Gladiator Games

Andrew Lane

One of the things I miss most in these unusual times is the chance to watch sport. In common with many Londoners, with time on my hands I would like nothing better than to while away a few hours watching my favourite sport or team. There is nothing new in this of course – it’s something that Londoners have enjoyed from the earliest days of the city.

In 1988, archaeologists working adjacent to Guildhall in the City of London made an exciting new discovery – the remains of London’s Roman Amphitheatre. Heralded in the press as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the capital for over a century, the remains of London’s oldest “sporting venue” and are now preserved in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery.

© Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA)

Archaeologists only uncovered part of the structure: the eastern entrance, one of two principal entrances on either side of the amphitheatre. The remains of two rooms flanking this entrance, part of the arena wall and two sections of wooden drains were also preserved. Using evidence from these excavations and by studying other better-preserved examples of this type of building archaeologists have been able to make a detailed reconstruction of London’s Roman Amphitheatre.

Specifically designed to stage the most brutal form of Roman entertainment – the gladiatorial games – London’s Roman Amphitheatre was elliptical in shape with tiered seating around the outside, providing spectators with uninterrupted views of the action. Dignitaries enjoyed the proceedings from the comfort of a box, carefully separated from the masses. Several entrances provided easy access to the amphitheatre and separated spectators from entertainers. In terms of the design it was a winning formula with similar features still used in the stadia of today.  

Gladiators in action above the site of London's Roman Amphitheatre © Clive Totman 2017

With a capacity estimated at up to 10,500 spectators, London’s Roman Amphitheatre would only rank as comparatively modest by today’s standards, even though it was one of the largest amphitheatres in Roman Britain. If we think in terms of the overall population of London, however, the equation changes slightly. Estimating ancient populations is notoriously difficult, but archaeologists usually suggest a figure of between 20,000 and 30,000 for Roman London at its height. So technically at least almost half of the population of Roman London could have gathered in this one venue. Beat that, Wembley Stadium!

Take a virtual tour of London's Roman Amphitheatre on our Google Arts and Culture page.