In the middle
of the second century Roman Britain was enjoying a period of stability
and prosperity. Hadrian's wall
had been built to the north, in the towns trade and industry was thriving,
and in the country the golden age of the Roman
villa was beginning. If you happened to be in Britain's earliest military
town at the time then the hottest ticket in town was to the chariot races.
The discovery of a Circus (a Roman chariot-racing track) in the town of
Colchester in 2004 was a hugely important find within the cultural context
of Britain. The discovery of this structure emphasises as never before
how the Romans didn't just rule the land by military might, but they branded
it with their customs and games, and converted our masses into the adrenaline
loving chariot-racing fanatics on the continent. There are at least fifty
Circuses in mainland Europe but until recently none were thought to have
existed in England.
Chariot races were big business and the core of everyday Roman life. The
common rabble were adicted to the circuses and the gladiatorial fights.
Men and even aristocrats would go along to the races to meet women, and
they themselves would be enraptured by the risk-taking charioteers who
were very glamorous and desirable athletic figures.
In Rome, the Circus Maximum was the place to go for chariot races. It
had a capacity of 250,000, which is more than double the largest English
football stadium of the present day, and if full, would entertain a quarter
of the city's entire population. On big celebration days as many as 20
races would be held, featuring two and four horse teams.
Races consisted of seven laps which were counted by the mechanical bronze
dolphins in the central. The chariots would reach speeds of 30 miles per
hour and were bloody and dangerous affairs in which death and disaster
So to find one of these monumental centres of entertainment and business
in Colchester is significant as it embodied every facet of the Roman ethos,
by requiring their surveying skills,
the architectural knowhow, athletic prowess, and it incorporated their
religious rituals too. The circus at Colchester would have held a modest
8,000 but that it was built at all is a testament to Roman influence.
Claudius chose Colchester as the site of first Roman garrison town and
it acted as a base to dispatch legions to conquer the rest of Britain.
In 50 AD, seven years after his visit, it became a colonia where retired
soldiers settled. Colchester was the premier Roman town and it was designed
to be a display of the Roman "brand". It was an advertisement
of Roman civilaztion, being modelled on Rome and featuring all the important
However in 61 AD Boudica burnt the place to the ground as part of the
native rebellion against the occupation, and the Roman capital was moved
to London in the fifteen years it too the town to recover. However Colchester
was rebuilt as the centre of the Cult of Claudius. Because Tacitus never
mentioned a circus in his notes about the town from the 1st century AD
this suggests that the building of the circus came after, perhaps as part
of the Cult's worship.
The circus at Colchester is connected with a graveyard which has associations
with the sport, as some graves have horse jaws and one burried coin of
Germanicus has a chariot design.
Before the arrival of the Romans, chariots already played an important
role. They were the choice modes of transport in battle and thousands
of opposing warriors in tribes like Boudica's would ride into battle against
Camulodunum as it was originally called was well defended against chariot
attacks. Dykes were built up in the landscape to guard against tribal
incursions by chariot and they were organised to make a wheeled assault
difficult. The ruling Catuvellauni aristocracy of the area was powerful
and the impressive defensive dyke system is a testment that.
When the Romans built their town near to the native iron age settlement,
they sited it closer to the river for practical reasons, because the raw
materials would have come in by ship. The circus was built outside the
Roman town, on high ground perhaps partly as an outreach towards the native
settlement. The Catuvellauni would have interacted the Roman town and
who is to say that the native Britons didn't come to the games and been
drawn to the impressive and glamorous Roman culture nearby?
GMR Based on Time Team