(Originally published by History Channel and edited by Amanda Onion.)
Ancient Greeks and Romans placed immense importance on the pageantry and competition of sport, transforming modest playing fields into a connected network of stadiums designed to honor the gods and affirm their power. The stadiums’ extraordinary designs have inspired new structures for thousands of years.
From the 1900s to 1920s, college football saw a massive increase in popularity, and ambitious architects followed Greek and Roman design in the construction of monumental stadiums that sprang up on college campuses across the country.
Here are five ancient stadiums and some of their enduring influences.
Amphitheater of Pompeii
Pompeii was a town replete with erotic art and gladiator matches that drew thousands of fans. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, volcanic ash preserved the oldest Roman stone amphitheater. The small oval arena interior was lush with thematic frescos “depicting wild beast hunts (such as a bear fighting a bull) and combat,” as Joanne Berry writes in The Complete Pompeii.
The exterior featured several peculiar trapezoid staircases, each supported by six arches, that led to the apex. According to Yale art historian Diana E. E. Kleiner, this staircase design was “never to be repeated” and there is “no other one like it in the history of Roman architecture.”
The Yale Bowl, opened in 1914, copied Pompeii’s amphitheater by excavating a giant earthen oval and building seats into the newly formed hills. According to Yale Alumni Magazine, engineers designed the field so “‘the minor axis points to the sun at 3 p.m. on November 15. Thus no football player would ever have to look into the sun when Yale plays its big games against Princeton and Harvard.’”
Located in the pulsating center of ancient Rome, the Colosseum was built on top of the former Emperor Nero’s ruined palace and opened in A.D. 80 with a series of anticipated games. It was inspired by the earlier and slightly smaller Amphitheater of Capua where the enslaved Spartacus started a revolt, triggering the Third Servile War.
The Colosseum’s brilliant design efficiently managed crowd flow with dozens of vomitoria, or openings, throughout the arena. Designated sections allowed elites to enter, exit and mingle in their own personal corridors. Along the ground level were sections for shops and stalls. The stadium even featured pipes, sometimes hidden in statues, that misted spectators with a perfume often made from saffron steeped in wine.
Before Ohio State opened its new horseshoe stadium in 1922, architect Howard Dwight Smith wrote about the Roman influences in his design. The massive upper deck that swept around the entire stadium exterior was borrowed directly from the Colosseum’s own top story with “its small, square windows and its engaged pilasters.” Additionally, Smith echoed the Pantheon with his famous coffered semi-dome entrance on the north end. The Ohio stadium does not, however, feature discrete perfumed misting.
Stadium of Delphi
The mystical site of Delphi, situated amidst a gorgeous mountain range, was the omphalos, or hub, of ancient Greek culture and centered around the cult of Apollo and a mysterious oracle. The Stadium of Delphi held footraces as part of the Pythian Games and, unlike the older and more prestigious Olympics, women were allowed to compete in some events.
Delphi’s “stone stadium is far superior to Olympia,” says Jeffrey Segrave, professor of exercise science at Skidmore College. “The seating at Delphi is quite remarkable—12 rows of seats, special seats for the dignitaries, all divided by stairways.” Compared to Olympia’s simple earth banks, “Delphi looks like a real athletic venue.”
When Stanford University planned its new stadium in 1921, they kept costs reasonable by creating an earthen bowl, but included a unique feature. One section of the bowl was broken up by an excavated gulley to accommodate a long track straightaway leading away from the bowl. Stanford boosters pointed out the resemblance to Delphi’s own design that plowed through the hillside.
The chariot races of Circus Maximus, the largest circus of all, held over 200,000 spectators in suspense as charioteers in team colors raced laps around a 2,000 foot-long sand track. All circuses consisted of the oblong racetrack with a long stone wall divider called a spina running down the center. The spina was lined with various monuments and statues, including an Egyptian obelisk—a tall, four-sided, monument capped with a pyramid. The towering obelisk illustrated Rome’s power and wide reach. Rome’s various circuses also hosted athletic events, gladiator matches and animal hunts.
In 1903, Harvard’s new concrete stadium opened as the largest collegiate stadium of its time. This was during an era when other schools had rickety wooden bleachers lining the field. The design resembled an ancient Roman circus and, thanks to Harvard’s influence on college football, others took notice. During the 1920s stadium boom, dozens of schools followed in Harvard’s footsteps.
As Michael Oriard writes in King Football, boosters and sportswriters imbued college football with “overblown classical allusion: football players as gladiators, the stadium as a Circus Maximus, contending teams as Greek and Persian legions.”
Panathenaic Stadium was originally opened by orator Lykourgos in 330 B.C. Then around A.D. 140, Herodes Atticus rebuilt it using white marble from the nearby Mount Penteli. The stadium was constructed in a natural ravine between two hills, and remains the only stadium built entirely out of marble. Like other ancient Greek stadiums, it centered around the stadion (also called the stade), a footrace that is the first Olympic event noted in written records.
The stadion was 600 Greek feet, but regional variations meant the actual track length slightly varied from stadium to stadium. One common length was approximately 185 meters and scholars have also cited 176 meters, which was a close match to the track straightaway at the Panathenaic and Delphi stadiums.
When Harvard built their stadium, the footprint measured approximately 185 meters while the stands ended after about 176 meters—an intentional match to the Panathenaic Stadium—as a way to connect college football to the great ancient stadiums of lore.