A Guide to Ancient Capua: Santa Maria Capua Vetere

Capua Roman Theatre in Naples, Italy

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Ancient Capua has a large place in Italian history. Italy's second largest amphitheater was built here. Spartacus started the Slave Revolt at a Capua ludas or school for gladiators in Capua. Hannibal wintered in Capua in 215 BC, leading to the first Battle of Capua in 212 BC.

Tourists will be rewarded by the amphitheater, a gladiator museum along with a very well done archaeological museum and various other bits and pieces of the ancient city like the frescoed Mithraeum, all in an area that can be seen in a day if you plan it right.

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Santa Maria Capua Vetere: Ancient Capua and Spartacus

Capua Roman Theatre

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

If there is still a question of Capua's place in the world, Barbara Zaragoza speaks of the comforts available in a wealthy city:

Italian schoolchildren learn that the “fleshpots of Capua” defeated Hannibal because the opulent lifestyle in the city made the Carthaginians soft. The affluent Capuans left behind an amphitheater that today is the second largest in Italy next to the Roman Coliseum. ~ Capua Amphitheater.

As if that weren't enough, Giuseppe Garibaldi gathered 24,000 volunteers and fought his biggest battle for the unification of Italy around the Volturno river near Capua in October of 1860.

An overnight is recommended though, as the town is a pleasant one and there is a good place to eat dinner with the illuminated amphitheater as background.

The problem is if you come to Capua proper, you are in the wrong place. You see, old Capua is found on modern maps as Santa Maria Capua Vetere, with Capua Vetere referring to ancient Capua.

While the ruins here aren't as impressive as they are in Rome -- much of the amphitheater was hacked up and reused -- the new gladiator museum, which is free with entrance to the amphitheater, is a good way to see how it all worked when Capua was at its peak.

Let's take a look at the amphitheater next.

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02 of 06

Capua Roman Amphitheater

capua amphitheater picture
James Martin

We don't have exact dates for the construction of the amphitheater, but some sources contend that it was built about 100 years before the Coliseum in Rome. Like the coliseum, it incorporates gates and ramps in a manner still used in sports stadiums today.

Cicero wrote that 100,000 people could be seated in the amphitheater, which had four seating levels.

In this picture, the arena floor isn't very impressive. The lower level is covered with temporary covers. In fact, this is pretty much the way it was in antiquity, timbers spanned the openings to the tunnels of the lower level and sand was placed on top to become the absorbent surface for the bloody games.

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Capua Amphitheater Picture

capua amphitheater picture
James Martin

This picture shows the complete part of the amphitheater at Capua. There were 80 Doric arcades at one time. The white material is marble, which would have made up the lower level facade all around.

The amphitheater was plundered by Vandals and Saracens. Much of the rest of it has been removed and reused, but there is enough left for a decent trek around, as we'll see in the next picture.

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04 of 06

Underground Passageway, Capua Amphitheater

capua amphitheater picture
James Martin

A stroll under the seats shows more Roman building detail, which includes light wells so that things didn't get too dark under there. The picture is also notable for what it doesn't show -- there isn't a crush of tourists as one finds at the Roman Coliseum.

At the entrance to the amphitheater is the small Gladiator museum, which will interpret the buildings and give you a feel for the events that took place.

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05 of 06

Gladiator Museum, Capua

gladiator museum pictur
James Martin

Here the victory is celebrated as blood seeps into the sand on the arena floor. While the amphitheater is associated with Spartacus, he didn't perform here but in a previous and much smaller arena on the site. It was intimate enough that spectators could get injured from the swordplay. Besides a display of the weapons used by gladiators, the museum also shows how the spectators were seated and how they knew where to go.

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06 of 06

Santa Maria Capua Vetere Tourism Information

capua amphitheater picture
James Martin

A quick getaway to Santa Maria Capua Vetere is sufficient: Besides the amphitheater, archaeological museum, gladiator museum and the ancient Mithraeum, there is little else to see. The more modern town of Capua offers another archaeological museum and is an interesting little town if you have a few hours to see it. (You won't want to spend Monday there, either, as most everything you'd want to see is closed.)

Very close by and well worth visiting is Reggia di Caserta, Caserta's Royal Palace, an 18th-century, 1,200-room palace with gardens, modeled after the Palace of Versailles.

Getting to Santa Maria Capua Vetere

To get there, a bus or train from Naples will take about 40 minutes. Many trains also stop at Caserta. See the route and prices from Naples to Santa Maria Capua Vetere.

Where to Stay and Eat

You're apt to have a pleasant stay in a historic property called B&B Vico Mitreo 2, just across the street from the Mithraeum and very close to the Archaeological museum. Offerings include an excellent breakfast, and the owners are wonderful at providing recommendations for dinner. Try the organic restaurant called Spartacus Arena, which offers outdoor seating in the grassy area in front of the amphitheater, which is lit up at night. Good food and pizza -- and unlike the amphitheater itself, it fills up quickly just after opening. Reservations, therefore, are highly recommended.