We can proudly  boast that  Caerleon has the finest Roman Amphitheatre in Britain, yet I find it surprising to find that so many residents of Monmouthshire have never been to see it. Some have been to Rome and visited the famous Colosseum but sadly have ignored our very special Roman relic on their doorstep. It stands just outside the external wall of the fort and could seat six thousand spectators which was  the entire garrison. Both of these Roman amphitheatres  were completed in 80 AD and used for the same purpose which was gladiatorial combats, fights with wild beasts, the training of troops, weapon training and as a place where the entire legion could be assembled when necessary.

Reconstruction drawing by Alan Sorrell.
Reconstruction drawing by Alan Sorrell. (Alan Sorrell.)


The withdrawal of large numbers of  troops from Wales after 140 AD, for the Antonine campaigns in Scotland left the amphitheatre uncared for and by the beginning of  the third century, it was in a state of ruin. Between the years 212-22, further reconstruction work was carried out.


Towards the end of the Third Century, after the Legion marched away, never to return,  the amphitheatre fell into disuse, and as the centuries passed, it became a grass covered bowl-like depression in the ground, locally known as ‘King Arthur’s Round Table’. Such a name was even included on early Ordnance Survey maps. Large numbers of people used to visit Caerleon at one time just to see the site of this magic place and from the fourteenth century the field in which it is situated was known as ‘King Arthur’s Mead’. It was firmly believed that the cup-shaped hollow was the scene of Arthurian tournaments and joustings described by Sir Thomas Malory in his romantic book ‘Le Morte d’ Arthur’.


In 1405 a French expeditionary force that had come to Wales to support Owain Glyndwr in his war against the English, stopped in Caerleon to inspect King Arthur’s Round Table and were so absorbed by the local traditions that they failed to march out of Caerleon to secure the defence of the Severn and keep Henry IV at bay.


In 1908 under the supervision of Mr Evelyn White a tentative effort was made to uncover a portion of the amphitheatre, but the funds available were inadequate, so no further progress was made until 1926 when a new committee  of the Caerleon Antiquarian Association was formed to carry out excavations under the Act for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments (1913). The initiative came from the National Museum of Wales, at that time under the director, Dr Mortimer Wheeler who was later knighted.

Drawing of the grass covered hollow by W.H. Greene in 1861.
Drawing of the grass covered hollow by W.H. Greene in 1861. (Drawing of the grass covered hollow by W.H. Greene in 1861.)


Due to another important commitment, Dr Wheeler reluctantly handed over the excavation to his wife Tessa, and it involved a large body of workmen, two horses and a complicated railway system. This exciting project lasted two years and was funded by the Loyal Knights of the Round Table of America and the Daily Mail newspaper (in return for daily reports and exclusive rights). Some 20,000 tons of earth were removed in order to reveal the finest and largest example of a Roman amphitheatre in Britain. It was then presented to the Office of Works, the predecessor of Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments .


Nearly 20,000 tons of accumulated soil were removed from the site  to expose  an oval arena, 184 feet long and 136 feet wide, surrounded by a sturdy buttressed stone wall supporting a high bank on which 6000 spectators could sit on wooden seats and in private boxes.


The excavated arena would have supplied material for building the bank which rises to a height of 30 feet above the  arena. It had eight vaulted entrances, symmetrically placed, two of which at either end were wide enough to allow the passage of chariots and also served as great processional entrances.  Over these entrances  was an arched roof on which was built a seat of honour for distinguished visitors.


The eastern entrance contained a chamber with a shrine to the goddess Nemesis and this was where the gladiators waited to go into the arena. During the excavation in 1926, a lead tablet inscribed with a curse was found, no doubt left by a gladiator. The oval arena was drained by a gutter which ran all around the outside into a stone drain and then into the river.


The excavated Amphitheatre 
The excavated Amphitheatre  (Chris Barber)

Still in position are inscribed stones telling us that construction work was divided among different companies of the 3rd  cohort of the Second Legion. It passed  through two phases of construction for extensive alterations, consisting partly in the removal of vaults in the entrances, were carried out not long after 121 AD, presumably when  the Second Legion, or part of it, returned from its lengthy absence in connection with the building of Hadrian’s Wall.


A gladiator’s dagger was found in the centre of the arena, and near one of the entrances was a statue of the goddess Diana. There is a chamber near the western entrance where it is supposed wild animals were confined before their entry into the arena to killed by the gladiators or to kill Britons who had been sentenced to death.  


In Roman times the arena would have been covered with sand or fine gravel, a surface more suitable than the present smooth grass for the variety of activities and spectacles which took place there.


One of my pictures shows the Ermine Street Guard which is based in Gloucester. It is a re-enactment and living history society founded in 1972 and named after the Roman road linking London with Lincoln and York. All their clothes, armour and weapons are historically accurate and they give performances at major Roman sites throughout Great Britain and Europe.


Their primary objective is to study and display weapons, tactics and equipment of the Roman army and they work closely with leading academics in the field to ensure that everything is correctly based upon known information.


When I stand in the grassy arena I try to conjour up a picture of scenes that took place here two thousand years ago. I visualise the Retarius with his net and trident; the Laquarius with his lasoo twirling above his head as he advanced on his opponent, and the gladiators with polished shields, parrying sword and dagger thrusts. Then the final act, when the victor glances up at the Praetor, to see whether he gives the sign ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down,’ to indicate whether the defeated man is to be killed, or if his performance has earned him time to allow his wounds to heal, and fight in the arena another day.