Art and the amphitheatre

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:40 pm

Roman London, map, amphitheatreIt’s sometimes easy to forget that London is a Roman creation.  A site occupying a good position on the north bank of the tidal Thames, which offered deep enough anchorage for ocean-going vessels and which was narrow enough to bridge.  Within 20 years of the invasion of 43AD, London was sufficiently large and important to be sacked by Boudicca, intent on wreaking a terrible revenge on the regime that had injured her so grossly.  London rose again (as it has done several times) and by the end of the 1st century it was Britannia’s principal commercial and political centre.

London, Roman, Amphitheatre, Guildhall, Art GalleryLondon, Roman, Amphitheatre, Guildhall Art GalleryIn common with many other Roman towns, Londinium had an amphitheatre.  These were places of entertainment, but the shows would not have been to our taste.  Whilst acrobats or wrestlers might provide the warm-up, what Romans really enjoyed was a juicy bit of blood-letting.  So the next feature on the programme might be a little gentle boxing, where the opponents wore vicious metal-studded leather strips over their fists, perhaps followed by some light-hearted cock-fighting or bear-baiting. Maybe there would be a mock hunt in which the ‘hunters’ slaughtered ferocious animals. Convicted criminals, including Christians (who undermined imperial authority), might be condemned ad bestias (to the beasts) and pushed, naked and unarmed, into the arena to face wild, half-starved, animals. But the pinnacle of entertainment, the very top of the bill, was gladiatorial combat.  What better way to spend time than watching people hack one another to death?  Gladiators could be slaves, petty criminals, or prisoners of war for whom the arena might have offered a better option than an alternative fate. Amphitheatres could be used for public executions too.  So they fought, perhaps with a short sword and shield, perhaps with a trident and net. Some even gained reputation and freedom.

London's Roman Amphitheatre under the Guildhall Art GalleryAmphitheatres were usually built on the fringes of towns, or even outside, to minimise the potential hazards of escaping wild animals or over-exuberant crowds. Londinium’s was situated in the north-west corner of the city, close to the fort that once stood by London Wall and not far from some public baths.  It was built in the late first century, probably around 70AD, a wooden structure with tiers of seats supported by heavy timber beams, upgraded to stone in the second century. After the end of Roman rule in the early 5th century, the amphitheatre fell into disrepair and the site was built over – eventually by London’s Guildhall.

Amphitheatre, London, Roman, GuildhallSo it was when a new Guildhall Art Gallery was being constructed in 1985 that the remains of the amphitheatre were discovered.  The City of London has an extensive art collection and a gallery to show works was opened in 1885.  However, the gallery was destroyed in the Blitz in 1941 and it took a generation to get round to building a replacement, which opened in 1999. It displays about 250 works at any one time, on a rotating basis. There is a great deal of Victorian and, as to be expected, London-themed, work.  At one end is an enormous, martial, painting, The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar.  There is also a small, but fascinating, museum – and the Art Gallery additionally provides access to London’s Roman Amphitheatre, now 20 feet (6 metres) beneath your feet.

London, amphitheatre, wooden drainThe remains of the amphitheatre are very modest – essentially, part of the east gate, through which performers would have entered the arena, sections of some of the surrounding buildings, traces of the packed sand that once helped soak up the blood on the arena floor and, astonishingly, the wooden drain that helped keep the arena free from standing water.  The amphitheatre was oval in shape and had capacity for 7,000 spectators.

Guildhall, London, amphitheatreClearly, London’s Amphitheatre is not the Colosseum.  But it has been presented in an innovative way which makes the place almost come alive.  Clever lighting, luminescent paint, digital projection, sensors, and even the sound of a roaring crowd give a slightly terrifying sensation of being there two thousand years ago.  And outside, at street level, some design genius had the inspiration of showing the outline of the amphitheatre using black stone inlaid in the Guildhall’s forecourt.  Very clever; very effective.

Guildhall Art Gallery, City of LondonYou’ve almost forgotten the Guildhall Art Gallery (known as ‘GAG’), haven’t you?  It’s a lovely space, with (I thought) some inspiring pictures and helpful, friendly staff. All in all, highly recommended.  You’ll find the Guildhall Art Gallery off Gresham Street, named for the 16th century merchant and royal financier, Sir Thomas Gresham, and on the way to the forum.

City of London, Guildhall Art GalleryGuildhall Art Gallery, Old London BridgeLondon, Guildhall Art Gallery, La Ghirlandata, Dante Gabriel RossettiGuildhall Art Gallery, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche.Guildhall Art Gallery, The Garden of Eden, Hugh Goldwin RiviereBut there’s one more item of interest to share with you.  During A Bit About Britain’s visit, the gallery’s small museum was exhibiting the William Charter.  This is the oldest document in the City’s archive and was given by William the Conqueror to the City in 1067.  It is a tiny piece of vellum (calfskin), just 6 inches by one and a half (15 x 3.8cms) with two strips – one for threading through the seal and the other a tie.

Significantly, the charter is written in Old English, not Latin or William’s native Norman French.  In modern English, it says:

William, King, greets William, Bishop, and Geoffrey, Portreeve, and all the burghers (citizens) in London, French and English, in friendly fashion; and I inform you that it is my will that your laws and customs be preserved as they were in King Edward’s day, that every child shall be his father’s heir after his father’s death; and that I will not suffer that any man do wrong to you. God keep you

The William Charter, City of LondonThis document confirms the rights and privileges that Londoners had enjoyed before the Conquest of 1066. William recognised the unique importance of London, the value of its trade, and the need to protect it – as well as having the support of London’s movers and shakers.  It’s an exceptional document; but the City of London is an exceptional place.

11 thoughts on “Art and the amphitheatre”

  1. So fascinating. 1000 years from now what will surviving humans, if there are any, uncover about life in our times?

    The last painting is really touching.

  2. And here I thought Chester was our Roman capital city! Thanks for sharing, perhaps I should find my way to London again and seek out these old ruins… 🙂

  3. I greet you in friendly fashion and I will not suffer that any man do wrong to you. God keep you.
    You just cannot beat the English language for saying the right thing, that still sounds perfect to me.

  4. Hi Mike – thanks for that excellent post – reminding us of various aspects of London and its origins. Fascinating to see the calf-skin charter and the fact it’s written in old English … amazing. That’s where I saw the Agincourt Crystal Sceptre and Hedon Mace that I wrote about 15 months ago … it was a tiny exhibition, but just brilliant to see these items – only out when the Lord Mayor uses them.

    I agree the Art Gallery is exceptional too … I did see an exhibition there … then the Guildhall Library round the corner often has an exhibition – I saw one on historical items about the plague …

    There are so many wonderful places to visit and to learn about … thanks for enlightening us here .. and those images are amazing – great selection … cheers Hilary

  5. How thankful we should be to live in modern London or America, although we don’t have nearly as many skeletons in our closet (but only because our closet hasn’t been around as long.) I thought that executions were more public than that appears in the painting, although I suppose that might have been determined on a head by head basis.

  6. I had forgotten {if I ever knew) that an amphitheatre had been discovered at Guildhall. It really surprises me what manages to survive hundreds and hundreds of years hidden underground. That wooden drain is just such an example. And as you say, how old was the tree when it was felled? Very interesting post and I loved the pieces of artwork you selected. Thank-you, Mike.

    1. Hi Carla – if you hover your cursor over images in A Bit About Britain’s posts, an explanation should appear. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with some browsers – let me know. Anyway – the information you asked for – The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833) by Paul Delaroche. Lady Jane was 16 years old when she was beheaded on 12th September 1554.
      All the best – Mike

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