History of the Amphitheatre Part 5


Up until AD 200 there are references to gladiatorial combat across the Empire. From these references we can assume the amphitheatre continued as a stadium for entertainment including sports, pageants and gladiatorial combat. However Rome and its Empire were changing. During the reign of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, (306-337) Christianity grew to be the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Christian worship was decriminalised, persecution stopped and initially tolerance was given to all religions. Later in his reign Constantine legislated against pagan religion and some temples were destroyed on his orders. Across the Empire, Christian principles and teaching reduced the public’s enthusiasm for gladiatorial combat and saw a decline in the use of the amphitheatres.

The cost of use of the amphitheatre was significant: people attending events did not pay, so any event would be funded by politicians or other wealthy patrons who were out to influence public opinion. Probably here in Cirencester, in the early 4th Century, with changing attitudes and a lack of patronage the amphitheatre fell out of use. However, archaeology shows that about 350-360 the amphitheatre was remodelled. The north entrance, which leads to the town, was widened to allow use by wheeled vehicles. The cobbles laid at the entrance have ruts which were caused by extensive use of carts. This indicates the amphitheatre was probably being used as a market place. It is possible that the stall holders’ costs were lower than in the town and therefore attracted a different trader, possibly not unlike our current out of town car boot sales.

The Fall of Rome can be dated back to 376 when a rising by the Goths in the Balkans defeated the Roman army and they were able to settle in territory previously considered to be part of the Empire. This set the scene for the next 100 years as the Empire contracted with the  ‘Barbarians’ ending Roman rule and occupying territory. There were numerous factors which led to this; the reduction of the army, the strength of the economy, the competence of the Emperors, religious changes and the efficiency of civil administration.Added to this was the increasing strength and confidence of those outside the Empire.

The Roman Empire supported society through a complex economic system. Everything depended on the continuance of Roman peace and the maintenance of the administration, roads and markets. With the breakdown of law, little of this specialised pattern could survive.

In 407 the defence of Britain by Roman armies was withdrawn and in 410 the Emperor Honorius told Roman cities to see to their own defence. Roman Cirencester’s dependence on the patronage of the state meant that it could not survive the withdrawal of the Roman Empire from Britain. The end can be clearly seen by the number of occupied buildings in the town. In 375 AD excavations have found 23 private buildings in use, by 400 AD the number was 10 and by 425 only 4. Excavations have also shown that later in the fifth century there is evidence of degraded use in the town – low status occupation of decaying town houses (probably squatters) and crude huts constructed within the ruins.

The amphitheatre, along with the town walls and gates and public buildings were no longer occupied. They buildings rapidly fell into disrepair and the valuables taken. Elsewhere in the county some villas continued as rural estates or farms but generally the town was left to decay. The stone work of the amphitheatre and other buildings was taken away for use elsewhere and Corinium abandoned.

However, with some good fortune, the amphitheatre was not destroyed or built over and has remained as an iconic structure in the town for almost two millennia.