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How frequently were amphitheatres used in the Roman World? At the recent Amphitheatre conference at Chester on the 16th-18th February 2007, held to mark the conclusion of the excavations of the Roman amphitheatre at Chester, the highlight was a fierce debate as to how intensively amphitheatres were actually used.

On one side, Mary Beard, a Professor in Classics at Cambridge (and popular blogger – read her blog at argued that amphitheatres were only used occasionally and stood empty for 360 days a year. ‘Historians and archaeologists, as well as journalists, have wildly overestimated the importance of gladiators in the ancient world. It’s us who are obsessed with the arena, not (so much) the Romans. All the evidence – and, to be honest, there is not a lot of it – suggests that public gladiatorial spectacle was not a frequent event. The inhabitants of Roman Chester would have been lucky to see a handful of B team gladiators twice a year. The more interesting question for us is what went on in these amphitheatres on the other 360 or so days’. This view did not go unchallenged. Nicholas Bateman, the excavator of the London amphitheatre, pointed out that the London amphitheatre was in use from the late 1st century AD when it was constructed, to when it was abandoned in the early fourth century and gave every indication that it had been well used.Perhaps we should compare amphitheatres with modern racecourses: I see from their website that Chester racecourse only has 12 days of racing a year, but there are also ladies days – dress to impress – a Sunday Funday, and even (this being Chester) a Roman Day. And of course we are told that it is a splendid place for weddings, corporate hospitality and family parties: were amphitheatres similarly available? Or perhaps we should look at the (modern) Olympic Games, where huge stadia are built at vast costs but are then only fully utilised for a single hyped-up fortnight. There was also a learned discussion as to whether amphitheatres were elliptical or oval. Mark Wilson-Jones told us that there is an important mathematical distinction between these geometric forms: an ellipse is a stretched circle and is more properly correct, whereas an oval uses the arc of two circles, and thus the radial walls near the entrance become distorted. However, an ellipse is relatively easy to set out: Pompeii and most of the military amphitheatres are ellipses, but el Djem and the Colosseum are ovals. Those who understand the layout of stone circles could well turn their attention to the layout of amphitheatres when they come to study Roman architecture.The conference also looked at amphitheatres throughout the empire. On the Danube, for instance, there were two towns, Carnuntum and Aquincum, both of which had two amphitheatres, which sounds a bit greedy until we realise that both towns were like York, that is both a legionary fortress and a civilian town outside it, so there were two amphitheatres, one for the soldiers, and one for civilians.And then there is the question of amphitheatres in the East. Amphitheatres are not supposed to exist in the Eastern Roman Empire, where everyone was civilised and went to the theatre instead. But look carefully and there are quite a number of them, and Hazel Dodge had counted no less than 30 of them. We will give a small prize of a year’s free subscription to any reader of Current Archaeology or Current World Archaeology who can find and send me a photograph of an amphitheatre in the Eastern Roman Empire. The highlight of the conference was the display of gladiatorial fighting given after dinner – no after-dinner speeches, just some gladiators instead – much more exciting. It was all laid on by Roman Tours Ltd, the local re-enactment specialists: nobody actually got killed (as far as I was aware) but several of them seemed to wilt under the weight of their armour – one could see how the lightly armed retiarius, with just a net and a trident – could prove a formidable opponent to the heavily armed murmillo. And then on the final afternoon we went to see the amphitheatre itself, now laid out as a visitor attraction. Only one half is visible. The other half is under Dee House, a once fine Georgian house, but now a sad wreck, having been used as a convent school and then partly destroyed by fire. This is one of the classic conundrums for the archaeologist: should it be ‘restored’ – which means being virtually rebuilt – or should it be pulled down so we can get at the rest of the amphitheatre underneath?There remained one last thought: why is it that so many of the British amphitheatres were discovered so late? Chester itself was only discovered in 1929 while the London amphitheatre was only discovered in 1987 – even though it was in retrospect in such an obvious place, under the Guildhall Yard. Yet one would have thought that an amphitheatre would be rather a large structure to lose completely. There must be amphitheatres still to be discovered in Britain: York for instance is an a obvious place being both a legionary fortress and a colonia – and to judge by the Danubian towns that are both fortress and civilian towns, there could well be two amphitheatres at York. So where are they? All those archaeologists in York should start looking!


This opinion comes from CA issue 209

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