History of the Amphitheatre

by Richard Holmes

Uncover the complete history of Cirencester’s Roman Amphitheatre and the site on which is stands, from the stone age to to the modern era.

Part 1: Before the romans

Back in prehistory the site was a gentle north west facing hillside that sloped down to the River Churn. Perhaps the oldest feature is the small long barrow, this being the fenced off area between the amphitheatre and the Waitrose roundabout. Generally long barrows were constructed in the Neolithic or New Stone Age period (4,500 – 2,000 BC). This barrow was excavated in the C19th when human remains were found.  There have been no more recent archaeological investigations so without the application of current practice there is uncertainty about the history of this feature.

The long barrow was undisturbed by the Roman builders who constructed the Fosse Way, which ran between the long barrow and the amphitheatre. The long barrow was also not touched by the building of the amphitheatre so it appears the Romans respected the site.

At the start of the First Century Britain was inhabited by numerous Celtic tribes. This area was home to the Dobunni. These were an Iron Age tribe who lived across what we now know as North Somerset, Gloucestershire, parts of Worcestershire and Warwickshire. They were farmers who lived in small villages that tended to be concentrated in fertile valleys. By this time they had abandoned their hill forts and, instead, larger settlements, known as oppida, were growing. Locally an oppida has been excavated at Bagendon.

The Dobunni were farmers, traders and craftsman. The finds of gold and silver coins minted by the tribe are an indication of trade across the country. From about 50BC, the Roman Empire had a significant trade with Britain, with the local tribes supplying slaves, cattle, gold and hunting dogs in return for wine and olive oil.

However there is no evidence of the Iron Age on the Amphitheatre site.

In AD 43 a Roman army of 40,000 troops crossed the Channel and the history of Britain was changed dramatically.

Part 2: Arrival of the romans

Roman soldiers

Before the Romans arrived the site of the Amphitheatre was a gently sloping hillside with outcrops of rock and probably covered with trees and scrub. In Rome events were unfolding that would significantly change Britain for the next 400 years. In January AD 41 the Roman emperor Caligula was murdered by the Praetorian Guard; he was replaced by Claudius who needed to establish his sovereignty. Taking advantage of a dispute between tribes in southern Britain, Claudius mounted an invasion. In AD 43 an army of 40,000 highly trained, battle hardened troops and auxiliaries crossed the channel. The army advanced through Kent where they met a substantial British force. The ensuing battle near Rochester lasted two days, leaving the Romans triumphant. 

The Roman army continued across the Thames, firstly towards Colchester and later north and west. The territory of the defeated tribes fell under Roman rule and the taxes and tithes increased the wealth of the empire. It was reported to Claudius that his army had received the surrender of eleven Kings although there were still numerous tribes that refused to accept Roman rule.

 By late AD 47 the Romans had secured a frontier that ran from the River Severn to the Wash. This was marked by a defensive ditch locally, and, for additional protection, where the frontier crossed the River Churn, a fort was constructed. This fort at Watermoor marked the arrival of the Romans in Cirencester.

The invasion of Britain continued north and west and as the British forces were diminished by the might of the Roman armies the frontier moved north. Along the line of the early frontier a road was constructed, and as the Latin for ditch is fossa the road became known as the Fosse Way.  

The arrival of the Roman fort in Cirencester proved to be a magnet for the local people. The needs of the fort would have created local trade; supplying the troops with food, materials and labour. Subsequently a settlement grew up outside the ramparts of the fort, populated by the Dobunni tribe who moved down from their village in Bagendon.

However, by this time further business had developed. The Fosse Way was one of the country’s major routes providing opportunities for trade, and local sheep and wool products would have been in demand. The settlement continued to prosper and started grow towards being the second largest town in Roman Britain.

Part 3: The building of Cirencester

Thirty years after the Roman invasion, in about AD70, the wooden frontier fort that had been constructed in Watermoor was dismantled. This was simply because the area had been conquered, resistance to Roman rule quashed and the process of winning the hearts and minds of the local Dobunni tribe well under way. The settlement that would become Corinium had initially grown up to service the fort.

Most of the population of the growing settlement would have been members of the local tribe which was based in a hill fort at Bagendon.  People moved to provide goods and services to the fort, perhaps as bakers, market gardeners, butchers and so on.   After the soldiers moved on and the fort removed, the settlement continued to thrive. This was helped by its location on the junction of the Fosse Way, Ermin Street and Akeman Street. Also as a centre for trade in sheep, cattle and wool, within a short time it became the tribal capital (civitas) of the Dobunni. Hence the Roman name of Corinium Dobunnorum.

The first recording of Cirencester as Corinium Dobunnorum was not until AD 150 when it was mentioned in the writing of Ptolemy (the Geographia). No doubt the inhabitants would have been aware of a name for the settlement soon after the fort was established but no written records before Ptolemy have been found.

By the turn of the First Century the street grid was laid out and stone buildings constructed. It is thought that the quarry at the site of the amphitheatre was a major source of the building stone for the town. Large public buildings were constructed plus two market places and numerous shops and private houses. About this time the forum, basilica and amphitheatre were built, all the largest in size in Britain apart from those in Londinium. The forum or public square tended to be used as a market place supplementing the surrounding shops. Archaeology tells us that there was a cattle market adjoining the forum with a market hall and several butchers’ shops.

In addition the forum would have been a gathering place where news and proclamations were read out and a space for political discussions and debates. On the edge of the forum was the basilica: this was a large public building used by town officials, magistrates and others for business and legal transactions. In the Roman Empire any settlement which included a basilica could consider itself to be a city. Hence in Corinium, possibly to emphasise its status, the basilica was decorated with beautifully carved Corinthian capitals, Italian marble wall veneers and Purbeck marble mouldings.

Within the town, from about AD110 a number of private stone houses for wealthy individuals were constructed and probably occupied for the life of the town. As time progressed these homes became more luxurious with mosaic floors and sculptures. It is suggested that, apart from evidence of bakers, glass makers, blacksmiths and goldsmiths, there is also an indication of Corinium being a centre for stone-carving and a mosaic industry with two schools of art.

About the time of Hadrian (Emperor 117 – 138) there was a move for more civil development and the town walls were constructed. Five gates provided access to the town, a similar configuration to the present day road network. The walls were improved with towers and raised higher about AD 211. Not only did the walls provide extra security but demonstrated to all the importance of the town.

The busy population of the town were also provided with excitement and entertainment through the construction of the amphitheatre.

Part 4: After the Romans

To recap, the Romans arrived in AD 43: by AD 70 most of the southern part of Britain was securely under Roman control and the assimilation of the local population into Roman culture, often by winning hearts and minds, was underway. The wooden fort at what is now Watermoor was dismantled, and Corinium town grew through its location on the road network and local trade. By the early Second Century, the street grid was laid out and stone buildings constructed. It would have been at this time that public buildings, the Basilica, the Forum and the Amphitheatre were constructed.

The amphitheatre is a unique feature of the Roman Empire and spread across Europe as the Empire expanded. By the time the Romans invade Britain the amphitheatre and games were long established institutions. The amphitheatre became the symbol of the Empire and across Europe and North Africa about 230 amphitheatres have been identified, including more than 20 sites in Roman Britain. Most have disappeared, for example the London amphitheatre, the largest in Roman Britain was on the site of the Guildhall in the city of London. Cirencester is an excellent example and the second largest in Britain.

In Cirencester the site for the Amphitheatre was the quarry which had supplied much of the stone for building the town. The construction took advantage of the site; excavations have shown that the rear wall, to the south-east, was built against the quarry face. The arena was levelled and the banking to the north-west was built up using quarry waste.  The seating banks were up to 30m wide and retained by timber and drystone walls. The spectators were accommodated on narrow terraces with wooden planks for seating. It is suggested that wooden seating was more appropriate to the British climate and probably more comfortable than the stone used elsewhere. There were about 16 terraces including wider terraces at the top for standing spectators.

When originally constructed the earth banks were higher, by about 2.5 metres, and the Amphitheatre would have held 8,000 people. The population of Corinium varied between 10,000 and 15,000 so at times the majority of the town could enjoy the spectacle.

So what took place in amphitheatres? The amphitheatre should be seen as a stadium which was used for a wide range of events; sports, games, display of military pageantry, religious festivals, the execution of criminals, simulated hunts and gladiatorial combat. All public entertainment in the amphitheatre was free, but seating was allocated by class and gender. The duration, frequency and character of spectacles would be dependent on the enthusiasm of the populace and the purses of those funding the events. The spectacles would be paid for by local magistrates, politicians (probably at election times) and others ‘on the make’.

Were there gladiators in Cirencester? Much of the British evidence relates to the baiting and killing of wild animals and the only solid proof of gladiators are inscriptions, finds of equipment and images. The cost of training and supporting gladiators was enormous and given the nature of the event any investment in individual gladiators would be lost should he be injured or killed. So there is no firm evidence to show gladiators fought to the death in Cirencester, however it is recorded that that well-known gladiators would go ‘on tour’. Hence it is possible there would have been ‘exhibition’ contests in the Amphitheatre. The fights would have been violent but would have been staged to avoid serious injury or death.

Part 5: The fall of Rome

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.


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