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Caesar Augustus may have founded the Roman Empire. But the flourishing of the empire took generations. As the Romans expanded through the Mediterranean Sea, so did their influence. While the Coliseum in Rome itself may be the most famous of the Roman amphitheaters but there were actually many that were built throughout modern Europe. One such arena was built in Pula, Croatia which still stands today. The Pula Arena begun construction in 27 BC and was finished in 68 AD.
Our purpose here for talking about the Pula Arena is because of the MMA promotion Fight Nation Championship. Announced earlier in the month, FNC 12 will be taking place at the Pula Arena which captured the imagination of this writer filling it with gladiators, MMA fights, and his love of ancient history and their forms and customs of martial arts.
MMA was called Pankration by the violent Romans
The ancient Romans had quite the bloodlust. With their stories featuring their gods in all sorts of debauchery acts, that lust for violence bled into the populations. Even before the founding of Rome by Caesar Augustus, the culture in the region bled through the centuries. We see many of the gods that cross over and are essentially reboots with new names. The god of strength and heroes is Heracles. He was the Greek’s ultimate hero.
The Romans, as they did with cultures that the conquered as time went on, adapted their traditions as well. Thus was born Hercules, essentially the same god. With the similarities in what they represent, the stories came along with. Hercules and the Maze of the Minotaur features our hero going through an endless maze with an abomination, the Minotaur, hiding there. He ended up finding the Minotaur and utilized his boxing and wrestling in combination to defeat the monster.
Does that sound familiar? It should, that’s MMA. The Greeks and Romans called it Pankration. Pankration was part of the Ancient Olympic Games which stretched from 776 BC in Greece and was continued to be celebrated when the Romans came around until 393 AD.
Being as grand as they were, the Romans built giant amphitheaters throughout their empire. Of course, we know the Colosseum in Rome. It’s the most famous of the Roman amphitheaters. Being at the heart of Rome, it was also the largest and most elaborate. They even flooded the floor of the venue to recreate a naval battle.
Just 98 nautical miles across the Gulf of Venice on the tip of the Istrian peninsula lies the city of Pula. The entire peninsula was conquered in 177 BC by the Romans and the period of Romanization began. During this Romanization brought in the Pula Arena and Pula became a hub for Roman authority in the area due to its ease of access to the seas.
The construction of the Pula Arena
Caesar Augustus built the arena and was made out of timber. His successor, Claudius continued his work and replaced it with stone. There it sat for a few decades until Vespasian came around.
You see, Vespasian was the fourth emperor during the Year of the Four Emperors in 69 AD. Galba, Otho, and Vitellius couldn’t keep peace in the region and ended the Julio-Claudians dynasty with a bloody civil war, the first of the Roman Empire. Nero had passed away and political plots were underway.
Galba was the first up to be emperor and couldn’t keep the support of the Praetorian Guard. He only lasted three weeks. Otho ordered his murder and became ruler. He lasted a bit longer, from January 15 to April 16. Otho was defeated in the Battle of Bedriacum, a horrible battle with about 40,000 deaths. He was forced to retreat and he committed suicide. That was when Vitellius, the man who defeated him, became Emperor. He lasted until the 20th of December in 69 AD. His rule was then challenged by the eastern provinces and said Vespasian was the emperor.
In 67 AD, Nero tasked Vespasian of squashing the First Jewish-Roman War. There, he gained support from the governor of Syria. Vespasian brought legions from the Roman provinces of Judaea and Syria to the Second Battle of Bedriacum. Vitellius wanted to abdicate the throne. His supporters wouldn’t let him hand the throne over and the battle ensued. Vespasian ran through Vitellius and executed the emperor to give Vespasian the throne.
Vespasian managed to stabilize the Empire with major fiscal reforms and implemented a large infrastructure and building program. But Vespasian was a violent man. He was born for violence and competition. He constructed the Roman Colosseum in Rome for events as part of his building program.
Another project: the Pula Arena.
Are You Not Entertained?
Vespasian was a fan of gladiatorial bouts. He worked to expand the sport throughout the Mediterranean by building the amphitheaters around the Roman Empire. While it held other games and events, including plays, Vespasian expanded the Pula Arena for the gladiators.
The Romans enjoyed a bit of violence in their amphitheaters not so dissimilar to the type of violence we watch today in MMA. Where we may cringe at a fighter getting their leg snapped or a particularly late stoppage, the Ancient Romans relished in this type of violence.
It was routine to trot in animals, slaves and more to meet a bloody end. But many of these class slaves fought for glory and, more importantly, freedom. Very similar to the story we ran recently on Substack, The Story of Tom Molineaux: One Man’s Tragic Conquering of America, gladiators were often slaves looking for a way to freedom. Because the gladiators were often ostracized and thought of the lowest class of human, many of their stories are gone, lost to history. It wasn’t until the later part of the Roman Empire that free men joined the gladiator schools to fight for the prizes and glory.
They would often fight to the death unless the presiding officiator and host of the event felt otherwise. Many of men and women died in the sands of the pit, blood spilling, as they took their last breath, whom started their day nervous, yet brave hoping for basic freedoms afforded the Roman population proper.
Then the Roman Empire collapsed. After decades of decline and waning influence in the region, the Pula Arena was left to waste. Emperor Honorius, who was the emperor from 393 to 423, ultimately banned the gladiatorial games in 404 AD. A Christian monk, Saint Telemachus, tried to stop a gladiatorial fight and was stoned to death by the crowd. Honorius was impressed by the martyrdom and due to his Christian faith, banned the gladiatorial games in the Western Roman Empire.
The resurgence of the Pula Arena and modern uses
Moving into the Middle Ages, the Pula Arena was utilized by the Knights of Malta who used it for tournaments and other fairs. The local population would begin to harvest its stone and begin tearing down the amphitheater.
It wasn’t until the Napoleonic French Empire that the historic arena was reconstructed. The French didn’t rule in Croatia for long but General Auguste de Marmont, who was governor of the region, called for the restoration. When the French were ousted from the region, Ticinese architect Pietro Nobile convinced Austria’s emperor, Francis I, to continue the restoration in 1816.
It wasn’t until 1932 that the Pula arena would be modified for a modern audience and currently sits between 7,000 and 12,500 people.
In modern times, concerts have been a huge thing for the Pula Arena. Foo Fighters, Elton John, Snead O’Connor, Michael Bolton, and the Arctic Monkeys have all performed there. Titus, the 1999 Shakespearean film, was filmed there as well as a football match in 2019.
But our interest is in the FNC 12 event going on there. In the shadows of literal giants, the gladiators that come before them, modern MMA fighters will get an opportunity to compete in the arena. There will be three MMA title fights at FNC 12. Ivan Vitasovic and Michal Andryszak are fighting for the FNC Heavyweight championship. Jordan Barton is fighting Rony Jason for the FNC Featherweight Championship. And finally, Nikola Joksovic and Mario Kisic are vying for the FNC Welterweight Championship.
This fight card doesn’t have the most well known names, especially to an American audience. But these men are stepping into an arena where the most extreme of wars have been fought. The fighters on this card will be standing on the shoulders of giants, of the gladiators that gave their lives for cruel entertainment. Two millennium will have had to pass for those warriors to stand a chance and actually live in a society where they didn’t have to die for entertainment or basic freedoms.
Fighters often see themselves as modern day gladiators. They sacrifice their lives in a less extreme way. But their bodies suffer. Their families suffer. This time they get to step into the arena that inspires their careers.
Recently, there has been a resurgence of these ancient amphitheaters for modern events. While the Colosseum in Rome proper is being remodeled and is a major tourist attraction, other ancient Roman structures are hosting events. Naturally, fight promotions are starting to head to these areas to host their fights in what would likely be the most historic arenas in combat sport history. In July, Hexagone MMA held an event in the Roman Theatre Antique d’Orange, a first century amphitheater in France. Then, of course, Meta billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are flirting with an all-billionaire fist fight in the Roman Colosseum.
There will be more events in these historic sites. There will be fights there that will have the most magnificent of backdrops. They predate Madison Square Garden in New York. They predate Lumpinee and Rajadamnern in Thailand. With the gladiatorial connections, it makes sense. Just as Hexagone earlier in the year, Fight Nation Championship will have the opportunity to show off an epic backdrop that has captured the imagination of millions throughout history wondering what the glory was like in Ancient Rome. Now, these fighters will get the opportunity to bask in that glory.
Blood will spill on the sands of the Pula Arena once more.
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