New Evidence Of Gladiatorial Games At Chester Amphitheatre

By Caroline Lewis | 16 February 2007
photo of a large worn stone block with an iron fixing in the centre of the top

Experts believe this stone block formed part of a row of anchor points for fastening victims in gladiatorial games. © English Heritage

A recent discovery has confirmed archaeologists’ theories that gladiatorial games were played out in Chester’s Roman amphitheatre.

The most conclusive proof yet that the gory activities were held in the amphitheatre – Britain’s largest – came when archaeologists from English Heritage and Chester City Council unearthed a large stone block in the centre of the arena.

The block, which has an iron fitting fastened onto the top, is similar to two that were found in the northern half of the arena in the 1960s. However, the third one is significant in that it shows the blocks formed a row of evenly spaced anchors along the axis of the arena, used to chain victims during spectacles. The victims may have been human or animal, but what is certain is that more went on in this auditorium than ceremonial military displays.

A mosaic from the Roman villa at Bignor, West Sussex, depicts the same kind of stone block with an iron ring in the top and a pair of gladiators fighting across it.

a mosaic depicting two figures fighting over a stone block and a third holding a cane in the air

Detail from the mosaic discovered at a Roman villa in Bignor, West Sussex. © The Tupper Family

“Any thought that Chester’s amphitheatre was used purely for military purposes such as military tattoos or drill practice can now be firmly banished,” said Dan Garner, an archaeologist with Chester City Council.

“Up to now, we have found human and animal remains to suggest that gladiatorial games may have taken place, but the discovery of the third chain block put that suggestion beyond any doubt,” he said. “I daresay that people met a rather brutal end in Chester’s arena some 1,900 years ago.”

The find has also opened up a new line of enquiry for those investigating the amphitheatre.

“There are still a number of questions – whether humans or animals were chained, whether the chains were long or short, or whether the chains passed though the ring on the stone allowing a degree of free movement,” said Tony Wilmott, an archaeologist at English Heritage.

“It is possible the blocks were also used for displaying exotic animals or for executing criminals who would be cast into the arena together with violent beasts.”

Gladiators trained to handle and fight many different types of animals were known as ‘bestiarius’.

artist's impression of a large round Roman amphitheatre with two tiers of stone columns running around the exterior

An artist's impression of Chester's amphitheatre, the grandeur of which was seldom found north of the Alps. © Julian Baum

“What is certain is the Roman’s flair for mass entertainment,” continued Tony. “By chaining victims to these blocks along the long axis, they are trying to make sure that spectators have the maximum view of whatever was happening and preventing victims from sheltering against the arena wall, where they could only be seen by half of the audience.”

Recent research due to be discussed at a Roman amphitheatre symposium in Chester this weekend also includes new perspectives on the architecture of the Chester amphitheatre.

New excavations have given evidence for eight ‘vomitoria’ – vaulted stairways opening onto the street – evenly spaced around the structure. This indicates a high outer wall, but even more interesting has been the discovery of two foundation stones for substantial half columns.

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

Romans had rather inhumane tastes in entertainment. Courtesy Chester Archaeology

The half columns in turn point to another layer of columns on top, in line with laws of proportion. On top of these would have been entablatures – the horizontal stoneworks that rest on the top of columns in classical architecture.

Analysis of the architectural scheme of the Chester amphitheatre has allowed English Heritage to make reconstructions of it, demonstrating its height and grandeur with a highly elaborate decorative treatment on the exterior. This fine exterior is really extraordinary for Roman Britain – few similar examples are found north of the Alps. Experts say the closest parallels to Chester Amphitheatre are the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheatre of El Djem, Tunisia.

These findings from English Heritage and Chester City Council’s collaborative excavations and studies of Chester’s amphitheatre and much more will be presented at the international symposium ‘Roman Amphitheatres and Spectacula: a 21st century perspective’ running in Chester on February 17 and 18 2007.

“These findings will not only change the way historians think about Roman Chester,” said Tony Wilmott, chair of the symposium, “but will engender very interesting discussion on the social and cultural meaning of amphitheatres and arena spectacles across the whole of the Roman Empire.”

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