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.
Excavating an enigma
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.
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.
Questions of identity
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).
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.
If these individuals were gladiators, where had they fought? The expected answer would be ‘in the amphitheatre’, but while Roman York was certainly large and important enough to have had this kind of public building, no trace of one has yet been found. For an impressive example whose remains can still be clearly seen, though, we might turn to Cirencester, where six of the Driffield Terrace skeletons are currently on display at the Corinium Museum, in the Gladiators exhibition mentioned above. About a 15-minute walk from the museum, and c.160m outside the Roman town defences, imposing oval earthworks attest to the presence of one of the largest-known amphitheatres found in Britain. Its banks of tiered seating (possibly with raised rear terraces for standing spectators) could accommodate around 8,000 people – modest in scale compared to the Colosseum, which could hold nearer 50,000, but impressive by British standards, comparable to sites like Chester and bigger than London’s 6,000-seater. Today, the amphitheatre is a Scheduled Ancient Monument under the care of English Heritage and managed by Cirencester Town Council; it is open to visitors during daylight hours.
That Roman Cirencester should have boasted such a prestigious amphitheatre is no surprise: at its peak, Corinium Dobunnorum was the second-largest town in Roman Britain. Founded as the civitas (tribal capital/administrative centre) of the local Dobunni people, it was originally associated with a Roman fort, but by AD 75 the garrison had been transferred elsewhere and the military buildings and ramparts dismantled. The civilian settlement continued to thrive, however, remodelling itself with a new street grid and constructing grand public buildings to reflect its status – temples, baths, a theatre and, of course, the amphitheatre – as well as seeing a blossoming of shops and private houses. By the 3rd century, this flourishing settlement had gained tall walls and monumental gateways, which at their peak enclosed an area of 96ha. The town’s status is vividly illustrated by the Corinium Museum’s Roman galleries, which are home to a spectacular array of mosaics depicting animals, mythological scenes, and more-abstract motifs in colourful tesserae (see http://www.coriniummuseum.org/discover/collections/featured-objects/mosaics for more on these, and CA 281 for more about Roman Cirencester).
Cirencester’s amphitheatre has not seen the intense archaeological attention of sites like Chester (see CA 224 and 304), but antiquarian investigations are recorded as having taken place in the 19th century. As Neil Holbrook’s detailed account of the site in Cirencester: the Roman town defences, public buildings and shops (see ‘Further information’) attests, early interpretations varied widely, describing it as a British religious/assembly centre, a refuse dump for nearby quarries, and a Roman encampment, though some scholars did recognise its true function – among them, the Reverend J G Joyce, who had excavated at Silchester (itself home to an amphitheatre) in 1864-1878.
The only modern excavations to have taken place on the site – which are also featured in the Corinium Museum exhibition – were carried out by J S Wacher in 1962-1963, and by A D McWhirr in 1966, both working under the Cirencester Excavation Committee (a forerunner of Cotswold Archaeology). The scale of this initial campaign was limited by the demands of other emergency excavations in the town, Neil Holbrook reports, but Wacher was still able to open nine trenches to explore the amphitheatre’s date and sequence of construction in 1962, and a further five the following year. McWhirr’s subsequent works saw a trench put in across one of the amphitheatre’s seating banks, and two more to help locate the arena wall. Thanks to these investigations, we are now able to reconstruct a detailed chronology for how the site evolved.
It is thought that the original amphitheatre was built in the early 2nd century, exploiting the site of an earlier quarry and lying on an extended alignment of the main street grid. Unusually, it seems to have been planned from the outset as part of Corinium’s civic building programme rather than representing a later ad-hoc addition to the town. The amphitheatre’s superstructure is thought to have been originally built in timber, with earth banks to support its seating, but it was dramatically remodelled quite early in its history, being rebuilt in stone within around 50 years. Towards the end of the 2nd century, it saw significant modifications to its north-east entrance, with the construction of a small chamber on either side of this space. Both of these had doors leading into the arena – one preserved traces of an iron grille, and the other hints of a possible drop gate – and they are strikingly similar to side-chambers found during excavations of Chester’s and London’s amphitheatres. Chester’s contained an altar to Nemesis, goddess of retribution, and London’s have been interpreted as another possible Nemeseum or animal pens. It is suggested that Cirencester’s side-rooms might have functioned as cells for wild beasts or prisoners ahead of their release into the arena. Evidence for this kind of chamber – known as a carcer – was also recently revealed within the arena wall of Richborough amphitheatre (see CA 382), and this is not the only similarity between the two sites: the 1960s investigations at Cirencester revealed hints that the amphitheatre had been brightly painted with red, black, yellow, and white, while colourful traces have been identified at its Kent counterpart, too.
By the middle of the 4th century, the Cirencester amphitheatre’s glory days were over, and it appears that significant portions of its stonework (including the side-chambers) were demolished at this time so that their materials could be reused elsewhere. Then, with the end of official Roman occupation in Britain, it seems that a period of unrest provoked a complete change of purpose for the site – it was transformed into a 5th-century fortress, with the erection of a wooden palisade along its banks.
The results of these excavations paint a vivid picture of the rise and fall of this impressive public building. Rather more elusive, however, are any traces of the gladiators who may have fought there – though Corinium’s population was clearly interested in such combat, as plentiful fragments of Samian ware decorated with images of them have been discovered within the town, including during excavation of the amphitheatre. During the 1960s investigations, it initially appeared that this situation was about to change, when the team discovered disarticulated human bones within the amphitheatre. Were these the unfortunate victims of its bloody entertainments? Further exploration soon put the record straight: there was a Roman cemetery adjacent to the amphitheatre site, which continued to grow after the structure was completed. At the same time, earth from the burial ground had been used to build up the amphitheatre’s ground level and shore up its banks – introducing human remains into its construction layers.
That is not to say that these bones might not one day reveal vital secrets. James Harris, Collections & Community Engagement Officer at the Corinium Museum, notes that, while the cemetery had not yet yielded evidence of a distinct group like the Driffield Terrace individuals, the remains buried there do preserve hints of violence – blunt-force trauma, cuts from sharp blades – as well as decapitations. The osteological record from this site has not been reassessed since it was created 40 years ago, and no isotope or aDNA analysis has been undertaken on any of the remains – but it would be fascinating to see whether revisiting the Cirencester bones might add to our understanding of arena activities in Britain.
For more about Roman Cirencester and excavations within the town, see Neil Holbrook (1998) Cirencester: the Roman town defences, public buildings and shops (Cotswold Archaeological Trust, ISBN 095-2319632). The monograph can be accessed online for free at https://cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/publication/cirencester-the-roman-town-defences-public-buildings-and-shops; the account of amphitheatre excavations is in Part 4.
See www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/new-blog/gladiators to read more about the Driffield Terrace skeletons, including links to project reports, osteoarchaeological reports, and other analysis.
Gladiators: a cemetery of secrets (a JORVIK Group touring exhibition) runs at the Corinium Museum until 23 April 2023. See www.coriniummuseum.org/discover/gladiators.