‘Surprising’ new evidence shows gladiators fought in Roman Britain | Archaeology


Gladiator fights in spectacular arenas have long inspired filmmakers. Gladiator And Spartacus. Now new research has shown for the first time that such a sporting spectacle took place in Britain in the late 2nd century AD.

Important evidence was discovered in 1853 in a magnificent vase depicting gladiatorial combat found in a Roman tomb in Colchester.

New tests prove that the Colchester jar was made from local clay between 160 and 200 AD and that the inscription, which bears the names of two exceptional gladiators, was carved into the clay, not after firing, as previously thought. Therefore, it was an internal part of the original ship design and not a later addition to the overall image of the arena.

This suggests that the vase was the pinnacle of sporting memorabilia, perhaps commissioned by a trainer or owner of gladiators, or someone else who participated in such contests.

Frank Hargrave, Director of Colchester and Ipswich Museums (CIMS), owns the vase. Observer research has led to “surprising new findings” that show its true importance to the Romans in recording the true scene at “Colchester”. Camulodunum.

“This is the only evidence of gladiator combat in a Roman arena in Britain,” he said. “There are no written descriptions. The quality of the vase was such that there was a bit of sloppiness, it was assumed that it couldn’t have been from the UK, all the scans have now put it to bed.

A clay vessel found in a Roman grave at Colchester
A clay vase depicting gladiators and bear hunters has been found in a Roman tomb in Colchester. Photo: Douglas Atfield/Colchester Museums

Glynn Davies, Roman archaeologist and senior curator at CIMS, described the finds as “incredibly significant”. “Nothing but Britain. It’s a piece of memorabilia, almost a trophy for the trophy cabinet. Later it was used as a funerary vase. There should be a close relationship with the deceased person. They would have sponsored the games. Or they were absolute sports fiction. For some reason, they saw the fight and thought, “I want to get a souvenir from this.”

A large group of scientists from the universities of Durham, London and Reading participated in the study. Their osteological and isotopic analysis of the cremated human remains inside the vase revealed a “non-native” man of “potential European descent” in his 40s.

The vase – 212mm x 158mm – shows that gladiatorial combat was part of performances in the Roman arena, where programs included exotic animals. Its decoration depicts two men feeding a bear and a dog chasing a hare and a deer.

Gladiators were usually associated with various combinations of weapons, and the vase depicts a ‘sector’ in full armor with a heavy shield and helmet, and a ‘retiarius’ who could move quickly with little more than shoulder pads. strike with a trident or catch an opponent with a net. Although the prosecutor was well armed, he was heavy and had limited vision.

The gladiators were slaves, and the vases are called Memnon and Valentinus, which are considered stage names.

John Pearce, a lecturer in archeology at King’s College London, argued. whose names are sometimes based on Homeric characters – Memnon’s martial reputation was second only to that of Achilles, who may have been inspired by the mythical warrior king of the Ethiopians who later killed him at Troy. “Memnon appears frequently in Roman literature. He is described as this massively amazing “dark skinned” man from Troy. I wonder why Memnon was chosen as a gladiator name. Is it because we have a black gladiator from North Africa south of Colchester?

The vase shows the moment after Memnon’s victory over his opponent, he raises his index finger as he submits to the gladiators.

Davis and Pearce write in their forthcoming research: “The ad digitum Valentinus’s gesture signifies the end of the battle, but the decision to spare or kill him, and thus his fate as victim or survivor, is … unmarked.

Davis said, “You look at this time. Did Valentine survive? It would depend on the owner of the gladiators and the sponsor of the games, since they are slaves.

Although gladiators were considered outsiders, they were also celebrities. Their hard training was an expensive investment and their owners were reluctant to abandon them.

Most competitions are not death matches, Davis said. although he appreciated their portrayal in classic films such as Spartacus And Gladiator, he added: “There are many misconceptions about gladiators in the ancient world. It was big business and they were a commodity. Although thousands died in the arenas of the Roman world, they were usually criminals and prisoners of war. Gladiators are dead, but it’s not a bloodbath in popular culture.

Although no amphitheater – the usual arena for gladiatorial combat – has yet been opened, Colchester has two Roman theaters where such an event could be held. “With the new analysis of the Colchester vase, we can be confident that this happened here,” Pearce said.

The vase will be on display at a major gladiator exhibition at Colchester Castle from 15 July. Among the exhibits will be Roman oil lamps, including one in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet.

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