Roman circus of death unveiled

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THE last time the great amphitheatre’s doors were open to the public was 1,700 years ago.

Built by the Romans in about 70AD in what is now the heart of the City of London, it lay undiscovered for almost two millennia and buried with it was the secret of the city’s barbaric past.

The site - the scene of bloodthirsty battles as men were torn limb from limb in the name of sport - now lies 20ft below Guildhall Yard, in the City.

Dating from the time when Emperor Hadrian reigned, the amphitheatre fell into disuse in the 4th century. But for a murderous 300 years, crowds of up to 7,000 Londoners gathered there to watch state-sponsored public executions, animal hunts and gladiatorial combat.

"What went on in Hollywood films like Gladiator was tame in comparison," said Nick Bateman, the senior projects manager for the Museum of London Archaeology Service.

"One of the main functions of the amphitheatre was public executions and the meting out of justice. It was highly ritualistic about the displays of Roman power and executions of people who were cast outside society.

"People cast out would be condemned to live as gladiators or trussed up and butchered in front of thousands."

Mr Bateman, who was the site manager for the excavation when it was discovered in 1988, described the find as "hugely significant".

"Walking on the surface is a pretty amazing experience," he said. "I am confident gladiators died here, criminals were executed here and wild animals were hunted and killed here."

From today, visitors can follow in the footsteps of the hapless condemned criminals and wild beasts of Roman times. They will make their way down the 20 metre passage, which once led from cells and cages to the centre of one of Roman Britain’s most important sporting arenas. At the centre of the arena is the same gravel, pink mortar and sand into which blood once soaked.

The remains of the walls of the eastern third of the building, made of Kentish ragstone, is clearly visible. So, too, are the slots in the stone threshold, thought to have once had a timber trapdoor used to release wild animals into the amphitheatre. Work on the site has revealed wooden drains used to take away water and blood from the arena.

Mr Bateman said that a leg bone of a bear had been found by archaeologists among the deposits from a wall.

"They were not a common sight in London and it was likely it was fighting in the arena," he added.

It is believed that animal species native to Britain at the time, such as bears, wild boar, savage dogs and wolves, may have been used in the arena, which was the size of a football pitch. But no evidence has been found for more exotic animals such as lions and tigers.

The remains of two men, in their 30s or 40s were also found on the site. Due to the Roman practice of burying their dead outside the town boundaries, the skeletons were thought to be victims of the amphitheatre’s macabre sport, but, according to experts, the men were probably too old to have been gladiators. Public executions, which were relatively cheap, would have been the main fodder served up to the masses in the arena, which would have seated more than the 5,000 the Royal Albert Hall does today. Gladiatorial contests, which were more expensive due to the training involved, would have been held only a few times every year.

Archaeologists have been restoring the site, in the shape of an ellipse, since its discovery 14 years ago. They found an inner perimeter wall which marked the east entrance and upon which temporary seating would have been erected for public occasions. It cost almost 4 million for architects to excavate the remains and an additional 1.3 million to fit out the public display, which uses digital images of crowd scenes and sound effects to recreate the atmosphere. The amphitheatre measures 100 metres 85 metres.

One of the most important British archaeological finds of the last century, it holds the key to understanding how London was governed. Research into the site, however, is still ongoing.

"We are still learning the significance of this amphitheatre," said Mr Bateman. "It is very important because it says something about Romanised London.

"It changes the way we understand the city and the way that it was governed, whether it was the military or the governing body."

Jonathan Charkham, the chief commoner of the Corporation of London, said: "Scholars have known for a long time that there was an arena [in London] but did not know where.

"It was an enormous excitement when, during the building of the Guildhall East, they came across a clear wall."

When the remains of the eastern third of the building were found on the site of the Guildhall’s 15th-century chapel, the curvature of the walls, position of post holes and the banking indicated it was part of the arena.

At the time, the population of London was between 20,000 and 30,000.

The largest amphitheatre in the Roman world was the Colosseum, in Rome, which seated at least 50,000.