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


  1. Linda, did they do all the things in this amphitheater as they did in Rome? Lions? Gladiator fights? Any history of its use for music of any kind? Or acting? Thanks.

  2. Hi Sharon. No one is sure as records, even in depictions on pottery or friezes are scarce, but it is believed that all stadia were used for the same sorts of "entertainment" because the legions were moved about so much. Trade was a huge part of the Roman Empire, and those who could, or had to because of their business, travelled.

    An amphitheatre was used for mass spectator sports: gladiators, animal fights, 'ritualised' killings. In the area there would also have been a true theatre (as we understand them) for recitals, plays, etc - rather like the one you and Wayne took us to in New Mexico - with banked seating in a half moon looking down to a stage, built for its acoustics.

    At Bath in Somerset, the Roman baths complex of Sulis-Minerva (Sulis being the original Celtic deity and Minerva being the introduced Roman) was said to have had a running track (possibly straight) to augment the gymnasium within the baths buildings. Colchester (Camulodunum) in Essex has been the only place where the site of a 'circus' has been unearthed (think 'Ben Hur'). As well as chariot-racing, horse races will have been held there: https://www.romancircus.co.uk/

    I hope this gives you a rough idea.