following dates at 21:00 and 22:00:
Fridays: 17, 24, 31 July; 7, 21, 28 August; 4, 11 September.
Saturdays: 18 July; 1, 8, 29 August; 5, 12 September.
Sundays: 26 July; 23 August.
Entrance is 5, free for children up to 6 years old.
For further information contact: Cooperativa Archeologia +39 06 4893 0393

Other summer initiatives include:
The Moon on the Colosseum – Flavian Nights
Summer Archaeology (opening of the House of Gryphons and Livia’s House in the Roman Forum)