As gladiators emerge into the light of the arena and do battle in Museum of London’s Gladiator Games next month, they’ll be doing so in the oldest part of London, where gladiators fought 2,000 years before.
All the action — the bloody battles between former soldiers, criminals and slaves and exciting displays of skill and strength — will be happening just inches above the remains of London’s only Roman amphitheatre, at the Guildhall Yard. Discovered in 1988 during construction of the Guildhall Art Gallery, the ancient remains of the great arena are now open for viewing and tours, seven days a week through the year. So, we know that London had an amphitheatre. But what else might be under the city, waiting to be found?
One tantalising idea is that we might be sitting on another great centre of entertainment, a Roman circus, where crowds flocked to see chariot races While there is no proof or evidence of a circus being here, according to Museum of London’s senior Roman curator, Caroline McDonald, it is an enticing notion that it’s under there somewhere: "London has an amphitheatre and it seems very reasonable that it could have a circus too. Chariot racing was a huge public spectacle and, as the largest city in Roman Britain, London would have had the population to support a circus. Currently there is only one known Roman circus in Britain — in Colchester — but it would be strange if it was alone and, as London took over from Colchester as Roman Britain’s capital, it would have been the obvious place to have had one. But where is it? Who knows?!"
As for other discoveries, another potentially spectacular site could be sitting under one of the capital’s greatest buildings. Caroline again: “If there was a wish list of places to dig in London, I would like to look under St Paul’s Cathedral, if only to put to bed the persistent suggestion (refuted by St Paul’s architect Sir Christopher Wren) that there is a temple to the Roman goddess Diana the Huntress under it! It’s on Ludgate Hill, one of the two hills beneath Roman London (the other being Cornhill) and takes up a good chunk of the town where we know there is a lot of Roman activity. It would be a fascinating place to dig – but of course unlikely!”
As for other unexplored areas of the capital, Caroline has her eye on the outskirts of town: “I’d like to be let loose in the places around London, in the Roman settlements of Brentford, Enfield, Bow and Ewell, which are under-investigated and would tell us more about the city’s hinterland.” So, when you’re digging your garden and hit rock, have a decent look before you curse your rotten stony ground — it might be a major find!
Gladiator Games — 10 public evening and matinee performances will take place on selected dates between 8 and 16 August. Full information and tickets at www.museumoflondon.org.uk or enter our competition to win tickets (closes 31 July).
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