Gladiator Battles: The Roman Amphitheatres of Britain

When thinking of ancient Roman times, it’s hard not to imagine impressive ancient structures like the Colosseum. Roman Amphitheatres played an important role in the Roman society.

They were a place for entertainment, but also a platform for dispensing brutal forms of justice, promoting political agendas, and placating a population in troubled times. 

As such, it may not be surprising that the famous Colosseum, while possibly the most impressive, was not the only amphitheatre of its time. Rome built amphitheatres across its ancient empire, from the deserts of the Middle East to right here in Britain. 

These structures formed a core part of Roman society and the remains of amphitheatres that can still be found in the UK today offer a rare glimpse into the world of Roman Britain. 


Building Ancient Roman Amphitheatres 

There were certain requirements for a structure in ancient Rome to be considered an amphitheatre.

Ancient Roman amphitheatres were circular or ovular in structure and composed of three main parts known as the cavea, arena and vomitorium.

Spectators would sit in raised seating areas that wrapped around enclosed the arena, where the main entertainment or other activities or rituals were taking place. 

roman road
Ackling Dyke, running next to Badbury Rings Iron Age hillfort, this road then went on to Dorchester.

The seating area, known as cavea, was commonly divided into three segments, the ima cavea, media cavea, and summa cavea. Depending on social status and economic power, different people were required to sit in the different segments of the cavea.

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The ima cavea, located at the lower levels of the seating structure and closest to the arena, were reserved for only those with the highest social standing.

Meanwhile, the media cavea, located toward the middle levels of the seating structure were reserved for Roman members of the general public. The ima cavea, located at the top of the cavea, and furthest from the arena, were usually occupied by women and children. 

‘To Spew Forth’

The final segment of the amphitheatre structure, known by the rather unfortunate name, the vomitorium, were passageways built behind or below the seating areas to facilitate effective entry and exit from the amphitheatre.

As many amphitheatres held thousands of people, the effective construction of these passageways was incredibly important to reduce delayed entry and exit to the structure, and to mitigate the risk of incidents like crushing in large crowds.

Chester Amphitheatre (Deva Victrix)
Chester Amphitheatre (Deva Victrix). Image Credit : Carole Raddato – CC BY-SA 2.0

Interestingly, the Latin word vomitorium, used to describe these structures, quite literally translates to mean ‘to spew forth’. 

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Depending on the specific amphitheatre, area in which it was constructed, and prominence of the area, seating structures, and the overall amphitheatre structure may have been made from wood, stone, or just built into the existing earthwork of the environment. In some cases, amphitheatres were constructed with a combination of all these elements. 

What Were Amphitheatres Used For? 

The amphitheatres of ancient Rome are commonly associated with the gladiator games, and this was a big part of what these structures were used for, but this wasn’t their only purpose.

Amphitheatres were used for a wide array of cultural, legal and political events. Theatre productions and battle reenactments were played out in the amphitheatres of the Roman Empire.

Built alongside the Isca Roman Fortress in about 90AD this amphitheatre is the best preserved in Britain. Once known locally as King Arthur’s Round Table it was extensively excavated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1926.

They formed a prominent place throughout a large segment of Roman history, with early examples of amphitheatres in the Roman world recorded as early as 27 BC.  Amphitheatres were also the site of brutal executions, with ancient corporal punishments from crucifixions, to death by wild beast, to beheadings taking place there.

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Those meeting their ends via execution in a Roman amphitheatre included criminals, runaway slaves, soldiers accused of desertion, and those considered to be exhibiting behaviour that was antisocial or didn’t fit within the standards and norms of Rome. 

Gladiator Games and Animal Slayings 

Of course, gladiator games and wild animal slayings  also formed an important part of the events of Roman amphitheatres. Gladiator games were part of more than a brutal form of entertainment for Rome, but were considered to be a way to placate the population and gain the favour of the Roman people.

Roman mosaic
A retiarius stabs at a secutor with his trident in this mosaic f

The opening of the Colosseum in Rome, then known as the Flavian Arena, was celebrated by a hundred days of games, these games were held.

Held in part, to boost the image of the Emperor Titus, who in the first months after his reign had faced the eruption of Mt Vesuvius, a fire that burned for three days in Rome, and a devastating plague outbreak.

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The games were partly a political strategy to placate a population that was growing to see the disasters as a bad omen of Titus’ rule. British amphitheatres were no stranger to gladiator games, nor were animal hunts and slayings an uncommon spectacle in the arenas of Roman Britain.

There are records of animals being used in fights in ancient arenas in London and of activities such as cockfights and the use of bears in both fights and executions in the arenas across ancient Britain. 

Where are the Amphitheatres in the UK?

Hundreds of amphitheatres were constructed across the ancient Roman world, and the remains of some of these historic structures still exist in the UK today. 

King Arthur’s Round Table or Ancient Amphitheatre 

Caerleon Amphitheatre, Caerleon, Wales.
Caerleon Amphitheatre, Caerleon, Wales. This Roman amphitheater is said to be King Arthur’s legendary Round Table. Image Credit: Becks

Popularly referred to as King Arthur’s Round Table, despite no actual connection to the legendary British story, the Caerleon Amphitheatre is located just outside Newport in Wales. Remains of the round structure of the amphitheatre and its internal arena can still be clearly seen today.

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This ancient amphitheatre was no small structure. Built in around 90 AD, it is estimated to have been constructed to hold six thousand spectators. 

Like many of the amphitheatres across the Empire, the Caerleon Amphitheatre was constructed close to a Roman legionary fortress and settlement known as Isca Augustus. 

Neolithic Communities to Roman Games

South of Dorchester in Dorset, the Maumbury Rings site has a unique overlap of British history. The site shows early evidence of a Neolithic henge structure that predates the Roman occupation of Britain by close to two thousand years. The remains of the henge earthwork and ditch were excavated in the 1900s, and evidence of both human and animal remains were discovered.

Maumbury Rings Neolithic henge in Dorset
Maumbury Rings, Dorchester, Dorset, England. is a substantial Neolithic henge. During the Roman era, Maumbury Rings underwent modifications that transformed it into an amphitheatre

However, when Rome came to occupy Britain’s shores, the site of the Maumbury Rings got a second life as a functioning Roman amphitheatre.

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Around 100 AD, the site was adapted by the Romans to function as an amphitheatre. This provided entertainment to people of the Roman town of Durnovaria, a town that would later become Dorchester. 

Burned at the Stake

As one can imagine, with something so ancient it would be full of history, and it is. This particular slice of history is relatively modern – the execution of Mary Channing – the last woman to be publicly hanged and burnt at the stake in Dorset.

She was convicted of killing her husband and when found guilty she was given a stay of execution until the baby was born. Only four days later on March 21st 1706, she was taken by cart from Dorchester prison to Maumbury Rings. Here, in front of up to 10,000 people she was hanged.

An unsettling but somber fact of life in the 18th century, public executions drew a morbid curiosity from a crowd of 10,000 onlookers. They congregated to witness Mary’s brutal ordeal unfold on this Neolithic ceremonial monument.

Burning at the stake was the customary execution for women until the end of the 1700s. At 5 o’clock in the afternoon Mary’s body was bound by the neck to a post while faggots piled up around her were lit.

Then, with no sense of shock or revulsion, as if it was an every day occurrence , the multitude dispersed as Mary Channing’s corpse was consumed by fire.

Thomas Hardy was somewhat “fascinated” by and “obsessed” of Channing’s execution.
During that era, individuals convicted of “petty treason” or wives found guilty of killing their husbands were subjected to the death penalty.

As per the law, Mary was to be strangled with a noose before the stacked faggots around her were set ablaze. However, there exists supporting evidence indicating that she may have still been alive.

To quote from Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge: ‘not one of those ten thousand people ever cared particularly for hot roast after that’.

Hardy always doubted her guilt and Channing was the inspiration for his poem ‘The Mock Wife’ and she is also mentioned in ‘ The Mayor of Casterbridge’(1886).

She was 19 years old. As to the fate of her son, this seems to have been lost to history. I used to live next door to this place.

From an Amphitheatre to a Fort

With an arena stretching a huge forty-six metres by forty-one metres, the Cirencester Roman Amphitheatre, also known as Corinium Dobunnorum, can be found in the modern day county of Gloucester.

Cirencester amphitheatre, from the south west
One of the largest Roman amphitheatres in Britain, built in the early 2nd century. It served the Roman city of Corinium (now Cirencester), then second only in size and importance to London, and had a capacity of around 8,000 spectators.

Thought to date back to early in the second century AD, the amphitheatre is thought to have once had tiered wooden seats on stone terraces, providing seating for up to eight thousand people. 

Interestingly, in the fifth century, when a large percentage of Roman soldiers across the empire were called back to defend the Western Roman Empire, the amphitheatre was refitted to better suit defensive purposes.

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Concerned about invading Saxons, the soldiers that remained at the area around Cirencester and weren’t recalled to Rome, fortified the amphitheatre to turn it into a defendable military structure rather than as a venue for ancient entertainment.

Additional entrances were blocked and extra defensive structures and elements were added to turn the amphitheatre into a makeshift fort. 

The Ancient Amphitheatre Under London 

London, then known as Londinium, was an important and prominent settlement in Roman Britain. Boasting a population of up to 60,000 inhabitants in 100 AD, for close to three centuries Londinium was thought to have been the largest settlement in all of Roman Britain.

Roman Ampitheatre in London
Roman Ampitheatre in London. Some of these remains are displayed in situ in a room in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery complex. Discovered in 1988, the site is now a scheduled monument.

So, it is no surprise that a Roman city of such importance had its own amphitheatre. Now quite literally under London, or more specifically under the Guildhall Gallery Complex, the first of the amphitheatres built in Roman London was constructed as early as 70 AD.

By the second century, it had been updated to include a tiled entrance and rag-stone walls.

Map of Roman London
Londinium c.400 AD, showing the location of the amphitheatre near the southeast corner of the Roman fort at top left

Thousands of the inhabitants of Roman London could gather there to watch spectacles from gladiator fights to public executions. The amphitheatre also played a central role in many of the religious events that took place in Roman Britain. 

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As with many parts of London, generations of history can be found layered on top of each other at the site. Evidence shows that in the thirteenth century there was a medieval gatehouse constructed on the same site at the amphitheatre.

The First and Last Amphitheatre of Roman Britain

Dating back as far as 50 AD – 70 AD, the Calleva Atrebatum, now referred to as the Silchester Amphitheatre is thought to be one of the oldest amphitheatres across Roman Britain. I

Roman Amphitheatre in Silchester
Calleva Amphitheatre. Entering the remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Silchester

f the earlier estimates of 50 AD for construction of the amphitheatre are correct, then construction began less than a decade after the first invasion of Britain began. Between 4500 and 7500 could have enjoyed entertainment here, seated on terraced seating made from earthwork structures.

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The amphitheatre was constructed in the first century and abandoned between the fifth and seventh centuries, meaning not only was it constructed early in the era of Roman Britain, but was also still in use late in the Roman period of Britain as well.

A Roman World 

Amphitheatres were a recognisable part of the world of ancient Rome. This powerful ancient civilization built them across its realm and used them for a variety of purposes from dispensing brutal justice, to providing bloodthirsty entertainment, to controlling a volatile population.

When Rome arrived in Britain, it brought with it its love of the amphitheatre and built such structures across Roman Britain, arenas that would host everything from bear fights to battle reenactments. 

Today the remains of Roman amphitheatres can still be found across the UK, and are a physical reminder of a time when Rome ruled the lands. 

Some interesting facts about Roman amphitheatres in Britain:

  1. Amphitheatres for Entertainment: Roman amphitheatres were primarily used for entertainment purposes, including gladiatorial combat, chariot races, animal hunts, and theatrical performances. These events were popular forms of entertainment in Roman Britain.
  2. Design and Layout: Roman amphitheatres were typically oval or circular in shape, with tiered seating for spectators surrounding a central arena. The design allowed for good visibility of the events from all seats.
  3. Chester’s Amphitheatre: The amphitheatre in Chester (Deva) is one of the largest and best-preserved in Britain. It could accommodate up to 7,000 spectators and featured a complex system of tunnels and chambers beneath the arena.
  4. Military Influence: Some Roman amphitheatres in Britain were associated with military forts and garrisons, such as the one in Caerleon (Isca Augusta). These amphitheatres were used to entertain and train Roman troops stationed in the region.
  5. Urban Centers: Roman amphitheatres were often located in or near urban centers, making them accessible to a wide audience. They were important venues for social gatherings and entertainment in Roman towns.
  6. Cirencester’s Earthworks: The amphitheatre in Cirencester (Corinium) is known for its visible earthworks and foundations. While the seating structure is no longer present, the outline of the amphitheatre can still be seen in the landscape.
  7. Archaeological Discoveries: Some Roman amphitheatres, like the one in London (Londinium) beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery, were discovered through archaeological excavations. They provide valuable insights into Roman urban life in Britain.
  8. Adaptations: The Maumbury Rings in Dorchester started as a Neolithic henge but was later adapted for Roman use as an amphitheatre. This adaptation reflects the evolving cultural and recreational preferences of the inhabitants.
  9. Entertainment Variety: The events held in Roman amphitheatres varied widely, from deadly gladiatorial combat to chariot races reminiscent of the famous Circus Maximus in Rome.
  10. Historical Significance: Roman amphitheatres in Britain are not only symbols of Roman engineering and entertainment but also important historical sites that contribute to our understanding of Roman Britain’s cultural and social life.