The Large Amphitheater of Chester and Rome’s Fruitless Expansion Plan
The arenas built by the Romans are without a doubt their most notorious monuments. They were the scene of public executions, where combats between criminals, prisoners of war and slaves were held, and of course a stage for the violent gladiatorial contests. Located in every corner of the former Roman Empire, close to 250 amphitheaters have been found, with Britain claiming their fair share. The partial remains of the amphitheater found in the beautiful city of Chester was the largest in Britain and is now a protected monument.
The Bloody History of Chester’s Amphitheater
The first amphitheater in the city the Romans called Deva was built in 70 AD by a Roman legion . According to David Mason, this town was very possibly intended to be the capital of Roman Britain. A great deal of time and money was spent on beautifying the city as well as theoretically equipping it for further conquests which never happened. Ireland may have been a target.
For reasons unknown the first amphitheater was no longer used, but another was built on the site sometime in the 2 nd century AD. The games and rituals held in the amphitheater was used in the Romanization of the local population as it was easier to entertain a crowd than subdue a riot.
This arena was constructed in a similar way to those in continental Europe and as the largest such structure in Roman Britain it provided at least 8000 seats – seats for those who supported blood sports such as cockfighting and for those who had bet their wages on the mightiest gladiator . The seating arrangements was designed to reflect the social order. Roman legionnaires would have trained in the arena when games were not being held and perhaps their admirers filled these seats for a bit of flirting when it wasn’t raining.
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Roman ruins remain at the amphitheater, such as this altar to Nemesis ( chrisdorney / Adobe Stock)
By 350 AD, as Roman power declined in north-west Britain due to raiding Scotland and Irish tribes, the site was abandoned. In the Dark Ages many of its stones were looted and used in other buildings. Eventually, only the small circular depression that was left was used as a public space. Executions, fairs, religious ceremonies, and dogfights were held in the remnants of the once proud arena. During the Georgian era, many buildings were built over parts of the structure and later the central depression was filled with building debris.
In 1900 the amphitheater was rediscovered and has been excavated several times. Today it is managed by English Heritage. In 2010 an author claimed that the Chester amphitheater was the inspiration for the Round Table , possibly rooted in the fact that the circular area was used as an assembly point by local warriors like the table in the Arthurian legends. Although the story was carried by local newspapers, it remains a controversial theory.
The Chester Amphitheater in its Days of Glory
Based on the archaeological evidence, the last stone structure that stood on the site was approximately 40 feet (12m) tall and over 320 feet (98m) wide with tunnels beneath the arena to provide access to prisoner, gladiators and wild animals . The four exits corresponded to the four points of the compass. There is evidence that the first amphitheater built at the site was not as large as the second.
The two amphitheaters that were constructed here were built on a grander scale than elsewhere in Britain and demonstrates the importance of Chester. The large Roman military town was close to sea, had a fine harbor, and merchants had easy access up the River Dee.
Mural and pedestrian walkway across the remains of the Roman amphitheater, Chester ( Loenid Andonov / Adobe Stock)
Today all that is left of the amphitheater is the circular depression where the games took place and its southern section. The floor is covered with sand and the sole remaining wall is painted with a mural which gives the illusion of a complete amphitheater and illustrates what the original structure looked like in the past. The retaining wall that surrounds the central pit can still be seen and a pedestrian bridge spans the central pit. The northern section, along with many ancillary buildings now lie beneath 18 th-century houses that are protected by law.
Visiting the Amphitheater and Many More Roman Ruins in Chester
Chester is located in the north-west of England and is easy to get to by car or train. The amphitheater is in the center of the city and alongside the Chester Roman Gardens which has beautiful roman ruins. Admittance to the site is free and while visitors are discouraged from walking across the central depression, there are seats in a green area which enable visitor to view the arena.
Top image: Sunset view of the Roman Amphitheater in Chester, England Source: Adrian / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Matthews, K. J. (2003). Chester’s Amphitheater after Rome: a centre of Christian worship? Cheshire History, 43, 12-27
Thompson, F. H., Sunter, N. J., & Weaver, O. J. (1976). III.—The Excavation of the Roman Amphitheater at Chester . Archaeologia, 105, 127-239
Wilmott, T., Garner, D., & Ainsworth, S. (2006). The roman Amphitheater at Chester: an interim account. English Heritage Historical Review, 1(1), 7-23