The historical center of Lecce is marked by a unique, yellowish appearance, owing to the use of a limestone particular to this area of southern Italy, sometimes called the “Lecce stone.” This is true of the many Baroque churches around the city, the Lecce castle, and the ancient Roman amphitheater that lies in the middle of the city forum.
Italy is not exactly wanting for Roman ruins, but it’s not every day you find an ancient and well-preserved amphitheater right in the heart of town. The Roman amphitheater of Lecce is situated in the main piazza of the old town. Even more interesting, it was completely hidden from view and its existence unknown until as recently as 1901. The marvelous theater spent centuries buried under the earth and structures built over the years, until construction workers uncovered it while digging to build a bank.
The below-ground amphitheater was built during Hadrian’s reign as Roman emperor during the 2nd century CE, at which time Lecce was just a small village that could be used as a resort or a trading port along the Mediterranean. The theater is still partially buried, but you can easily make out the horseshoe-shaped arena, which in its time could hold at least 15,000 spectators. Ancient images on the walls depict the types of shows they would have seen, such as gladiators fighting with bulls, lions, bears, or other humans.
The amphitheater is surrounded by other classical ruins, a Baroque triumphal arch, and the buildings of modern-day Lecce, reflecting the entire history of the city in one view. At night the amphitheater is one of the only monuments that is not lit up for viewing, providing an even more ancient ambiance.
Know Before You Go
You can see most of the amphitheater from the road. The inside is not always open to the public, and the theater is still used as a venue for events and performances.