Gladiators: A day at the Roman games

Colchester was the first capital of Roman Britain, and excavations within the town frequently uncover evidence of this chapter of its past. Colchester Castle, built over the ancient temple of Claudius, is currently home to an exhibition exploring one aspect of Roman life (and, for many unlucky participants, death): the gladiatorial games. Glynn Davis is our guide.


Welcome to the Games! The High Priestess of the Imperial Cult welcomes you to a day of celebration in honour of the emperor’s visit to Camulodunum – Britannia’s most important city. After months of preparation, the arena is now ready for a day of spectacles that will rival Rome

Last month saw the opening of ‘Gladiators: A Day at the Roman Games’ – a new exhibition at Colchester Castle. It has been a long time in the making, having been scuppered, like so many projects, by the pandemic and ensuing recovery period. But time has also allowed Colchester Museums to hone this family exhibition, which takes visitors through an imagined day of spectacula at Roman Colchester.

Discovered in Colchester, this glass cup is decorated with a scene of gladiatorial combat. 

Known as Camulodunum, the settlement was founded immediately after the Claudian invasion of AD 43, initially as a legionary fortress located within the defences of the existing late Iron Age oppidum. By c.AD 49, the legionary fortress had been converted to a colonia, a community of veteran soldiers and Roman citizens, and became the first capital of Roman Britain. The importance of Colchester is attested by its association with the Imperial Cult, centred on the Temple of Claudius – and, while the fledgling Colonia Claudia Victricensis was completely destroyed in the Boudican rebellion of AD 60/61, it was subsequently rebuilt and continued to flourish.

Our exhibition illuminates just one aspect of life in Roman Britain – and impetus for its creation was born out of new research into the ‘Colchester Vase’: a late 2nd-century barbotine vessel that was found just outside Colchester in the mid-19th century. Barbotine is a decorative process that involves adding slip directly on to pottery, and the Colchester Vase is a particularly good example of such a vessel – but this is not the most exciting aspect of its design. Its exterior is decorated with images from the Roman arena: sparring gladiators, men battling a bear, dogs hunting wild animals. Some of the individuals even have their names inscribed above them.

The Colchester Vase burial assemblage, found in the 19th century.

Reassessment by a team of specialists has concluded that the Vase – later reused as a Roman cremation urn containing the remains of an older man who was not from the Colchester area – was a specially commissioned piece that was locally made (see CA 398). More than that, its imagery is so vivid as to suggest that it depicts a specific event rather than a generic scene – as such, it is the only evidence from Britain that records a real Roman spectacle, possibly one that took place in Colchester, though the town’s amphitheatre is yet to be located. However, one Roman pot, no matter how significant, doesn’t make an exhibition. In order to explain the importance of the Vase, the remit of the displays was expanded to contextualise gladiator spectacles in Roman Britain – and the exhibition now features over 150 objects and specimens from Colchester Museums’ significant archaeological and natural science collections.

These are supported by 50 loans from across the country, stretching from Carlisle to Cambridgeshire. A partnership, and major loan, from the British Museum was essential to making the exhibition’s content relevant, and for us to communicate the difference between arena entertainment in the empire’s fringe province, as compared to in its Italian heartlands. ‘A Day at the Roman Games’ may be an imagined event, but its narrative is based on current research from across Britain and the provinces, leading visitors on a metaphorical journey from the Temple of Claudius, following the pompa, to the market stalls on the outskirts of the amphitheatre, and then into the arena.

The Gods of the Games

As well as serving as entertainment, amphitheatre spectacles were incredibly important political and religious occasions. In our imagined ‘Day at the Games’, the high priestess (flaminica prima) of the Imperial Cult acts as the organiser (editor) of the games. Observing the proceedings throughout our exhibition are the deities Nemesis, Hercules, and Diana. Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution, is perhaps the least well-known of the three, but she was worshipped throughout the provinces by gladiators, and Britain is no exception. An altar dedicated to the goddess, from the site of the Chester amphitheatre, is one of several important loans from the Grosvenor Museum. Meanwhile, a much smaller object comes from MOLA’s excavations in London, on the site of the ancient Walbrook river: a gold disc, perhaps used as a magical token, which bears the image of the winged goddess.

Excavated at Balkerne Lane, Colchester, in the 1970s, this is the only known fresco from Britain that depicts an arena scene.

The gods would literally have attended the games, as their representations were carried in a ceremonial procession known as the pompa amphitheatralis, from the site of worship (the Temple of Claudius at Colchester in this instance) to the arena. They even had their own VIP seat, known as the pulvinar, from which they would watch the games. We have no idea how frequently games (known as munera) were staged in Britain, but there an expectation was laid on the Imperial Cult for regular events honouring the spirit of the emperors. The scale of these spectacles is indicated by an imperial edict of AD 176-177, contemporary with the Colchester Vase, which was intended to mitigate the expenditure these games had been incurring. It speaks to the likely cost of munera in Britain, especially where the provision of performers potentially demanded long and costly journeys, such as for Valentinus – another inscription indicates that he was associated with the 30th Legion, which was never stationed in Britain.

The Beasts of Britannia

‘A Day at the Games’ traditionally started with animal hunts (venationes), in which trained fighters known as bestiarii or venatores pitted themselves against wild animals in the arena. We know that over 9,000 beasts were slaughtered just to mark the inauguration of the Colosseum in Rome in AD 80, and over subsequent centuries all manner of animals were captured and transported to the empire’s premier amphitheatre, including lions, rhinos, hippos, and even crocodiles. But what beasts would have been tormented and slaughtered for the crowd’s entertainment in Britain? Although stags, boars, and bulls sound less exciting than elephants and ostriches, they would have been no less deadly. Despite extensive excavations at several amphitheatre sites across Britain, very little zoological evidence has been found for the venatio spectacles, and so this part of the exhibition draws on Colchester + Ipswich Museums’ taxidermy and osteology collections to bring our audiences face-to-face with these animals. Working against archaeologists is the fact that sandy arena floors would have been regularly cleaned and replenished, leaving behind little evidence of the venues’ activities. Recent work at the Chester amphitheatre, for example, has concluded that 892 tonnes of dry sand would have been imported to cover the entire arena floor at a depth of 250mm. A tangential piece of evidence for the venationes, also discovered in the Chester arena, is the heaviest object to be loaned to the exhibition. It is a dressed lump of stone, weighing nearly 300kg, which was used as a tethering block to which animals could be chained. No doubt this added some extra protection for the crowds, but it would also ensure the animals were kept in full view at the centre of the arena and forced to engage with one another.

The rich decoration of the Colchester Vase brings arena combat to vivid life. From top to bottom: The distinctive figure of a secutor, wearing helmet and body armour, and carrying a sword and shield, attacks a much more lightly armoured retiarius. This individual only has a shoulder guard for protection, and his weapons are a net and a trident; the latter object can be seen lying beneath the secutor‘s feet as its owner raises his finger in a gesture of submission. Above these figures are inscribed the names Memnon and Valentinus.We then see scenes of fights involving wild animals: first, a dog is shown pursuing a hare and two stags, after which two men are depicted attacking a bear with clubs and a whip. Their names are given as Secundus and Mario. Images: © Colchester Museums
Found in Leicester, this knife/key handle shows captives being attacked by a lion. Is it an example of someone being executed through damnatio ad bestias – being thrown to wild animals? You can find out more about it at
Image: Gavin Speed / University of Leicester Archaeological Services 

Perhaps the most terrifying bestius to have been seen in British arenas, though, would have been the bear. A possible bear bone was found in association with the excavations of London’s amphitheatre, while Colchester has some of the best evidence for bear remains from Britain, with bones being recovered from several Roman contexts across the city. The Colchester Vase offers an important piece of evidence here, too. If the vase records an actual spectacle, then the bestarii depicted, named as Secundus and Mario, must have fought an actual bear. British bears seem to have been transported across the empire – the Roman poet Martial, who wrote the Book of Spectacles commemorating the opening of the Colosseum, records ‘Caledonian’ bears in the arena – and it is just as likely that bears could have travelled in the other direction, being imported to Britain from the Rhineland. A 2nd-century AD inscription dedicated to Diana records the taking of 50 bears by one centurion, and another later inscription preserves a dedication to Silvanus by the bear-catcher (ursarius) of the 30th Legion at Xanten, Germany. Alongside the evidence recorded on the Colchester Vase that the gladiator Valentinus had a martial connection, this rich epigraphic evidence speaks to the military’s involvement in procuring men and beasts for the arenas of the north-west provinces.

Back in the arena, at midday, a break in the scheduled entertainment allowed the Governor of the province, who acted as Chief Justice, to dispense death to convicted criminals (noxii). The amphitheatre was a perfect place for this. It could accommodate a large proportion of a town’s populace to show them the power and rule of empire and emperor in action. It fed into the idea of spectacle, as well. The Romans had some particularly cruel ways of putting convicted criminals to death, and perhaps the best known, associated with arenas, was damnatio ad bestias – being thrown to wild animals. Depictions of this damnatio turn up in some surprising contexts. At Colchester, it seems to have inspired Samian potters, as both pottery moulds and ceramic sherds have been found decorated with these scenes. Most recently, a remarkable knife/key handle was excavated from Leicester, decorated with captives being attacked by a lion (CA 332), and an object on a related theme is among the British Museum loans in the exhibition: a handle decorated with the figure of a young woman being mauled by a bear. As this is a family exhibition, though, we don’t dwell too much on the subject of these gruesome executions, letting the objects speak for themselves.

This oil lamp represents the distinctive helmet of a kind of gladiator called a murmillo.

Slaves of the Arena

‘A Day at the Games’ aims to expose some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding gladiators, too, as well as their contested status in Roman society. Gladiators were considered infamis – a legal and social stigmatisation that essentially placed them as the lowest of the low. The majority of gladiators would have been enslaved, which means their presence in Britain is doubly hard to discern archaeologically. Chains and manacles are perhaps the most obvious artefacts that represent physical incarceration, and several of these have been found at Colchester; an incredibly well-preserved set of manacles is also on loan to the exhibition from Ipswich Museums. A far more nuanced object that speaks to the complexity of Roman slavery, though, is a wooden writing tablet excavated from London, on loan from MOLA. It records the sale of an enslaved girl named Fortunata, who is noted as being healthy and having no history of running away. The buyer, Vegetus, was himself enslaved and paid 600 silver denarii for Fortunata, the equivalent of two years’ salary for a Roman soldier.

The exhibition aims to provide a colourful graphic display, like a comic book coming to life. This is aided by illustrations by Gary Erskine, such as this secutor. Image: Gary Erskine

Despite suffering from social contempt, however, successful gladiators could find fame and earn themselves a celebrity-like reputation – they were even characterised as sex symbols. Perhaps the lure of the arena and the ‘power of spectacle’ is what enticed some to enter into a contract with a lanista voluntarily, despite suffering the automatic loss of citizen rights in doing so. Although literary sources might be prone to exaggeration, looking at the funerary record of gladiators it is striking how they sought to ‘own’ their identity. Tombstones record gladiators’ careers and celebrate their skill in the arena. It was clearly important, to those who could afford it, that people would remember their name and victories in the arena for eternity.

The inscription around the Colchester Vase gives the names of real-life gladiators. The exhibition in which it features moves beyond specific individuals to look at the wider experiences of those involved in the games.

Gladiators, Ready!

Although no programme exists for a standard day of arena spectacula, gladiatorial combat would have been the prime event, in the afternoon. Popular culture has perhaps created a distorted view of these engagements. First, they may have been relatively short, perhaps only 15-20 minutes in length – although this would have felt like a long time for participants, especially when wearing physically restrictive and heavy armour. These matches were managed by a referee to a set of rules, and in many senses gladiators should be considered professional fighters. As enslaved people, though, they were also a commodity to their owner – the lanista – who trained them in the ludus. Gladiators were big business in the Roman world, and lanistae would have soon been out of a job if every fight ended in the death of a gladiator. Training and experience would improve gladiators’ chances of survival, and as they became more skilled, they became more valuable. If a gladiator could win enough fights, and serve out their contract, they could earn their freedom. A wooden sword, or rudis, would be presented as a symbol, and in the exhibition a rare and well-preserved wooden sword from Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, represents this escape from servitude and death.

No exhibition on Roman gladiators would be complete without a gladius – the short sword from which gladiators took their name. One of our highlight objects is the Segontium Sword, on loan from the Storiel museum in Bangor, Wales. This is one of the best-preserved gladii from Britain: as well as the blade, its ivory and bone hilt is preserved, giving an idea of what this weapon would have looked like. Britain is, however, bereft of any actual arms and armour that were undoubtedly used by a gladiator. There is only one possible piece of armour that might be linked to the arena: known as the Hawkedon Helmet, it was found in Suffolk (though it may originally have come from Colchester, 20 miles from the findspot), and has been loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum. The helmet is significantly heavier than a standard military type, and would have been tinned, giving it a shiny, silver appearance. It would also have had a hinged mask to protect the face, now lost. The loan of a distinctive murmillo helmet, originally from the gladiatorial barracks in Pompeii, by the British Museum, helps give an idea of how striking it would have looked.

‘A Day at the Games’ tries to imagine what a ‘standard’ programme of arena events might have looked like 1,800 years ago at Colchester. The design is inspired by the word spectacula – it is a bold, colourful, graphic display, hopefully giving the feel of a comic book coming to life. We have drawn on evidence from across the empire and supported our own collections with important loans from across the country, including the national collection of the British Museum. Many of these objects are together for the first time, and we hope the exhibition entertains and gives some idea of the reality of attending the games in Britain’s Roman capital.

Further information
‘Gladiators: A Day at the Roman Games’ runs at Colchester Castle until 14 January 2024. Entry is included in general admission; for more details, see

All Images: © Colchester Museums, Douglas Atfield, unless otherwise stated