- Startling new evidence has emerged indicating that gladiator fights took place in Britain during the late second century AD.
- A recent analysis of a cremation vase – originally discovered in 1853 – confirms that it was a sports souvenir from a gladiator arena.
- The inscription on the vase reads the names of two gladiators, Memnon and Valentinus.
- “There’s nothing else like that from Britain,” says Roman archaeologist Glynn Davis.
Gladiator fights in grand arenas like the Coliseum entertained the Romans for a long, long time.
Although the Coliseum was not the only amphitheatre in ancient Rome, no one would have imagined that Britain also hosted gladiator combats. Well, that changes now. Recent evidence suggests that gladiator death matches occurred in Roman Britain too!
A vase discovered from a Roman grave in Colchester in 1853 provides evidence in this regard.
The Colchester Vase
Tests verify that the Colchester Vase was moulded from local clay around 160-200 AD. What’s fascinating is that the gladiator names were inscribed into the clay before rather than after firing. This little detail confirms that the gladiator depiction on the vase was a part of the original design, contrary to previous assumptions.
The vase might have very well belonged to a gladiator trainer, owner, or even a sponsor!
Head of Colchester and Ipswich Museum (CIMS), Frank Hargrave, told the Observer that the research has led to “startling new conclusions.” The Colchester Vase is the sole piece of evidence suggesting that gladiator fights were actually held in Roman Britain.
“There are no written descriptions. The vase is such high quality that there’s been a bit of snobbery, an assumption that it could not possibly have come from Britain, whereas all the analysis has now put that to bed.”
A senior CIMS Curator and Roman archaeologist, Glynn Davis, labeled the discovery “incredibly significant.” According to Davis, the vase might have belonged to the sponsor of the combat – or an absolute sports fan.
He said, “There’s nothing else like that from Britain. It’s a commemorative piece, almost a trophy for the trophy cabinet.”
Researchers from London, Durham, and Reading universities concluded that cremated remains inside the vase belonged to a “non-local” male over 40 of “potentially European origin.”
A Deeper Dive
The vase measures 212mm x 158mm. It depicts scenes of gladiators fighting in a Roman arena, including exotic animals. The illustrations show two men enticing a bear and a dog hunting a deer and hare.
Furthermore, the vase shows a fully armored “secutor” battling “retiarius,” wearing only a shoulder guard. The latter, however, can move faster, easily harming the opponent with his trident or trapping him with his net.
The two on the vase are identified as Memnon and Valentinus.
According to John Pearce, Lecturer of Archaeology at King’s College London, these might be stage names inspired by Homeric heroes. For instance, Memnon frequently appears in Roman literature.
“I’m wondering why Memnon would be chosen as the name of the gladiator. Is that because we’ve got a black gladiator who is from somewhere well south of Colchester – from north Africa?” he questioned.
The illustration depicts Memnon overpowering Valentinus, who is holding up his index finger – a sign of submission. Incredible how a single vase can tell a whole story!
The Roman Gladiators
No doubt, recent research has rejuvenated the never-ending interest in gladiators. Gladiators were slaves, celebrities, and social outcasts at the same time. Their training cost a hefty sum, so their fate depended solely on their masters.
According to Davis, not all gladiator fights were death battles, as shown in films like Spartacus and Gladiator. Although many did die, most of them were criminals or war prisoners. Far from a mindless bloodbath, gladiator fights were a big business back then.
In any case, Colchester does not have a usual gladiator combat arena. Nevertheless, it has two Roman theatres that would have made an appropriate match for gladiator combats.
The Colchester Vase is set for display in a prominent exhibition on gladiators. The exhibition will begin on 15 July 2023 at Colchester Castle. Other exhibits will include relics from the Roman era, like Roman oil lamps and a gladiator’s helmet.