Friday, 16 March 2012

The Roman amphitheatres of London and Lincoln

On a recent trip to London I was able to go and do something that I’d been promising myself I’d do for some time – see the site of the Roman amphitheatre.

Amphitheatres are of course one of the great emotive monuments of the classical world, and people never tire of hearing about the grisly acts that were carried out inside their walls, to the sounds of the Roman mob baying for blood.  Of course, not everything the person in the street believes happened is close to being true, but still…

Compared to the continent and north Africa where many amphitheatres survive to an impressive degree, in Britain they are rather more elusive finds. Only a handful have been conclusively identified, despite our belief that most major settlements would have had one.

Londinium’s amphitheatre was discovered as recently as 1988, and is now incorporated into the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery.  Although I’m not focussing on the Gallery here, I will say that it is home to a small but very high quality art collection, beautifully displayed and well worth a visit.

The London amphitheatre was originally constructed in AD70 (coincidentally the same year that work began on the Colosseum in Rome), but the stone walls that survive are from the replacement built in the early 2nd Century.  It is located very close to London’s Legionary fortress, suggesting that it played a role in both training and entertaining the soldiers as well as the public.  The excavations uncovered brightly coloured wall plaster, marble inlays and finely carved stonework, indicating that the amphitheatre was a prestige building, designed to be a source of pride for the local population, of whom it could seat over 5,000.

One thing I particularly liked about the exhibition was the way that the low light levels and ‘wireframe’ style graphics provide a sense of the layout of the complete structure without compromising the atmosphere.

This leads me on to an issue closer to home (well, closer for me anyway) which is the question of Lincoln’s Roman amphitheatre.  Despite the wealth of knowledge we have about Roman Lincoln, no evidence of an amphitheatre has yet been found.  The presence of the Legionary fortress and the subsequent founding of the Colonia place Lincoln among the most important of Romano-British settlements, and it is surely impossible that an amphitheatre didn’t exist - as settlements such as Chester, Caerleon, Silchester, Cirencester and others had.

The problem is that if the amphitheatre was only ever built in earth and timber, then archaeological traces of it will be ephemeral if they survive at all in the face of later disturbance.  The other examples mentioned above were almost all rebuilt in stone as the civilian settlements grew, as London’s was. If Lincoln's amphitheatre was never given such investment, there has never been a plausible theory as to why that should be the case.

As to where the amphitheatre might have been located, Roman military and urban planning was largely consistent so a position outside of the porta decumana (the western gateway into the upper city – located close to Lincoln Castle’s west gate) might be expected, perhaps where the Lawn complex now stands.

It remains one of the great mysteries of Roman Lincoln, but if London’s amphitheatre is anything to go by, there is still hope that it can be found, and it could become a fantastic addition to the city’s tangible heritage if we do.

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