Holding Cell Where Roman Gladiators Awaited Death Found in Britain

A Roman “carcer” is a holding cell for criminals and Roman gladiators awaiting their moment in the amphitheater, where bloodthirsty crowds eagerly anticipated the spectacle of their deaths. One such has recently been excavated at the British coastal town of Richborough, near Sandwich on the Kent coast.

Archaeologists believe that the amphitheater was built in 1st century AD, in the early period of Roman rule of Britain. It appears to have been in use for some 200 years, before it became defunct by the 3rd century AD. 

A Very Roman Entertainment

Built at the western edge of the Roman settlement of Rutupiae or Port Rutupus, the vast amphitheater “entertained” 5,000-strong crowds with the “grand” sport of gladiatorial contests, wild beast hunting and occasional criminal executions. Such an event was a “special occasion, drawing people from the town and its surrounds”, Paul Pattison, a senior properties historian at English Heritage told the Guardian.

“These were public spectacles, the equivalent of going to a big blockbuster film, in our terms.” Historians generally agree that Rutupiae was the landing site for the Claudian invasion of what would become the Roman province of Britannia in AD 43.

The Roman fort and amphitheater at Richborough (Daily Mail)

The Roman fort and amphitheater at Richborough ( Daily Mail )

Excavations at the site of the amphitheater, which has been known since a tiny portion of it was unearthed in 1849, had been interrupted by Covid restrictions last year. Since excavations started again in September this year, they have led to many exciting new discoveries.

The Roman settlement of Rutipiae is believed to have developed soon after the Romans landed in Britain in the 1st century. The settlement continued to flourish until the beginning of the 5th century, when they vacated the country. 

The Pet Cat Maxipus

One of the most intriguing new finds has been the almost complete skeleton of a cat that archaeologists have nicknamed Maxipus, reports the Times. The cat, which has been named after Maximus, the Russell Crowe character in the film Gladiator, was complete, with only a small part of its tail missing. 

The skull of the pet cat, dubbed “Maxipus” (Guardian / English Heritage)

The skull of the pet cat, dubbed “Maxipus” ( Guardian / English Heritage )

DNA analysis has shown that while wildcats in Britain predate the Roman conquest in AD 43, domestic felines were brought to the island only later, Mail Online says. Talking about Maxipus, Pattison is reported by the Guardian to have said, “Normally you would expect it to have been dismembered by predators but it’s almost complete, so it looks like it was deliberately placed where it wasn’t disturbed.”

People, he added, were likely to have had pet animals , but “they weren’t quite as soppy as we are about them. Whether they had them in the house is probably debatable.”

Researchers believe that the cat may not have been connected to the amphitheater. This is because it is estimated to have died in the 4th century AD, some 100 years after the auditorium had fallen out of use.

A Grand Auditorium

The amphitheater was of an impressive size, a testament to the popularity of such entertainment. The exterior arena wall was possibly as much as 20 feet (6 meters) wide, built with stacked turf. The interior wall was made of locally quarried chalk blocks with a rendered and plastered face.

The English Heritage team told Mail Online that the use of chalk and turf as building materials is an “exciting discovery” which helps with dating the amphitheater to the 1st century AD.

On the interior wall, traces of paint in vivid reds and blues have been found, most unusually for an amphitheater in Britain. Of all such buildings excavated in Britain to date, only 15 or 16 show evidence of such decoration.

“We are beginning to think there was a series of painted rectangular panels, because there are vertical and horizontal lines in red, yellow, black and blue. They probably originally contained painted scenes, perhaps figurative scenes of what happens in amphitheaters.

“We don’t have that detail yet, but we have the paint and that’s a really good start. Given that we’ve only excavated a tiny fragment of the wall, it bodes well for better-preserved painted scenes elsewhere around the circuit. So we’re pretty excited,” Pattison told the Guardian.

Those who are about to Die, Wait Here

Other finds include a tiny “carcer” or cell with a single doorway, only 6 feet (1.82 meters) across. The cell was probably used to hold wild animals and combatants before they were released into the arena.

Excavations at the site are ongoing (Guardian / English Heritage)

Excavations at the site are ongoing ( Guardian / English Heritage )

Coins, items of personal adornment, pottery fragments and the bones of butchered animals have also been unearthed during the excavations, all providing evidence that the town of Richborough was occupied by civilians right through the Roman period in Britain. They also help to paint a picture of how the town was settled and how it grew.

The nearby fort at Richborough has always been known to have been important for the Romans and the recent finds indicate that the town outside the fort may also have been settled continually, right until the end of Roman occupation of Britain.

Top image: A gladiator awaits his moment in the amphitheater. Source:  zinkevych / Adobe Stock .

By Sahir Pandey


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