Walking through its cells and holding pens, seating areas, and colonnades, it is still easy to imagine the imposing building thronged with thousands of spectators cheering on the gladiators, the sweat and tension in the galleries beneath the arena and the howls and roars of caged wild beasts.
Dominating the skyline of the otherwise unremarkable Tunisian town of El Djem is one of the finest relics of the Roman age, an amphitheatre only slightly smaller than Rome's famous Colosseum and in a much better state of preservation.
Located about 210 kilometres south of the city of Tunis, the town of El Djem was founded by the Romans in 46 BC and named Thysdrus. Although it was not destined to become the greatest of cities, the locally produced olive oil was widely held to be the best in the empire and, over time, it became a bustling, wealthy port and trading hub.
With profit came ever more ambitious building works, of which the amphitheatre was the greatest, and probably the last.
Building began early in the 3rd century AD and, when finished, the amphitheatre was 148 metres long and 122 metres wide. Constructed of red limestone quarried from Salakta, 30 kilometres away, the three tiers of its seating areas rise to 35 metres with the highest tier featuring shaded "rooms" for the most important and wealthy guests.
It is estimated that at full capacity it could have held around 35,000 spectators, or roughly the entire permanent population of the town at that time (much of the audience would have been made up of visiting dignitaries, soldiers, sailors, and merchants).
The arena itself is 65 metres by 39 metres, and beneath are two basement galleries where the gladiators and various animals would have been kept. It is still possible to see the holes in the arena floor through which the beasts would have been raised to do combat.
Some archeologists believe that the amphitheatre was never completely finished. Under the rule of a proconsul (governor) called Gordian, the town became involved in a revolt against Rome in 238 AD, probably instigated by a new tax on olive oil.
Gordian was proclaimed "emperor" but his rule was short-lived. Within weeks he was dead and Thysdrus declined quickly. Nevertheless, its magnificent amphitheatre has survived the following centuries remarkably well. Despite being plundered of its stone for various building projects and coming under attack during World War II when German soldiers used it as a refuge, it is amazingly intact and remains a magnificent example of Imperial Roman Architecture.