The Amphitheatre of El Jem is one of the largest Roman amphitheaters ever built. Indeed (depending on how you measure it) El Jem may be considered to be the third-largest ever, after the Colosseum in Rome and the destroyed amphitheater in Capua. Designed to seat a whopping crowd of 35,000 people, today El Jem is both the largest and the best-preserved Roman amphitheater in Africa.
Located in the city of El Jem (or El Djem), which was known back in Roman times as Thysdrus, El Jem Amphitheatre was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage in 1979. Hence, if you make it to the town of El Jem, you’re probably not going to miss this dramatic attraction. Although far from secret, the backstory of the construction, and the modern-day misconceptions of El Jem Ampitheatre, are little known.
The precise construction date is debated, but most historians believe the building of El Jem Ampitheatre began in the year 238. Not exactly an auspicious year for the Roman Empire, 238 came to be known historically as the “Year of the Six Emperors.” In just one year, six different people were proclaimed Emperors of Rome.
Locally, the year 238 was particularly tumultuous, as it included a revolt by the population of Thysdrus (El Jem), who opposed the enormous taxation amounts being levied by the Emperor Maximinius’s local procurator. As with all good taxation revolts, riots ensued, and the procurator was assassinated. However, even the assassination wasn’t enough to satisfy the locals, and they pleaded for a new ruler of the Roman Empire.
Soon after the North African uprising, Goridan the First was appointed Emperor, along with Goridan the Second, his son, to co-serve as Roman leaders. Although their rule was brief—they only ruled for about 20 days—it was long enough to start the construction of the imposing amphitheater in El Jem.
In more contemporary times, perhaps it’s the enormous size and uniqueness of the El Jem Amiptheatre that leads to many misattributions (on behalf of both movie fans and local guides). Some people say the Oscar-winning movie Gladiator was filmed here (it wasn’t, a fake “Colosseum” was built on the relatively nearby island nation of Malta). There are also many attributions to the Monty Python film Life of Brian being filmed at this location. But though Monty Python did film in Tunisia, they used the Roman theater in Carthage near the capital city of Tunis.
Know Before You Go
The El Jem Amphitheatre is located in the middle of the city of El Jem, and is difficult to miss. However, a nice approach is from the southeast corner, via Rue Ali Belhareth. Stop for a tea or coffee across the street, and marvel at the exterior before venturing inside.