14 April 2018

Research : Roman Amphitheatre at #Chester

Model 1:75 size amphitheatre of Deva Victrix
In the second of my posts on Roman Chester, I focus on its amphitheatre, found within sight of the fortress' south-east corner tower (set in the green area to the mid left of the amphitheatre aerial view), one of twenty-two towers in its fortress wall.

Amphitheatres were one of the go-to entertainment venues of Roman life, and life in Roman Britain was no exception. There would have been an amphitheatre at every major population centre, particularly close to a legionary fortress which might hold a contingent of 5,000 men, plus the population of the civilian settlement outside its walls.
Deva Victrix ampthitheatre aerial view (Open Government Licence v1.0)

Few amphitheatres are known in Britain, never mind survive, simply because Roman fortress builders did their job too well. The legions might have left British shores in the 5th century, but those fortress walls made good defences for later Saxon and Viking strongholds, and the townships that followed way into the Norman medieval period, and beyond to the English Civil War in the 17th century. 
As these population centres expanded, so areas outside the walls were flattened and the old stonework re-used. The amphitheatre at Caerleon (Isca Silurum) in South Wales survives as grass and stone humps because Caerleon did not expand beyond large-village size.
View across the arena floor
View from the seating area
However, Chester (Deva Victrix) had been chosen for a fortress site because it lay on the navigable River Dee, a position that continued to play a pivotal role in the city’s expansion beyond the Industrial Revolution of the 18-19th centuries.
Not until 1929, when excavating workmen discovered a curved stone wall, did archaeologists move in hoping to find its amphitheatre. Even then, it was another 80 years before full excavations took place.

Due to listed buildings on the site, a little less than half the arena area could be uncovered. 
Even without the recent trompe l’oeil mural along the cut-off wall to help the illusion, to stand within the now gravelled arena space and look towards the low-level walls prompts a shiver of intimidation. 
When it was in use, the outer wall would have stood 12m/40ft high carrying seating on two raked decks for 7-8,000 spectators overlooking the ellipse-shaped arena below measuring 98m/320ft by 87m/286ft.  
Impressive isn’t the word.

To view other amphitheatres in Britain click HERE
Visit my post on Chester's Roman grave plaques HERE

All images other than that stated (c) Linda Acaster

9 April 2018

Research: Roman Tombstones in Chester

Part of the "Rows", buildings with elevated walkways
Having never visited Chester, I’ve now been twice within six months. The city is renown for its medieval Rows, elevated walkways of merchants’ living and business premises dating from the early 1300s and often displaying parts of the original beams and wattle and daub internal construction. Still used as shops and eateries, these stand on the line of the thoroughfares which once led through the Roman fortress Deva Victrix

As in York, Eboracum, the fortress walls still stand, somewhat repaired over the centuries to maintain their defensive properties. They now keep a tight rectangular grip on the heart of the city, their lengths a testimony to the might and organisational skills of Rome in the 1st Century AD. 

It’s well over a year since The Bull At The Gate, Book 2 of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy launched, but once bitten by a period’s research it doesn’t easily relinquish its hold.

On this occasion I’d come especially to visit the Grosvenor Museum, a splendidly ornate Victorian edifice built in 1885-6 to house the burgeoning collections of the Chester Archaeological Society, among others. I knew it had a “Stone Room” containing tombstones, or grave plaques, from the Roman period. I hadn’t been prepared for the number, nor for their state of preservation, though taking photographs in the low light of museums isn't always easy. Click the images to gain a larger view.

Sextus, son of Sextus

The repaired stone on the right commemorates Sextus, son of Sextus, possibly from a cavalry squadron attached to Legio XX, and shows him on horseback with a boy on foot carrying weapons. 

Above the picture is a triptych of his portrait flanked by lions about to bite caught rams. According to the museum's information board, lions were used to symbolise the sudden attack of stalking death.

Marcus and wife
Not all plaques were tooled with such artistry, nor were they all completed. This plaque is for a centurion, Marcus Aurelius Nepos, and his wife. 

He carries a vine staff in his right hand as a symbol of his rank, but he is shown bearded and wearing civilian clothing, so he'd probably retired from service.

His wife is shown much smaller as a sign of deference to him. She is wearing a mantle, carrying a cup, and lifting the hem of her overdress to show a skirt beneath - perhaps pointing to their relative wealth. However, there is no inscription for her, and that dedicated to her husband is cramped beneath his feet. Did funds run out? Did Marcus organise the carving of their dual commemoration while still alive and another hand part finished the job?

The museum uses this plaque in an interesting recording to give voice to the unnamed wife, and convey a sense of the time. 

Caecilius Avitus of Emerita Augusta
Of course, we need to be reminded that Roman tombstones, or funerary plaques, were not raised bare. Earlier peoples believed in colour, and the Roman civilization was no exception.

Meet Caecilius Avitus, his plaque as it was unearthed, and the museum's replica as it would, or might, have looked. With its abbreviations completed, the inscription reads:

"To the spirits of the departed Caecilius Avitus of Emerita Augusta, an optio of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix. Served 15 years lived 34 years. His heir had this stone made."

Emerita Augusta is now Merida in south-west Spain. Caecilius Avitus may not have had a long life, but his commemoration doubtless lives far beyond his imaginings.

Needless to say, the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, is well worth a visit. It runs its entry on a donation basis.

All images are copyright to Linda Acaster.

See also: my post on Chester's unearthed Amphitheatre