Baiting Bears and Torturing Martyrs - The Amphitheatre in Birten / Xanten
The first legionary fort on the Fürstenberg hill near Xanten, known as Castra Vetera I, goes back to at least 12 BC when Drusus started his campaigns into Germania. Digs during the first third of the 20th century have shown a number of at least five forts that were built partly over each other, so that most traces of the older ones have been obscured. Moreover, the first forts had been constructed in half-timbered style with earth or timber/earth walls. Aerial surveys in the last years have rendered more traces of those. But the best-researched is the fort from Nero's time that later got destroyed during the Batavian rebellion in AD 70.
Amphitheatre Birten, entrance
After the war, the fort was rebuilt nearby as Vetera II, in a space now under the waters of the shifting Rhine. The various version of Vetera I lie under agricultural fields these days.
Vetera I had been a fort for two legions since the time of Germanicus (AD 14) if not earlier. As such it attracted a cannabae legionis
, but those civilian settlements have left even fewer traces and were never really researched, though aerial surveys show a regular Roman street pattern outside the Neronic fort, so one can conclude that the the place became a Roman-planned settlement at some point. There also seems to have been a 100 metres 'safety distance' between fort and settlement. View from above the spectator rows
The cannabae were destroyed during the Batavian rebellion as well, and when the fort was moved, a new settlement - later to become Colonia Ulpia Traiana - was created in the place that now hosts the Archaeological Park. The only remains of the old cannabae today is an amphitheatre in the village of Birten.
When we think of amphitheatres today, we have an image of the often stunning stone buildings that are spread all over the Roman Empire. But they started out much smaller: For a long time, the arenas for gladitorial combat were timber structures that would be dismantled again after the performances. But some of those collapsed and killed people, so during the time of Caesar, the specatator rows more and more often were erected on firm ground, using natural slopes or earth and timber walls (like Augustean fortifications), and eventually developed into stone buildings which also allowed for much larger constructions.View from the arena to the entrance
Leginonaries got grumpy when they couldn't watcht the occasional gladiator fight or bear baiting (bear bones have been found in Birten), so it's no surprise that a large fort like Vetera would eventually get its own amphitheatre. It's an oval earthern structure of 98 x 84 metres; the arena proper measures 55.5 x 42.5 metres. The walls had originally been 8 metres high, and the theatre could hold 10.000 spectators. The seats once had been of wood, but now there are modern chairs on one side of the arena because the theatre is used for concerts and play performances today. It's a pretty place, surrounded by trees and deceivingly peaceful, considering its violent past.Another view from above
A reason the amphitheatre survived is its connection with the martyr St.Victor who is said to have been executed in the arena. Victor was a member of the Theban legion of legends and Christian historiography. It is said to have been a 3rd century legion entirely converting to Christian faith, which got decimated several times on the march through the Alpes, France and along the Rhine. Victor and some 300 of his men were the last ones to end that way - well, Xanten was the last place to kill them before they would have reached the sea. The legion became the collection bin for pretty much every saint along the way, most prominently among them St.Maurice (aka St.Mark).The reconstructed amphitheatre in the APX Xanten
I don't know why the connection was made between Victor and Birten in the Middle Ages; if he was indeed member of a Roman legion and executed for his faith somewhere near Xanten, the stone amphitheatre in the Colonia Ulpia Traiana would have been a more likely place. It was still in use at the time of Constantin the Great († AD 337), while Victor's martydom took place somewhat earlier. One explanatiion could be the fact that the veneration of St.Victor can be traced clearly only to the 8th century, and by then a transfer of the legend to the amphitheatre in Birten would be possible.Sources:
Norbert Hanel, Die Militärlager von Vetera I und ihre Lagersiedlingen, in:
M. Müller, H.-J. Schalling, N. Zieling (ed), Colonia Ulpia Traiana - Xanten und sein Umland in römischer Zeit. Mainz 2009, pp. 93-107