This week: Gladiators

Zliten mosaic.

At its height, the Roman Empire grew to an area of around two million square miles, stretching from Mesopotamia in the east to Lusitania (modern-day Portugal) in the west – a distance of some 4,000 miles.

But for all our knowledge of the empire’s vast extent, it still seems incongruous that the site of perhaps one of its best-preserved gladiator graveyards should be found not in any exotic location connected with the Hollywood blockbusters Spartacus and Gladiator – but beneath the tidy back gardens of a stuccoed terrace of houses, just off the A1036 in York.

The excavation, in 2004 and 2005, of the gardens of two houses on Driffield Terrace, 600m outside of York’s city walls, uncovered 82 Roman skeletons, as well as a further 14 cremation burials.

Of particular interest was the fact that more than half of the individuals found there had been decapitated – some with a single cut, others with multiple blows. The victims were, on the whole, taller than average for the period, suggesting they had been hand-picked, with signs of the robust muscle development – particularly in the right arm – that might be a result of years of training in the use of a sword. Many of the skeletons also showed signs of injuries associated with fighting, including cuts from sharp blades, suggesting a further possible link to the life-or-death gladiatorial contests that were such a popular and bloodthirsty feature of Roman life.

As we learn this week on The Past, however, the real clincher for those who believe Driffield Terrace to be an unlikely centre for the interment of victims of gladiatorial bouts came with the discovery on the pelvis of one of the excavated skeletons of a series of circular depressions – interpreted as the bite marks of one of the large carnivores (including bears, wolves, lions, and tigers) known to have been used against humans in the Roman arena.

In the latest issue of Current Archaeology magazine, editor Carly Hilts digs more deeply into the evidence of the blood-spattered activities of gladiators in Britain, taking us on a journey that stretches from Driffield Terrace 200 miles south-west to Cirencester, in Gloucestershire, where an imposing series of earthworks attests to the presence of an impressive amphitheatre – perhaps a British version of the Colosseum.

Elsewhere this week, we have been delving into the archives for more about gladiators: we reviewed a touring exhibition that also focuses on the discoveries in Driffield Terrace; we went looking for the remains of London’s own Roman amphitheatre; we peered more closely at a newly discovered mural depicting a bloody gladiatorial contest in Pompeii; and we even learned what happened to the Colosseum after these barbaric public contests were brought to an end.

And finally, if all that only whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around gladiators. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

The Past is powered by Current Publishing’s unique stable of accessible specialist magazines, each of which is a leader in its field, and by our global network of writers and editors.

Our aim is simple: to create a new essential destination for anyone interested in any aspect of the past – authoritative, easy to read and navigate, beautifully designed and illustrated, and with no annoying adverts, pop-ups and clickbait.

Whether you are an armchair historian, a budding archaeologist or a heritage enthusiast, we hope that you like what you find on The Past – and if you do, we hope very much that you might also consider taking out a subscription. Subscriptions cost £7.99 per month, or £79.99 for the whole year. But early visitors to the website can save £30 – subscribe by the end of March 2023 and pay just £49.99 by entering the code March23 at the checkout.