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From Rome to London: Amphitheatres of the Roman World

A month back I went on a spur-of-the-moment trip to see the archaeology of Rome for a few days. The weather was good, the archaeology fantastic and I had a wonderful break. It just so happened that the following week I was in London. Since my previous trip there I had read about the relatively recent discovery of the foundations of the Roman amphitheatre under the Guildhall Art Gallery. These ancient amphitheatres fascinate me, and so flush with my new found enthusiasm for Roman archaeology I found myself greatly looking forward to visiting the Guildhall.

The Colosseum, Rome

An interior photograph of the Colosseum showing the subterranean level below the Arena

The subterranean level of the Colosseum

Also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum was everything I expected. As pictures of this iconic monument are everywhere I do think it is hard for anyone not to have developed a relatively good idea of what this particular amphitheatre, the largest in the Roman world then and now, looks like ‘in the flesh’ so to speak. This is not to suggest that visiting the Colosseum is disappointing – far from it. From the street you can not help but appreciate this impressive and imposing Roman building. My only false expectation was thinking I would be able to see it on the city’s skyline, but then that is because I did not understand the geography of Rome and how the amphitheatre is in a dip between the legendary seven hills of Rome.

The interior, with its ranked seating and the exposed subterranean level, is every bit as fascinating as the exterior is impressive. There may very well be Roman amphitheatres where the interior is better preserved than that of the Colosseum, and enable concerts and performances still to this day, but this one seemed a bit more real, a bit more archaeological to me. Viewing platforms have been strategically placed
on the different accessible levels to enable a good view into the ‘guts’ of the amphitheatre that would have been under the arena floor. It was through these maze-like corridors and shafts that animals would have been brought onto the arena for all manner of games and spectacles that we associate the Roman world with.

Londinium’s Amphitheatre, London

A diagram showing what remains of the London Roman amphitheatre are on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery

Plan of amphitheatre remains

From the heart of the Roman world to the one of the biggest cities in the westernmost province of the Roman Empire, Londinium. London’s amphitheatre was discovered by archaeologists relatively recently in 1988 during advance excavations for the construction of the Guildhall Art Gallery. It was always assumed there must have been an amphitheatre, but its location was unknown until work to build the art gallery started. Only the foundations of the east gate have been found, including the wooden drain that ran in the ground from the arena, out of the east gate. Clearly a very modest remnant of a once grand building. But still, the site became a scheduled monument and the plans for the art gallery had to be revised to take in the remains of the amphitheatre.

The contrast between the Colosseum today and the portion of the foundations of Londinium’s amphitheatre could not be more obvious and stark. And you can just feel for the people who were given the task of making something of these meagre remains in situ beneath the streets of London. What they achieved is I believe quite spectacular.

The foundations of the Roman amphitheatre in London have been enhanced by spectacular display techniques

London Roman Amphitheatre

There are two basic features that no museological trick was going hide. First, the foundations are in the basement of a modern building – not out under an open sky as would have been the case originally. Secondly, to say the remains are meagre, following a visit to the Colosseum, does seem like an understatement. The designers of the display have taken these two features and created something an effective exhibition area.

The display space is entirely blacked out, and besides a few discretely placed spotlights to provide enough light for it to be safe to walk about and to see the physical remains, the most striking feature is a luminous sketch of what the interior of the amphitheatre would have been like, with similarly luminous reproductions of human figures added to the pillars that hold up the building. These luminous effects have been fitted around the foundations of the east gate to the arena, with the wooden remains of the drain embedded into the floor, as they would have been, under glass. So, as you walk into the display you are walking up the passage of the east gate into the arena. You see the stone foundations to your left and right, the wooden drain and its sump under your feet, and ahead you have an impression of what the inside of the amphitheatre would have been like, complete with a few people scattered about.

The visual effect is stunning, and shows what can be done to display archaeological sites, no matter how ephemeral they may be today, to make them interesting places to visit. Londinium’s amphitheatre may not be anything like the Colosseum today, but it is definitely worth a visit, along with such other remains as the City Wall and the Mithraeum.

Other articles of interest

Resources

For an exclusively archaeological guidebook of Rome, which has a great deal of information about the Colosseum and other amphitheatres in Rome, I highly recommend the Oxford Archaeological Guide to Rome by Amanda Claridge (available on both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.)

For Londinium, the Museum of London has recently updated its map of Roman London, it is available on both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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One Response to From Rome to London: Amphitheatres of the Roman World

  1. Archaeological Surveys May 1, 2012 at 2:33 am #

    Most people are not aware that the Colosseum is in a dip between Sette colli di Roma so that piece of information is enlightening. And from what you described of the London Roman Amphitheatre exhibit, it is definitely a must-see.

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