Impressive remains of the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain can be found on the site of a busy modern roundabout in the ancient city of Chester.
The Romans founded the city as ‘Deva Victrix’ in AD 79 as a fortress during their expansion north. It was an important strategic site for Rome’s ambition to conquer Ireland. It was named ‘Deva’ after either the goddess of the Dee, or directly from the British name for the river. The site of the amphitheatre is just outside ‘Newgate’ and on the south east corner of the legionary fortress.
The amphitheatre was at first erected as a modest, wooden structure by Legio II Adiutrix, the legion of the Roman Army who originally founded the settlement.
The structure was used until the year 86, when it was rebuilt by another legion known as Legio XX Valeria Victrix (in English, the 20th Victorious Legion). The soldiers were sent off to assist in building Hadrian’s Wall in 122; when they left Chester, the amphitheater became vacant and abandoned. It was erected anew after the 20th Legion returned in 275 and saw another 130 years worth of action.
The amphitheatre and was used both for entertainments including gladiatorial combat as well as bull and cock fighting but also for practising troop manoeuvres and weapons training. Archaeological finds include gladiator statues and decorated bowls as well as part of a sword handle.
The amphitheatre was only discovered and initially excavated in 1929. Today, only two fifths are exposed whilst tantalisingly the remaining parts still lie buried under the ground on the opposite side.
At its peak the amphitheatre would have held up to 8,000 spectators. I can clearly imagine the full crowd ferociously baying for the blood of a slave gladiator or a criminal sentenced to death on this very spot. It would certainly have been quite an incredible (and brutal) spectacle.
Inside the arena was a small door to the left of the north entrance. The room behind it contained an altar dedicated to the goddess Nemesis, who was believed to control the fate of the performers.
The thought of those ancient warriors or gladiators entering this very space for what may have been their final moments on earth is fascinating. What would the crowd have sounded like? Who were people cheering for and why? I would love to rewind 2,000 years to this very spot and witness the events of an afternoon within this fascinating ancient arena.
As you sit and ponder on the banks of this incredible monument to Roman life, in the exact spot spectators would have viewed the action from in their seats, the noisy hustle of modern life and traffic passing this place seems to quieten completely as the Gladiator lifts his sword high in the air to roars of approval from the gathered masses.
When the Romans left Britain for the last time and Roman rule over Britain was brought to an end, the arena fell into complete disrepair. Once abandoned, the locals started to scavenge parts of the arena piece by piece until only a small portion of it was left, which was used for public executions and sometimes for bear fights.