Echoes from the arena

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Exploring evidence for gladiators in York and Cirencester

This fragment of Samian ware, found in Cirencester, comes from a pottery vessel that was decorated with vivid scenes of gladiators fighting wild animals. CREDIT: Corinium Museum, CDC

Last month’s CA reviewed an exhibition in Cirencester that features six ‘gladiator’ skeletons excavated in York. Struck by the fact that Cirencester has an impressive amphitheatre, but no direct evidence for the individuals who may have fought there, while York has potential gladiators but as-yet no trace of any amphitheatre, Carly Hilts presents a tale of two settlements, exploring life and death in the ancient arena.

Think of ancient Rome and one of the most immediately recognisable (and often romanticised) images is that of the gladiator: the battle-scarred brawler in the blood-spattered arena, relying on their own martial skill and the whim of a baying crowd of spectators to live another day, ultimately striving to win fame and – if they survived long enough – their freedom. Such figures retain a powerful hold on the popular imagination (not to mention Hollywood), but images of gladiators were clearly just as evocative in the Roman period. Despite the fighters’ low social status (many entered the arena as slaves, prisoners of war, or condemned criminals), depictions proliferate in the archaeological record. They are incorporated into the fabric of high-status houses, whether in the colourful frescoes found at Pompeii or, closer to home in West Sussex, in the mosaic floors of Bignor Roman villa – and they decorate a wide range of objects, from oil lamps and ceramic pots to glass vessels, and a very characterful penknife from Piddington in Northamptonshire (see CA 182). Some of these artefacts even preserve the name of their subject, suggesting that they might have been created as souvenirs of fan favourites.

We also know about some of the venues in which gladiators may have fought, but physical remains of the individuals themselves are much harder to identify. In London, a number of skulls found in a pit near the River Walbrook were interpreted as possible candidates. Due to their apparently indifferent interment and the brutal injuries that had been inflicted on them using both blunt force and bladed weapons, it was suggested that these men could have lost their lives in Londinium’s amphitheatre, whose foundations were discovered in 1988 and are now preserved beneath the Guildhall in the City (CA 109 and 137). On the Continent, a handful of potential gladiator burials have been highlighted at sites including Pompeii, Trier, Patras, and Ephesus, but in Britain perhaps the most persuasive finds were uncovered almost 200 miles to the north of the Walbrook pit, in York.


The story of the Driffield Terrace skeletons begins almost 20 years ago, with York Archaeological Trust’s excavations beneath two back gardens on the eponymous street. The site lies about 600m south-west of York’s city walls, and between 2004 and 2005 YAT uncovered 82 Roman skeletons there, as well as a further 14 cremation burials. These represented just a portion of a much larger cemetery which, in accordance with Roman custom, lay outside the settlement’s bounds, flanking a road running south-west towards Tadcaster on the line of the modern A1036. The burial ground was long-lived, spanning much of the Roman period from the 1st to the late 4th centuries, and was strikingly disorganised: its graves were not arranged in neat rows, but densely clustered and intercutting on a range of different orientations.

The skeletons, too, represented a diverse range of burial practices. While most were extended flat on their backs, some individuals had been placed in the grave curled up on their sides, while three lay face down. Fourteen preserved traces of coffins; most did not. There were a number of multiple burials: in five cases, grave cuts were shared by two people, while there was also a triple interment and one where four individuals had all been placed in the same large wooden box. As York Osteoarchaeology Ltd’s analysis of the human remains progressed, however, it soon became clear that the cemetery population did not represent the usual broad swathe of society that you might expect, with a mixture of old and young, men and women, and recognisable family groups. Instead, the Driffield Terrace skeletons were overwhelmingly those of young- to middle-aged men, none of them over 45. There was just one woman present, very few children (the team identified two aged 1-2 and 6-7, as well as a new- born baby and the remains of a pre-term foetus; three adolescents in their mid-to- late teens were probably socially regarded as adults), and nobody who might be described as elderly. The burials appeared to represent a deliberately selected group of specific people.

York Archaeological Trust’s excavations at Driffield Terrace in 2004-2005 uncovered 82 Roman skeletons, more than half of which had been decapitated. CREDIT: York Archaeological Trust

Even more notable than these unusual demographics, though, was the fact that more than half of the individuals had been decapitated – some with a single cut, some with multiple blows. In many cases, this was obvious at the time of excavation, as the individual’s severed head had been placed by their legs, at their shoulder, or under their torso. In others, though, it became apparent only during subsequent analysis, as the skull had been set in its correct anatomical position, with only cut vertebrae and occasional nicks to the lower jaw to indicate what had happened. Intriguingly, in one double burial the heads of its two occupants had been swapped and put with the ‘wrong’ skeleton – though whether this was by accident or design remains unknown.


What does this unusual group of burials signify? Since the skeletons’ discovery, numerous interpretations have been put forward as to who these people were – interpretations that form the focus of Gladiators: a cemetery of secrets, a JORVIK Group touring exhibition currently running at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester (see ‘Further information’ on p.37, and CA 396).

Could these be the remains of condemned criminals? It should be said that decapitation need not necessarily indicate an individual who had been executed by beheading: it was not an uncommon Roman funerary rite, though the intentions behind such actions are still debated. The proportion of decapitated skeletons at Driffield Terrace is nonetheless unusual for a Roman cemetery. The fact that some individuals were found with their limbs in disarray, suggestive of them being flung carelessly into their grave, could also indicate a degree of disrespect that might fit with this theory – but this was not the case for all, and the decapitated skeletons were found in what appears to have been a prime part of an otherwise prestigious cemetery (judging by the high-status grave goods associated with some of the other burials from the site).

One of the Driffield Terrace individuals had apparent bite marks on both sides of his pelvis, thought to have been inflicted by a large carnivore. CREDIT: York Archaeological Trust

Soon after the skeletons’ discovery, an early suggestion was that they could represent a moment of crisis associated with the unrest that followed the death of the emperor Septimius Severus (who had used York as his base) in AD 211, but the broad span of time represented by the burials rules out a single event. It does appear that violence might have been a factor, however – certainly, these individuals had experienced interpersonal violence during their lives. Many showed signs of healed injuries to their heads, faces, and teeth; these can, of course, have entirely innocent causes (a fall, a bang to the head, being struck by a falling object), but it seems telling that most of these injuries relate to the forehead and the left portion of the skull, which would be consistent with being struck by a right-handed assailant. Others had suffered fractured ribs, vertebrae, and shoulder blades, as well as damage that could have been caused by twisting ankles or falling on to outstretched hands. It is possible that this was a particularly accident- prone population, but interestingly one of the most-common injuries was breaking the first metacarpal bone at the base of the right thumb – something often associated with punching, whether in fights or sporting activities.

In light of these wounds, might a military explanation fit the bill? Roman York (Eboracum to its inhabitants) was an important garrison town, and the relatively young age of the Driffield Terrace individuals would be compatible with them being soldiers. However, the number of decapitated skeletons would still be unusual in such a context. Perhaps, then, they were a different kind of fighter? During analysis of the skeletons, it was noted that these men were mostly taller than average for the period, with signs of robust muscles and repetitive, strenuous activity during life. Yet while they were well-built, they did not appear to be high- status individuals – an unusually high proportion of cribra orbitalia (fine pitting in the roof of their eye sockets), as well as markings on their teeth called enamel hypoplasia speak of episodes of stress – perhaps malnutrition, illness, or parasitic infection – from an early age.

Could these individuals have been gladiators? One of the most important clues came from a skeleton known as 6DT19, which was that of a 26- to 35-year-old man from the late 3rd/ early 4th century. He had been buried in the triple grave, together with another man of a similar age range and one slightly older at 36-45, and he had been decapitated. What made this individual stand out, though, was a series of small, mostly circular depressions on both sides of his pelvis, into which small flakes of bone had been pressed. These have been interpreted as bite marks from a large carnivore, and while the precise species is yet to be determined (research is ongoing), large dogs, bears, wolves, lions, and tigers are all known to have been set against humans in the Roman arena. Perhaps this man had been a hapless soul sent unarmed against hungry beasts, in a form of public execution known as damnatio ad bestias – or it could be that he was a professional venator (‘hunter’),a kind of arena fighter who pitted his skills against wild animals, whose luck had finally run out.

Cirencester’s amphitheatre is one of the largest known in Britain. This is an artist’s impression of how it would have looked at its peak. CREDIT: Corinium Museum, CDC/Adrian Farwell

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 397. Read on in the magazine or on our new website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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