To recap, the Romans arrived in AD 43: by AD 70 most of the southern part of Britain was securely under Roman control and the assimilation of the local population into Roman culture, often by winning hearts and minds, was underway. The wooden fort at what is now Watermoor was dismantled, and Corinium town grew through its location on the road network and local trade. By the early Second Century, the street grid was laid out and stone buildings constructed. It would have been at this time that public buildings, the Basilica, the Forum and the Amphitheatre were constructed.
The amphitheatre is a unique feature of the Roman Empire and spread across Europe as the Empire expanded. By the time the Romans invade Britain the amphitheatre and games were long established institutions. The amphitheatre became the symbol of the Empire and across Europe and North Africa about 230 amphitheatres have been identified, including more than 20 sites in Roman Britain. Most have disappeared, for example the London amphitheatre, the largest in Roman Britain was on the site of the Guildhall in the city of London. Cirencester is an excellent example and the second largest in Britain.
In Cirencester the site for the Amphitheatre was the quarry which had supplied much of the stone for building the town. The construction took advantage of the site; excavations have shown that the rear wall, to the south-east, was built against the quarry face. The arena was levelled and the banking to the north-west was built up using quarry waste. The seating banks were up to 30m wide and retained by timber and drystone walls. The spectators were accommodated on narrow terraces with wooden planks for seating. It is suggested that wooden seating was more appropriate to the British climate and probably more comfortable than the stone used elsewhere. There were about 16 terraces including wider terraces at the top for standing spectators.
When originally constructed the earth banks were higher, by about 2.5 metres, and the Amphitheatre would have held 8,000 people. The population of Corinium varied between 10,000 and 15,000 so at times the majority of the town could enjoy the spectacle.
So what took place in amphitheatres? The amphitheatre should be seen as a stadium which was used for a wide range of events; sports, games, display of military pageantry, religious festivals, the execution of criminals, simulated hunts and gladiatorial combat. All public entertainment in the amphitheatre was free, but seating was allocated by class and gender. The duration, frequency and character of spectacles would be dependent on the enthusiasm of the populace and the purses of those funding the events. The spectacles would be paid for by local magistrates, politicians (probably at election times) and others ‘on the make’.
Were there gladiators in Cirencester? Much of the British evidence relates to the baiting and killing of wild animals and the only solid proof of gladiators are inscriptions, finds of equipment and images. The cost of training and supporting gladiators was enormous and given the nature of the event any investment in individual gladiators would be lost should he be injured or killed. So there is no firm evidence to show gladiators fought to the death in Cirencester, however it is recorded that that well-known gladiators would go ‘on tour’. Hence it is possible there would have been ‘exhibition’ contests in the Amphitheatre. The fights would have been violent but would have been staged to avoid serious injury or death.
Next time – Armageddon and the Amphitheatre after the Romans.