The best surviving and most upstanding Roman remains in the north of Hampshire are the walls surrounding Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), a civitas capital. Just outside them, at the northeast corner, stands the oval form of the town’s amphitheatre. It escaped examination a century ago, when much of the site was sampled as it did not lie within the Wellington Estate. It was only when it was taken into Guardianship in 1979 that a programme of seven years excavation took place, led by Mike Fulford of Reading University, at the request of the former Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments.
British amphitheatres tend to be smaller than those found on the Continent and generally have three characteristics in common: they are always outside town walls, are variable in orientation to street grids or defences and consist of local material that supports the cavea (seating) with no record of purely masonry support. The amphitheatre at Silchester displays all these characteristics.
The first timber phase at Silchester was constructed to a circular plan probably between about AD 55-75 on land that had been in prior use, as evidenced by two substantial ditches, which it truncated, and by a pottery-making site beneath the western seating bank from which coarse-ware wasters were found among pre-Flavian finds.
Seating was not free-standing and was supported on material excavated from the site. The overall capacity is estimated to have been about 3600 to 3700 although if spectators stood on wide terraces more than 7000 may have been accommodated.
The second timber phase, difficult to date but perhaps of the mid -2nd century AD when masonry was the preferred building material, did not fundamentally change these arrangements. The original entrance layouts were retained and it seems very likely that there was no disturbance to the recesses on the east-west axis but efforts were focused on adapting the arena plan to give it an oval shape.
The arena wall of the second timber phase was replaced in the 3rd century by one of stone which consisted mostly of flint with some use of greensand and sarsen. Flint was also the preferred material used in the re-construction of the passage walls, while brown ironstone was used in the refurbishment of the arena surface. The dimensions of the arena were slightly increased to about 45.5 by 39.m with its oval shape unchanged. It has been found difficult to date the stone re-construction phase although a plausible suggestion is the time of arrival in Britain of Septimius Severus in 208 AD. Such an event may well have justified the considerable expenditure incurred – estimated to be comparable with the cost of the original construction.
About the time that the Silchester amphitheatre was being constructed, the monument at Pompeii on the Bay of Naples was being overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius. This froze in time an arena which had been built 150 years before, when the name given to them was ‘Spectacula’. The term amphitheatre (‘double theatre’) came later. The Pompeii seating could accommodate over 2000 in the best seats (separated by a deep moat from those behind!) and about 25000 overall, more than six times Silchester. There were also special boxes on the top tier for ladies – as Augustus thought it wrong for them be too near the action…and action there certainly was. Supporters at a gladiatorial show in AD 59 got out of hand and a riot took place between the Pompeiians and visiting Nucerians. This resulted in a 10-year ban for such shows at Pompeii, and exile for those who had staged it.
If Pompeii had not been buried in ash and lava, the amphitheatre would almost certainly have been improved, with the provision of an under-floor level, as at nearby Pozzuoli.
Positive evidence for the use of the Silchester amphitheatre is too sparse to draw any firm conclusions. Animal remains, predominantly horse, were retrieved from all three construction phases and it may be that there were equestrian displays, possibly animal hunts (venationes) or even beast fights. There is no evidence of gladiatorial contests and Nemesea, serving some religious purpose, seems to be the most acceptable explanation for the recesses on the east-west axis.
It is quite likely that the amphitheatre fell into disuse and eventual abandonment sometime in the mid – 4th century as evidenced by the finding of two coins of that period. It has also been suggested that the robbing-out of the stone wall could have occurred not much later, although the construction of the parish church of St. Mary 1125-1250 AD may be a more probable cause.
There is as yet no evidence that the amphitheatre may have been used in the post-Roman period until at least the 11th century when a single-aisled hall was built and a number of pits were dug within it. Pottery finds indicate a short period of occupation and the other contemporary structural changes do not preclude the use of the site as a castle during the ‘Anarchy’ of the reign of King Stephen (1135-54).
Thereafter from the 15th century until the 1970s the arena served as a yard for a nearby farm with late-17th to early 18th century pottery, glass and building material from the south entrance vicinity indicating the presence of a long-vanished cottage.
The amphitheatre has an evocative atmosphere and is well worth the short walk from the Church should you be visiting Silchester Roman Town.
Fulford, M (1989) The Silchester Amphitheatre, Excavations of 1979-85. Britannia Monograph Series No. 10.
Archive; A1980.65 held by Hampshire Cultural Trust
Series by: Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone