Britain's Roman Circus

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 were expected.

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 public buildings.

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 each other.

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