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Britain’s forgotten Roman amphitheatres: Incredible map reveals the huge venues where Britons would go to watch gladiator fights, chariot races and executions 2,000 years ago


An incredible new map reveals the Roman amphitheatres dotted around Britain dating back around 2,000 years. 

From London to Chester and Carmarthen in Wales, the massive venues hosted gladiator fights, chariot races and even executions. 

Britain was part of the Roman Empire for nearly four centuries, from the invasion under emperor Claudius in AD 43 until the early 5th century. 

Dr Andrew Sillett, a classics lecturer at the University of Oxford, told MailOnline: ‘The bloodthirsty spectacle of gladiatorial combat came to Britain as a way to keep the occupying legions entertained.

‘British enthusiasm for gladiatorial combat went hand-in-hand with their love for all kinds of Mediterranean culture brought over by the Romans.’ 

Today, possibly the most famous Roman amphitheatre in Britain is in the Guildhall area of central London, now a popular tourist attraction. 

Londinium, as it was known, was one of the largest towns in Roman Britain and among the Empire’s most significant settlements outside the Mediterranean 

The city’s amphitheatre was a venue for wild animal fights, public executions and gladiatorial combats.  

Lost for centuries, the original circular walls of the amphitheatre were rediscovered by archaeologists working on the site of the new Guildhall Art Gallery building in 1988. 

The largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain was the one at Chester, which even today remains in an impressive state of preservation. 

According to English Heritage, it was built in the late first century AD and used for entertainment and military training. 

Unfortunately, long after the end of the Roman Empire, the site fell into disrepair. 

During the medieval period it was nothing more than a quarry for building stone and a convenient rubbish dump. 

Chester Roman Amphitheatre seen from the city walls, with archaeological digs in progress (2006). Used for entertainment and military training, it was the largest in Britain

Chester Roman Amphitheatre seen from the city walls, with archaeological digs in progress (2006). Used for entertainment and military training, it was the largest in Britain

London: View of the amphitheatre display beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery, looking west across the eastern entranceway towards London's Roman amphitheatre's arena, with the timber drains reinstalled beneath a glass panel in the floor in the centre foreground

London: View of the amphitheatre display beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery, looking west across the eastern entranceway towards London’s Roman amphitheatre’s arena, with the timber drains reinstalled beneath a glass panel in the floor in the centre foreground

The huge venues would host gladiator fights, chariot races and executions. Here, a gladiatorial fight is depicted in Rome's Colosseum, in 'Pollice Verso' an 1872 oil painting by France's Jean-Léon Gérôme

The huge venues would host gladiator fights, chariot races and executions. Here, a gladiatorial fight is depicted in Rome’s Colosseum, in ‘Pollice Verso’ an 1872 oil painting by France’s Jean-Léon Gérôme 

By about the year AD 1200, houses had been built over Chester amphitheatre, and it was not until the 1950s that it was uncovered and later excavated. 

Today, only the northern half of the Roman venue is exposed, while the southern half is covered by buildings. 

Elsewhere in Britain, the locations of former amphitheatres could easily be passed without even knowing they were there. 

The Roman town of Cirencester in Gloucestershire was known by the Romans as ‘Corinium Dobunnorum’. 

Remains of its amphitheatre on the outskirts of the town exist as a depression in the land, covered in grass, and could be easily missed. 

It was built in the early 2nd century, when the Roman city of Corinium (now Cirencester) was second only to London in size and importance, with a population of over 10,000. 

The amphitheatre could hold about 8,000 spectators and has been referred to as the ‘Bull Ring’, because the sport of bull-baiting took place there. 

The remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Cirencester, in 2012. The Gloucestershire town was known by the Romans as 'Corinium Dobunnorum'

The remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Cirencester, in 2012. The Gloucestershire town was known by the Romans as ‘Corinium Dobunnorum’ 

Artist's impression of what Cirencester's amphitheatre looked like during its Roman heyday

Artist’s impression of what Cirencester’s amphitheatre looked like during its Roman heyday 

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In the Dorset town of Dorchester, a Neolithic henge called Maumbury Rings was adapted by the Romans to become an amphitheatre. 

Dorchester, or ‘Durnovaria’ as it was known by the Romans, was founded by the Romans around 60AD and the monument was adapted in roughly AD 100. 

Still today, Maumbury Rings is a public open space and used for open-air concerts, festivals and re-enactments. 

In Norfolk meanwhile, a Roman settlement called ‘Venta Icenorum’ existed near the modern-day village of Caistor St Edmund, just south of Norwich. 

Walls of the settlement, which are still visible today, were built in the third century AD in a grid-like arrangement.  

There’s evidence of an amphitheatre to the south of the walled area in the form of an ‘oval sunken arena’ surrounded by a seating bank, according to Norfolk Heritage Explorer. 

Venta Icenorum was eventually abandoned in the 8th century, when Norwich became the civic centre for the county. 

In Dorchester, a Neolithic henge called Maumbury Rings was adapted by the Romans to become an amphitheatre (pictured today)

In Dorchester, a Neolithic henge called Maumbury Rings was adapted by the Romans to become an amphitheatre (pictured today)

The site of Venta Icenorum today at modern-day Caistor St Edmund, Norfolk. It's believed the amphitheatre was just south of the Roman town

The site of Venta Icenorum today at modern-day Caistor St Edmund, Norfolk. It’s believed the amphitheatre was just south of the Roman town  

About a mile from Silchester in Hampshire is one of the best preserved Roman towns in Britain. 

Known by the Romans as ‘Calleva Atrebatum’, remains of its amphitheatre still stand, as well as large parts of the town’s walls. 

At its peak, the Roman amphitheatre would have housed around 7,000 spectators to witness the likes of gladiator battles and bear fighting. 

Other notable amphitheatres that used to stand in Britain include Carmarthen in Wales, which also has visible remains, and Chichester in West Sussex.

Although none of the structure exists, Chichester amphitheatre left an oval groove still visible in the ground of a park in the middle of the city. 

Meanwhile, Colchester in Essex hosted gladiator battles during Roman times, according to analysis of a Roman jug made from local clay. 

The Colchester vase (pictured) was unearthed from a Roman grave in Colchester in the mid-19th century. It depicts a pair of gladiators named Memnon (left) and Valentinus (right) while engaged in battle - and was made from local clay

The Colchester vase (pictured) was unearthed from a Roman grave in Colchester in the mid-19th century. It depicts a pair of gladiators named Memnon (left) and Valentinus (right) while engaged in battle – and was made from local clay

The battles took place in an amphitheatre thought to be based at modern-day Roman Road in the city centre, the city council told MailOnline.

However, Dr Sillett said this was a theatre, rather than an amphitheatre – an important distinction. 

An amphitheatre is a full circle, while a theatre is only half a circle. 

‘Colchester’s theatre is so big that scholars assume that it doubled up as a location for gladiators,’ Dr Sillett told MailOnline. 

How England spent almost half a millennium under Roman rule

55BC – Julius Caesar crossed the channel with around 10,000 soldiers. They landed at a Pegwell Bay on the Isle of Thanet and were met by a force of Britons. Caesar was forced to withdraw.

54BC – Caesar crossed the channel again in his second attempt to conquer Britain. He came with with 27,000 infantry and cavalry and landed at Deal but were unopposed. They marched inland and after hard battles they defeated the Britons and key tribal leaders surrendered.

However, later that year, Caesar was forced to return to Gaul to deal with problems there and the Romans left.

54BC – 43BC – Although there were no Romans present in Britain during these years, their influence increased due to trade links.

43AD – A Roman force of 40,000 led by Aulus Plautius landed in Kent and took the south east. The emperor Claudius appointed Plautius as Governor of Britain and returned to Rome.

47AD – Londinium (London) was founded and Britain was declared part of the Roman empire. Networks of roads were built across the country.

50AD – Romans arrived in the southwest and made their mark in the form of a wooden fort on a hill near the river Exe.  A town was created at the site of the fort decades later and names Isca. 

When Romans let and Saxons ruled, all ex-Roman towns were called a ‘ceaster’. this was called ‘Exe ceaster’ and a merger of this eventually gave rise to Exeter.   

75 – 77AD – Romans defeated the last resistant tribes, making all Britain Roman. Many Britons started adopting Roman customs and law.

122AD – Emperor Hadrian ordered that a wall be built between England and Scotland to keep Scottish tribes out.

312AD – Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal throughout the Roman empire.

228AD – The Romans were being attacked by barbarian tribes and soldiers stationed in the country started to be recalled to Rome.

410AD – All Romans were recalled to Rome and Emperor Honorious told Britons they no longer had a connection to Rome.

Source: History on the net



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