Walking with the gladiators...

Story by Jack Foley

HISTORY enthusiasts can now walk with the gladiators for the first time in 2,000 years at Guildhall Yard in London, following the discovery of Roman London's amphitheatre.

The impressive historical landmark was first unearthed by Museum of London archaeologists in 1988, and, nearly 15 years later, the doors to the amphitheatre have been opened to the public for the first time.

The amphitheatre was first discovered when short stretches of Roman wall were observed at the bottom of four archaeological investigation trenches. The findings were instantly famous and the site became a protected monument.

But the Corporation of London was keen to integrate the remains into its proposals for a new Art Gallery and, in 1992, work started, with the excavations taking place at the same time as construction over six years. Since the dig finished, the remains have been protected in a controlled environment in which they could dry out slowly, thus preventing damage to the ancient masonry.

Ironically, the location of the amphitheatre almost remained a mystery forever. The two curved stretches of wall that provided the vital clues to its existence were discovered at the end of an excavation prior to the building of the new Guildhall Art Gallery.

Looking back, project leader and Museum of London archaeologist, Nick Bateman, said: "People had been searching for the amphitheatre for hundreds of years - and suddenly I was standing in it. The most amazing thing was that no one had realised it was there before. After all, how can you lose a building the size of a football pitch?"

Further work revealed an arena that was oval in shape and approximately 100 metres long by 80 metres wide. The inner perimeter walls marking the amphitheatre's east entrance - upon which temporary seating would have been erected for public occasions - soon became clearly visible.

Commenting on the importance of the find, Hedley Swain, head of Early London at the Museum of London, said: "Until the discovery of the amphitheatre, a huge piece in the jigsaw of Roman London was missing. Now, London is one of the best understood of the Roman towns, and thanks to the Corporation of London, people will be able to get a real sense of what it would have been like to have lived here nearly 2,000 years ago."

The cost of the archaeology was £4 million, while the cost of fitting out the amphitheatre was £1.3 million. The complicated building project (prior to fitting out) meant that the Roman remains had to be enclosed in a controlled environment while excavation, piling and forming a supporting slab underneath the remains to keep them in place were carried out.

But the wait has been worth it, and the amphitheatre was officially opened to the public on Tuesday, June 11, 2002, since when it has continued to attract hundreds of visitors.

Commenting on the discovery, The Lord Mayor of the City of London, Alderman Michael Oliver, said: "Roman London's Amphitheatre offers a wonderful insight into life in Roman Britain. I am delighted at the way it has been displayed.

"I am also very pleased and proud that the Corporation of London has been able to preserve this fascinating and important part of the history of the City of London in a way that will allow people from Britain and across the world to enjoy it."

Roman London's Amphitheatre can be accessed via the Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard, London.
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday noon-4pm (admission until half an hour before closing).
Entry: £2.50 for adults, free after 3.30pm. Concessions £1. Children free and free to all on Fridays. There is no extra charge to enter the amphitheatre.
For group bookings and organised tours, contact the Museum of London Box Office on 020 7814 5777 or email groups@museumoflondon.org.uk


On the weekend of July 20, visitors to the Guildhall Yard will have the opportunity to witness, firsthand, the bloodshed that would have taken place on this site, as Britannia gladiators take to the ring in a series of Gladiatorial Combats organised by the Museum of London.

Following each contest, spectators will have the opportunity to visit the actual site where the fighting originally took place.

Combat of the Gladiators at the Guildhall Yard, July 20 & 21, 12noon & 3pm. Tickets: £6 adults (£4 concs). Booking: 020 7814 5777.

The history of Roman London

Britain finally entered the annals of recorded history with Julius Caesar's two 'invasions' of 55 and 54 BC. Although the Romans thought of them as barbarians, the Britons were, especially in the south-east, already very influenced by Roman culture and civilisation. In the century following Caesar's visit, there continued to be extensive trade in luxury goods, as well as political links following his treaties with the principal British tribal leaders. Roman troops may not have been stationed here but Rome certainly had friends amongst the Britons.

In AD 43 the Emperor Claudius decided to put the relationship between Rome and Britain on a more formal basis - he ordered another invasion and the complete subjugation of the island. This invasion was more thorough, with most of the south-east overrun within the first year. The Romans, under the personal leadership of Claudius, seized the most important British town in the south, Camulodunum (Colchester), to turn it into a military base. Campaigning then pushed northwards and westwards to subjugate remaining areas of resistance.

Although Britain, or rather what is now England and Wales, was not fully conquered until the early 80s AD, there was clearly considerable confidence amongst the invaders in the early years. Some tribes in some areas were openly pro-Roman and quickly adopted Roman customs and laws. In other areas Roman settlers, usually retired soldiers, formed colonies (eg at Colchester).

In about AD 47 two small hills on the north side of the Thames - currently occupied by St Paul's Cathedral and Leadenhall Market - were selected as the site for a new town, to be run by and for the traders who handled the importing of large quantities of luxury goods (wine, oil, cloth) and the exporting of raw materials such as slaves. It was called Londinium and quickly grew to be the most vibrant town in the whole province. The town benefited from easy access to the sea, and a position at the borders rather than the centres of existing tribal groups. By the early 2nd century AD, the Roman historian Tacitus was able to describe Londinium as 'famous for its wealth of traders and commercial traffic'.

The arena
St Augustine, writing in the 4th century on the subversive appeal of the arena, describes a visit to one made by his Christian friend, Alypius: ….the whole place was seething with savage enthusiasm, but he shut the doors of his eyes and forbade his soul to go out into a scene of such evil. If only he could have blocked up his ears too. For in the course of the fight some man fell; there was a great roar from the whole mass of spectators …he was overcome by curiosity and opened his eyes, feeling perfectly prepared to treat whatever he might see with scorn and to rise above it.... He saw the blood and he gulped down the savagery ... drunk with the lust of blood. He was no longer the man who had come there but was one of the crowd to which he had come.