Several different types of shows all took place in the arena of an Amphitheater. The word arena comes from the Latin for "sand," which was placed on the Amphitheater floor to soak up spilled blood.
Amphitheaters were most commonly used for gladiatorial matches which had been adapted from Etruscan funeral rites (munera). By the last 1st century BC, however, the games had lost their ritualistic significance.
Gladiators came from various lots of life. Originally, there were gladiatorial schools, but these came under state control in the 1st century BC to avoid them becoming private armies. The majority of gladiators were either condemned criminals (damnati), slaves, prisoners of war, or volunteers who signed up to do shows for a fee. There were four main types of gladiator:
Various other weapons, women, and sometimes even dwarves were used in the games. Special types of "wild animal matches" (venationes) were introduced in the 2nd Century BC and became very popular. Such bouts included men on foot and on horseback, known as beastiarii, who were usually either criminals, prisoners of war, or trained and paid fighters. Beastiarii fought exotic animals, which eventually led to an extensive trade market.
Originally, wild animal matches took place on the morning of the games, the public executions were held at midday, and then the gladiatorial matches. Over time, however, these divisions became blurred, and often many fights would take place at once, giving the appearance of a battle.
Other spectacles included mock naval battles (naumachiae), known to take place on artificial lakes, as well as animal performances, accompanied by music.
The amphitheater itself is a Roman, not Greek, contrivance, and is particularly common in the west. The very first gladiatorial and wild beast contests were held in open areas, such as the forum or circus. The first known amphitheater dates to 80 BC at Pompeii; the fist permanent one in Rome goes back to 29 BC. The design itself was oval or elliptical. Sloped seating could be supported on solid banks of earth held by retaining walls with external staircases or vaulted masonry structures. An awning (velum or velarium) provided protection from the elements for spectators, and in larger amphitheaters, service corridors and chambers beneath the floor held animals until they were to go out onto the arena, which was done by facility of trapped doors.
In small towns, the local Amphitheater could be the only entertainment. Due to their massive size, they were usually constructed on the edge of a city or directly outside its walls. Military amphitheaters (ludi) built near forts and fortresses served as training grounds for soldiers.