Chester Roman Amphitheatre: 2,000 years of history and architecture

Chester’s boasts the largest example of a Roman amphitheatre in Britain, but how much do you know about it?

From proud Roman structure to dereliction

The construction of the first Roman amphitheatre in Chester was started in the late first century A.D. The Romans constructed many theatres in various British strongholds. They had a dual purpose – training the military and for entertainment. Roman soldiers practiced battle manoeuvres and weapon skills in the amphitheatres. Entertainment included gladiator fights, bull baiting and cock fighting.

The Chester amphitheatre was built for the Roman legion, Legio II Adiutrix. In 86 AD, the legion was posted to the Danube region. The Legio XX Valeria Victrix legion replaced them and, under their supervision, rebuilding work was carried out on the ampitheatre. Legio XX later moved north to help construct Hadrian’s Wall. The amphitheatre was not used until the Lego XX returned to Chester around 275, by which time it once again needed renovation work.

After the Romans left Britain, the amphitheatre was abandoned. Much of the stone was removed from the site for other Chester buildings. The site continued to ‘entertain’ Chester’s population with bear fights and public executions, but its dereliction became complete when it eventually started being used as a rubbish dumping ground.

Rediscovery

From Georgian times onwards, several buildings were constructed on the amphitheater site, including Dee House and St Johns House.

There were no documents available about the site, but there were rumours and speculation about the existence of a large amphitheatre. In 1929, digging work in the Dee House garden revealed a curved wall that appeared to confirm this speculation. With buildings constructed on parts of the site, and a new road planned at the location, there were fears that further archaeological exploration of the site would be impossible.

The Chester Archaeological Society wanted to excavate the site, but Chester Council refused permission unless enough money could be raised to pay for the extra costs of diverting the planned road. The Archaeological Society managed to raise the necessary funds, and also purchased St John’s House, which it leased to the Council and hoped to demolish later in order to be able to unearth more sections of the amphitheatre.

A dig was scheduled for 1939, but the outbreak of the Second World War postponed it. It was not until 1957 that the archaeological dig began. St John’s House was vacated ready for demolition, but Dee House remained. This meant that only the northern half of the site could be excavated.

Only a small area of the site was dug up. Damaged amphitheatre walls were excavated and the rest was propped up with concrete panels.

The site remained partly excavated until 2000, when work resumed. This excavation revealed that there had been two amphitheatres built on the site, as well as other Roman buildings. A number of pots were found that depicted Roman gladiators that many thought were souvenirs sold to visitors after watching gladiator battles at the ampitheatre.

In 2004, the Chester Amphitheatre Project was launched to sponsor further excavations on the site, and also start a research centre.

By 2016, 80% of the site had been excavated, but Dee Houses is on the part that remains unexcavated. Although it is now in a derelict state, a developer has bought Dee House and has been given planning permission to transform it into a hotel and a visitor’s centre. This has not pleased the 18,000 people who signed a petition to have the house demolished so that further excavation work could be carried out.

Construction

Excavations from 2000 onwards revealed that the first amphitheatre built on the site was made from wood, which was then replaced with a stone structure.

The site is positioned to the southeast of a Roman Fort, Originally there were four entrances to the arena placed at the four compass points. Two of the entrances are still visible today, and have sloping floors indicating that the amphitheatre arena was built three feet below ground level. The north entrance contained stairs that led up to a room specifically for the officials who managed the ampitheatre.

The main arena was surrounded by a 40-foot-high stone ellipse wall, 320 feet long. The arena could hold about 8,000 spectators, and around it was a series of buildings that included dungeons, stables and food stalls.

To the left of the northern section of the arena was a small door that led to a room with an altar dedicated to the goddess Nemesis. She was believed to control the fate of the gladiators.

Due to the large size of the amphitheatre, historians have speculated that the Roman’s had planned to make Chester the capital of their empire in Britain after they had captured Ireland, but they failed to so.

To get a sense of how the amphitheatre looked in Roman Times, there is a model of the amphitheatre in Chester’s Grosvenor Museum.

The mural

To provide visitors to the site with a better sense of how the amphitheatre looked, a 2010 mural by the artist Gary Drostle was commissioned. The huge piece recreates the marble covered walls, the central tethered stone and the amphitheatre doorways. It connects both edges of the original arena walls to create the impression of a continuous wall so that the spectator gets a real feel of how the visitors in Roman times would experience the ampitheatre.

Visiting the ampitheatre

The amphitheatre is situated at Little St John Street, Chester. Access is available by foot every day and there are no set opening hours. Entrance is free.

Near the entrance is a large grass area opposite remains of the original stone structure, Visitors can walk down to the arena, which is partially uncovered, the rest being beneath St John’s House just behind it.

Chester is proud of its Roman history and the amphitheatre is perhaps the most impressive Roman site to visit in the city. It is cared for by English Heritage and operated by Chester City Council.

 

Posted by Mark
July 19, 2017
Features

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