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Two gladiators bear-baiting also depicted on the Colchester vase. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Colchester Vase is First Proof of Gladiator Tournaments in Roman Britain


New research has revealed evidence that gladiatorial combat took place in Roman Britain in the late second century AD. The evidence of these bloody battles was found on a vase discovered in a Roman grave in Colchester. Previously, gladiator contests have been assumed to have taken place in Britain, but no physical evidence has ever been found confirming this.

Were Gladiators Fighting in Britain?

The Roman period in Britain spanned almost four centuries from 43 AD, although Julius Caesar had invaded the territory almost a century earlier. Colchester in the east was the place chosen for the first legionary fortress to be built, and was for a while the provincial capital of Roman Britain.

With the Romans came their governance, engineering, and even some customs. But did this include gladiator matches known in the amphitheaters of the Roman homeland? The new evidence seems to prove it did.

According to Frank Hargrave, director of Colchester and Ipswich Museums (CIMS), “Gladiatorial combat is assumed elsewhere in Britain too, before and after this event, but not in terms of named gladiators or a particular occasion,” reports the Daily Mail.

Colchester Vase Proves to be Bespoke Sporting Memorabilia

The telling vase was found in Colchester in in 1853, and is decorated with depictions of gladiators fighting, bear-baiters, and a dog chasing two deer and a hare. Represented are three scenes which would have commonly been included in the activities of a Roman amphitheater.

But there are many examples of such decorated jars which were mass produced and generic. The difference with this one is there are also four names included on the jar, which are thought to relate to the four gladiators in the design. Until now, it was thought that these names were added later, but the latest tests prove otherwise.

According to a report in The Guardian, new analysis of the Colchester vase carried out by a large team of academics from the universities of Durham, London and Reading has shown it was made from local clay between 160-200 AD. But what is key to the latest revelation is that the inscription of names were not added after the pot had been produced, which had previously been thought.

Gladiators fighting in an amphitheater. (Fotokvadrat/Adobe Stock)

Gladiators fighting in an amphitheater. (Fotokvadrat/Adobe Stock)

This inclusion of the names of gladiators in the original design has led the experts to conclude that this was a ‘piece of sports memorabilia’, with the gladiators and their names as an intrinsic part of the vase’s design. This indicates that the vase related specifically to the sporting activity of gladiator fighting contests that took part in or around Colchester at the time it was made, and was perhaps commissioned by or for one of the organizers of the event, or sponsors of the gladiators.

“The inscription was put on the pot as it was being made which means it must have been a commissioned piece and we conclude that it represents a local event,” said Glynn Davis, curator at Colchester Museums, according to the Daily Mail. “The pot was made in kilns west of the town – the decoration matches other specialist pots being made in these kilns.”

According to The Guardian, Frank Hargrave, director of Colchester and Ipswich Museums (CIMS), who own the vase said the new research has shown the true significance of the Roman era piece. Hargrave said:

“It’s the only evidence of a Roman arena gladiator combat actually being staged in Britain,” he said. “There are no written descriptions. The vase is such high quality that there’s been a bit of snobbery, an assumption that it couldn’t possibly have come from Britain, whereas all the analysis has now put that to bed.”

Two gladiators bear-baiting also depicted on the Colchester vase. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Two gladiators bear-baiting also depicted on the Colchester vase. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dissecting the Gladiatorial Scenes on the Colchester Vase

The two types of gladiator engaged in combat are depicted in great detail. One of them, known as a ‘secutor’ to the Romans, is shown with a sword, shield, and helmet. The other, identified as a ‘retiarius’, has dropped his trident and is depicted with a bare chest and legs, an arm and shoulder guard, and a net in his left hand.

The retiarius can be seen raising one finger, a gesture known as ‘missio’. This appeal is made to the sponsor of the games, who holds the power to decide whether the fighter lives or dies. The sponsor indicates their decision by turning their thumb up or down.

The Colchester Castle Museum guidebook relates the four names inscribed on the vase to the battling characters portrayed on the vase. It has Secundus and Mario fighting the bear, and the other two names, Memnon and Valentinus, refering to the secutor and retiarius respectively.

Next to Memnon's name is the abbreviation SAC and the Roman numeral VIIII, indicating that he had fought and survived nine times. Next to Valentinus's name, the word LEGIONIS and the number XXX suggest that he was associated with the 30th legion of the Roman army.

But the full story of the vase is still not confirmed. According to Dr G Gilbert, Head of Latin and Classics at Ipswich High School, the association of Valentinus with the 30th legion of the Roman army poses more questions, as Rome’s 30th Legion was never stationed in Britain.Bottom of Form

What the finding does is give the assumption that gladiatorial activities took place in various parts of Roman Britain a specific example, of both place and the people involved, and so is another step in showing the presence of gladiator competitions in the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire.

Top image: The Colchester Vase gladiator fighting scene. Source: Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Gary Manners



Pete Wagner's picture

If the Romans were making their own bronze vases (I don’t think they were), because of the work involved and value of it, they’d likely put the face of their emporers on them.  Just like coinage.  But really, no part of the explanation here adds up.  So, I’d guess they stumbled onto another pre-Ice Age object.  Note the swastika on the man’s shield – the symbol is NOT associated with the Romans.

Rome is always the fall-back diversion for pre-Ice Age artifacts.  We don’t expect core sample, double-blind, multiple factility, dating analyses.  They protect their narrative.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

The historical value of this vase is priceless.  The vase is also quite beautiful for such an old vase.  The detail is striking and it’s depictions of gladiators is stunning.  This vase is a treasure.

The vase inscription may be partly an example of ancient exaggeration. That's something that has never gotten old.

Gary Manners's picture


Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

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