Five to six metres underground, the skull of a battle-worn man gazes into the darkness, surrounded by the remains of London’s Roman amphitheatre – a space where he may have met his brutal end before a baying crowd. Today, his remains lie beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery, at the depth of the original Roman ground level, but they were discovered near the Walbrook River, in pits where more skulls and a fragment of human femur had been hastily consigned to the ground (see CA 288). The fragmentary nature of these bones was not the only clue to this being other than a formal grave: so too did their location within the city walls – formal burials from this period are more typically found outside the bounds of Londinium.
Why, then, had these bones received such an unconventional – and apparently uncaring – fate? It may be that the men to whom they belonged had been from a group of low social status, and their scarred features proved particularly instructive. Analysis by Dr Rebecca Redfern at the Museum of London revealed that many of the individuals had suffered dramatic injuries to their heads, wounds very different to what is normally seen in the city’s Roman cemetery populations, and often inflicted by bladed weapons.
The man whose skull is now on display at the Guildhall had evidently lived a life that was no less violent than his death. A long-healed wound testifies to a once-broken cheekbone, but this was more than a particularly accident-prone Roman, remarks Kate Sumnall, Curator for Archaeological Collections at the Museum of London, and of the exhibition. At around the time of his death, he had also suffered damage to his nose that never had a chance to heal, as well as a hard blow to his temple.
Roman blood sports
Who was this man? Ancient DNA and osteological analysis reveals that he had brown eyes and dark hair, and that he had been around 36-45 years old when he died in c.AD 125-250 – but little about his identity. The nature of his injuries, and the apparently indifferent disposal of his skull, tells a different story, though: it has been suggested that he, like the men whose remains he was buried with, may have been a gladiator who fought in the city’s amphitheatre, or a criminal executed in the arena.
There are 12 such sites known in Britain, and London’s was a modest-sized, provincial venue – its remains, uncovered beneath the Guildhall in 1988 (see CA 109 and 137), suggest that it could have accommodated around 6,000 spectators, or about 30% of Roman London’s estimated population at the time. (By contrast, the Colosseum in Rome could hold 50,000.) Such spaces hosted lavish, if bloodthirsty, entertainments funded by wealthy private sponsors, that typically involved the slaughter of local and more exotic animals, followed by the public execution of condemned criminals, and culminating in clashes between different combinations of gladiators.
These spectacles were not held very often in the city, and so they attracted great popular interest. As a social class, gladiators were not held in high esteem – many were slaves or criminals – although the most famous ones could attract a certain glamour and fame, as well as a following from admiring female fans. A number of glass vessels have been discovered within the City of London, decorated with gladiatorial scenes – possibly souvenirs depicting more popular fighters. If a gladiator was successful – or exceptionally lucky – he could win his freedom after three years, but perhaps unsurprisingly, given the hard and dangerous life that such men led, few survived that long. Might the battered skull of the Walbrook man bear witness to the harsh realities of this existence?
His remains form part of a small exhibition exploring evidence for gladiators in the city: Trauma forms part of this summer’s Londinium festival. Alongside the skull, visitors can see a selection of pottery drawn from the Museum of London’s collections, excavated from across the city, and shedding light on these immediately recognisable but still enigmatic fighters.
Decorated with images of different warriors, such vessels were produced in large numbers and exported to all corners of the Empire – the displayed examples originally came from Gaul – highlighting the pervasive popularity of gladiator imagery during the Roman period. They are equally illuminating because their artwork depicts very specific scenes with great attention to detail – they contain a wealth of clues to the combinations that these men fought in, the techniques they used, and the weapons and armour that they were equipped with.
One fragment of a 2nd-century colour-coated flagon depicts a kind of fighter known as a venator, or ‘hunter’, who specialised in staged ‘hunts’ of wild animals in the arena, rather than fighting other men. This was a very different category of entertainment to the hapless souls condemned to death through being thrown to hungry beasts (damnatio ad bestias) – the venator showed great skill and dexterity in his work, and faced his prey for pay and glory. Although only part of the pot survives, a complete example from Colchester allows us to reconstruct the central illustration. The Colchester vessel also has the names of gladiators inscribed.
On the London flask, we see a man in a running stance, one heavily padded arm raised and the handle of a now-lost whip clutched tightly in his hand. This venator would originally have been depicted baiting a bear, while bones excavated from other amphitheatre sites in Britain suggest that bulls, horses, wolves, and boars may also have been involved in these entertainments. We can also glean some clues about the man himself – he appears to be wearing trousers which may suggest that he was (or was being depicted as) a ‘barbarian’ from Germany or France.
Even were it not for his padded limbs and whip, the man’s pose would mark him out as venator rather than gladiator proper: this was not how he would be shown if he was fighting another human. Experienced gladiators often fought at close quarters, weighed down by armour, with little running and chasing.
Man-on-man fighting is, however, shown on a Samian vessel depicting a pair of gladiators wearing full face-covering helmets, and equipped with long, heavy shields and short swords. Their chests, however, were bare – unlike the armour of Roman soldiers, their kit was not designed to protect their life but, focused on head and limbs, to prolong the fighting and the spectacle for as long as possible so as not to disappoint the crowd.
The traditional understanding was that different kinds of gladiators fought in specific pairings; a heavily armed secutor, for example, was usually set against a retiarius (a much more lightly armoured fighter, equipped with a trident and net). Here, though, the gladiators are shown in a more evenly matched pair, both well armed, although there are some slight differences in their shield size and blade length. One has a curved blade, which might indicate his cultural background – he may have been a Thracian.
Some of the gladiator types were named for the equipment they used, such as the retiarius (rete is Latin for ‘net’), while others were named after tribes that had been conquered by the Roman Empire (such as Thracians). It is very difficult to positively identify the type of gladiator depicted here, as there is a lot of variation in the weapons and armour used. Notably, though, one is shown fighting right-handed, and the other left-handed – something that might at first be taken for artistic licence, so that each man’s sword hand is presented to the viewer, but in fact it reflects something described in contemporary sources: gladiators were trained to fight equally well with either hand.
In this scene, one gladiator is shown lunging towards the other, who braces himself in a crouched stance. The attacking gladiator is coming in low, in a cautious, defensive posture – this is not a swinging, amateurish blow that would leave his body exposed to a counter-thrust, but the technique of a seasoned fighter, perhaps even someone with a degree of military training.
Most likely, the scene shows the very start of a fight. By contrast, bouts ended when a gladiator lost his shield, and the fallen fighter’s fate was left in the hands of the crowd. He would raise a finger to appeal for their mercy, and the spectators signalled whether he would live to fight another day through a gesture of their own. Judgement came in the form of the police verso, written sources testify – but as the expression only means ‘with the thumb turned’, we do not actually know if death was signalled with the thumbs-down immortalised in popular culture.
Just such a scene is depicted on a broken oil-lamp that also features in the exhibition. Like the dish decorated with the two heavily armoured gladiators, here too the scene is generic in theme and yet has enough detail to be specific. On the lamp, the fallen gladiator is shown lying on the ground, separated from his shield, in the act of his final appeal, waiting to learn the crowd’s decision. Looking at this image, it is possible to imagine that the Walbrook man’s final moments, if he was such a fighter, may have involved something similar.
All images: Museum of London