Revealed - New Discoveries At Chester's Roman Amphitheatre

By Graham Spicer | 09 January 2007
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photo of the excavations of a roman amphitheatre next to a british road

Excavations over the last three years have revealed some surprising finds at the amphitheatre. Photo Chester Archaeology

Groundbreaking research has revealed that Chester’s Roman amphitheatre was in fact a grand two-storey structure, similar to those found in parts of the Mediterranean, and was built on the foundations of a second, earlier theatre.

The new theories are to be fully revealed at the first international conference on amphitheatres, also to be held in Chester over the weekend of February 17 and 18 2007.

Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, Dan Garner, Co-Director of the excavations at Chester, spoke about the fascinating new research:

“The original interpretation of the amphitheatre has been largely rewritten with the research we have done over the last three years,” he explained.

photo of three men excavating roman remains

The findings will be examined at a major international conference in Chester. Photo Chester Archaeology

The excavations found eight ‘vomitoria’, or entrance points, spaced evenly around the amphitheatre with two in each of its quadrants. They would have been housed in internal staircases running outside the structure’s walls, indicating that it had two storeys.

“This is the only amphitheatre in Britain which has this feature,” said Dan. “It demonstrates the height of the seating and therefore gives us the height of this structure.”

The findings could change the way historians think about Roman Chester.

“There were clearly wealthy people living there,” said Dan. “The thing we can’t be sure about is if it was a purely military settlement or if it was a civilian town.”

photo of the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre

The amphitheatre would have seated 8-10,000 people. Photo Chester Archaeology

Estimates put the seating capacity of the two-floor amphitheatre at between 8-10,000 spectators, suggesting the town could have had a substantial civilian population.

“Chester was maybe being groomed as a possible provincial capital for the conquest of Ireland,” suggested Dan.

The amphitheatre was built in the second century AD, most probably in the time of the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, who reigned from 193 until his death while campaigning in York in 211AD.

It was discovered in 1929 and is the largest uncovered amphitheatre found in the UK. Finds like bowls with pictures of gladiators on them indicate the gory activities that took place at the amphitheatre. Although of impressive size it was not as grand as the Imperial arenas modelled on Rome’s Colosseum that have been found elsewhere in mainland Europe.

photo of two men dressed as roman gladiators re enacting a gladiatorial combat

Gladiator fights would have been staged at the amphitheatre. Photo Chester Archaeology

The link with Septimus Severus provides a clue to its design – the Emperor was born in Leptis Magna in modern day Libya and many Roman amphitheatres in the region, at sites like El Djem in Tunisia, would have been very similar to Chester’s arena.

The excavations have also revealed a second amphitheatre built around 80-100AD upon which the later structure was built.

“The first one is a far more humble structure – similar to ones you got anywhere else in Britain," added Dan. "What we did find, though, was that it was furnished with an external staircase so although it was a far more simple design, it catered for spectators entering from the rear wall.”

photo of someone holding a replica roman sword with an ancient sword handle shown next to it

A wealth of finds, like this gladius, or short sword, handle, have been found at the site. Photo Chester Archaeology

The conference, Roman Amphitheatres And Spectacula: A 21st Century Perspective is organised by English Heritage and Chester City Council and will be held at Chester’s Grosvenor Museum on February 17-18 2007.

Speakers from around the world have been lined up to showcase new research and stimulate debate about amphitheatre studies. Details of new amphitheatre sites found across the Roman world will be revealed and the organisation of the spectacles, like gladiatorial combat, will also be examined.

For more details on the conference see their website and visit the Chester Amphitheatre project site for more details of the excavations or call Jane Hebblewhite on 01244 402009.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: