Gladiators in York - Sarah Woodbury

Gladiators in York

The Romans came to Britain in the 1st century AD.  Julius Caesar invaded what is now England twice, in 55 and 54 BC but didn’t leave legions and never gained any actual territory.  Britain Express amusingly called this ‘Caesar’s summer vacation’.  It wasn’t until 100 years later, in 43 AD, that they invaded for real, and began a systematic conquering of what is now England, Wales, and Scotland.  For a good summary of the chronology, see:


What has always been harder to pin down is the cultural effect the Romans had on England, since after they left in the early 5th century, the remains of their culture seems to have been wholly swept away.  Within a generation or two, little trace of them, except for their roads and ruined forts–and their religion, Christianity–remained.  Everything had fallen into disrepair.  The ‘Saxons’ descended from the east, the Scots from the North, and the Irish from the West, driving the original Britons west, into what is now Wales.

That’s the story.  And it seems, on the whole, relatively ‘true’.

But then an article like this appears:  World’s best-preserved gladiatorial relics are discovered in the suburbs of York 

What is fascinating about this find is that it reveals that this powerful aspect of Roman culture was alive and well in Britain for several hundred years.  As an anthropologist, it leaves me with so many questions:  what is the cultural impact of watching/participating in events like these on the British culture of the day?  were regular Britons allowed to watch these events, or were they only for the ruling elite (unlike in Rome)?  did the Britons continue/adopt aspects of the Roman culture after the Romans left?  If so, what traits and artifacts and for how long?

David Mattingly in his book, An Imperial Possession writes (2006) that ampitheatres had been found so far at Silchester, Circencester, and Dorchester.  Somewhere, is there a legend of a British gladiator?

Highlights include:

“Eighty skeletons have been unearthed at the site in Driffield Terrace, south west of the centre of York, over the past decade. One man appears to have been killed by a large carnivore – almost certainly a lion, tiger or bear. Others have weapon impact damage and many of them have specific features, including marks on their bones, consistent with tough training regimes.

“Our lead theory is that many of these skeletons are those of Roman gladiators and others who died in the arena. So far, a number of pieces of evidence point towards that interpretation or are consistent with it,” said the archaeologist leading the investigation, Kurt Hunter-Mann of York Archaeological Trust.”

Current evidence from scientific tests and cranial data analysis indicates that the men came from many different parts of the Roman Empire, probably including central and eastern Europe and North Africa.

“We don’t have any other potential gladiator cemeteries with this level of preservation anywhere else in the world,” said Dr Michael Wysocki, a senior lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire, who examined the York skeletons. “The material is particularly significant because it includes such a broad spectrum of injuries associated with interpersonal violence.”

One of the most puzzling aspects of the cemetery is that most of the men were decapitated. Although some may have sustained injuries in the period immediately before death, in most cases decapitation appears to have been the act which killed them.

It is known that defeated gladiators were often “executed” in the arena by their opponents – but scholars have always thought that it was done by a sword stab to the throat. The York decapitations are from the back of the neck, suggested that a wider range of arena coups de grâce were employed.

Several of the York skulls had holes that may have been caused by terminal hammer blows – a feature also seen in the fragmentary remains at a Roman cemetery in Ephesus, Turkey, where it was interpreted as a sign that the dead were gladiators.”

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