6 Sites That Help Us Better Understand Roman Entertainment

By the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, the amphitheatre was a well-established building form, reaching its ultimate archetype in the construction of the Colosseum in AD 69 - 96.

The amphitheatre was one of the few building types created by the Romans. Its purpose was to stage spectacles (spectacula), which included wild beast hunts (venatoria) and the throwing of criminals to the beasts (damnatio ad bestias), as well as other forms of criminal execution and gladiatorial fights (munera). The classic event was the so-called munus legitimum, a spectacle that would include animal spectacles in the morning, executions at midday and gladiatorial fights in the afternoon.

The Romans invaded Britain in AD 43. By then, the amphitheatre was a well-established building form, reaching its ultimate archetype in the construction of the colosseum under the Flavian emperors Vespasian, Titus and Titus Domitian spanning AD 69 to 96. Amphitheatre construction in Britain tended to take place during the 1st and 2nd centuries, though they were generally maintained into the mid 4th century.

1. Colchester Roman Circus

Illustration of a Roman circus set in a landscape of fields and trees.
Reconstruction of Colchester Roman Circus © Peter Froste and Colchester Archaeological Trust

The only known discovery of a Roman circus in Britain, this open-air structure was constructed in 1st century AD to host chariot races. The building was shaped like an elongated oval (much longer than most amphitheatres) surrounded by tiers of seating along the longer sides. One of the curved ends would most likely have also contained seats while the other would be used as a starting barrier for the races.

2. Roman Theatre at Gosbecks Farm Archaeological Site, Colchester

Illustration of a Roman theatre during a performance viewed obliquely from above and set in a landscape of pasture.
Reconstruction of Gosbecks Roman Theatre ©Peter Froste and Colchester Archaeological Trust

Inspired by the theatres of ancient Greece, the classical Roman theatre took the form of a semi-circular structure. Evidence suggests that the earliest theatre at Gosbecks was built in timber before being rebuilt in stone, using earth banks as the main seating area. There would also have been a semi-circular orchestra between the audience and the timber-built stage.

3. Amphitheatre at Caistor St Edmund Roman Site, Norfolk

Two images. On the left, an aerial view of a field. On the right, a scan showing a grid pattern.
© D. A. Edwards, Norfolk County Council, Norfolk

Displaying all the classic elements of a traditional amphitheatre, but with the additional feature of chambers at either side of each entrance to keep wild animals. This sheds some light on the violent nature of amphitheatre spectacles, which included wild beast hunts and criminal executions.

4. Chester Amphitheatre

Reconstruction of a large stone amphitheatre and more roman buildings in the background.
© Julian Baum, Take 27 Ltd / Historic England Archive

Legionary amphitheatres were some of the largest built during Roman occupation. They differ from the traditional model by being built in stone, as well as having extra vaulted entrances to the arena at the ends of the shorter axes of the oval structure. Chester is the only example of a Roman entertainment venue in Britain that used rectangular columns, known as pilasters, to add a decorative touch.

5. Cirencester Amphitheatre

Undulating grass covered landscape with an area of long grass in the foreground.
Earthwork banks at Cirencester Amphitheatre © English Heritage

Amphitheatres that were formed from earthworks like the one at Cirencester, were most likely constructed for single events. These were significantly smaller in size but generally took the same oval shape and used entrances at either end of the longer axes. Whilst not built from stone, there was some dry stone masonry used to support the seating and they may have had timber arena walls.

6. Silchester Amphitheatre, Hampshire

Illustration looking down from one side on an amphitheatre as people arrive and take their seats. In the foreground are the stalls of traders.
Reconstruction of  Silchester Amphitheatre © English Heritage

Urban amphitheatres were formed by earthworks from an existing valley, including revetted turf to form seating and stairs. Other urban amphitheatres also display evidence of external structures on the banks that surround the arena, which would have most likely acted as space for a standing audience. This suggests that spectacles seen at urban amphitheatres were generally shorter than at other venues.

Further Reading

6 comments on “6 Sites That Help Us Better Understand Roman Entertainment

  1. You missed major sites of II Legion just across the bridge from Bristol in SE Wales. Magnificent sites all together.

    But thanks for these.

  2. Michael Horton

    Thanks very informative

  3. Marion Turner

    Excellent but Archaeological on number two please!

  4. Wonderful topic, would like to see some more archaeology and info on Carmarthen ampitheatre.

  5. Tosh Warwick

    For all the queries regarding Welsh sites of Roman entertainment (as this is Historic England), it is well worth looking at some of the Cadw resources:

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