What Was the First 10,000+ Seat Sports Stadium or Theater Built After Roman Times?
Steve Sailer • November 9, 2019

How rich was the ancient Greco-Roman world?

▼One piece of evidence is their huge investment in entertainment venues. The Mediterranean region is full of the ruins of huge theaters and sports stadiums. The Colosseum in Rome, capacity around 50,000, is the most famous, but there are big venues all over the place, such as in Miletus, Asia Minor, that’s estimated to have held around 17,000 people.

Some ancient amphitheaters were just seats built into a hillside, but others, like Miletus, are basically the same design as modern stadiums, with spacious tunnels under the stands.

What was the first permanent entertainment facility that could seat at least 10,000 people built after the heyday of Rome and Constantinople?

I’m kind of stumped.

One issue is that Greco-Roman theaters were typically built of stone and were outdoors because it didn’t rain much in summer. So, unless somebody hauled the cut stone away to build something else (which happened not infrequently), they are still there. Northern European venues, in contrast, tended to be roofed, made of wood, and frequently burned down, so it’s hard to find impressive ruins.

Shakespeare’s Globe theater was built in 1599 and rebuilt in 1614, then demolished in 1644. The recent reconstruction seats 1,400 due to modern safety concerns, but it’s guessed that it held 3,000 in Shakespeare’s day.

I would assume that there were bigger theaters elsewhere in Europe: London in 1599 was kind of peripheral.

The oldest working opera house today is Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. It opened in 1737 with room for 1,379 seats and room for 3,000 including standing.

It’s possible that Europeans built temporary bleachers for events and then took them down. That was pretty common for heavyweight championship fights in the U.S. around 1900.

The U.S. built a lot of ballparks from the 1870s onward. The first I can find with a listed capacity of over 10k was the Philadelphia Phillies’ first version of Baker Bowl, which went up in 1887 with a capacity of 12,500.

Europeans concentrated instead on building cathedrals.

For example, St. Peter’s in Rome is 15,000 square meters on the inside, giving a capacity, squeezing 4 people per square meter, of 60,000. Raising the cost of St. Peter’s set off the Reformation.

Here’s what 4 people per square meter looks like from above:

But that’s standing. For theater seating, It looks like 6 square feet per person, not counting aisles (or lobbies or stage or backstage). There are 10.8 square feet in a square meter. So maybe 1.5 seated persons before square meter at most.

Seville Cathedral, finished in 1528, is 11,500 square meters on the inside, and Florence 8,000, as is the domed St. Sophia in Constantinople, which was finished in 537 AD.

Seville, finished in 1528, is 11,500 square meters on the inside, and Florence 8,000, as is the domed St. Sophia in Constantinople, which was finished in 537 AD.

I presume that the cost of St. Sophia contributed to the memorable Blue-Green Nika sports fan revolt of 532 AD. Constantinople’s chariot racing hippodrome could hold 100,000 fans.

The domed Pantheon in Rome (finished in the second century AD) is 1,500 square meters, so it could hold 6,000 people.

But then the Romans had whole classes of huge buildings that later Europeans didn’t have, such as Rome’s Baths of Caracalla. The main building appears to have been about 24,000 square meters, although capacity was said to be only 1,600 at a time (but presumably the customers were being served by thousands of workers).