Colchester vase: Gladiators fought in Roman Britain during the second century A.D.


Vivid depictions of battling gladiators on a clay vase are the first concrete evidence that these combatants duked it out in Roman Britain, new research finds.

The vessel, known as the Colchester vase, is well known to researchers; it was discovered in a Roman-era grave in Britain in 1853 and holds a person's cremated remains. However, nothing was known about the deceased, and it was unclear whether the vase had been crafted locally or in continental Europe, where gladiator fights were known to entertain audiences in the Roman Empire.

A forthcoming study, however, has revealed that the vase was made with local clay as a souvenir of a specific match in the second century A.D., giving researchers unprecedented insight into sporting events in the outskirts of the empire.

Measuring 23 centimeters tall and weighing over 1 kilogram, the Colchester vase depicts three gladiator scenes with three types of combatants: human-human, human-animal, and animal-animal. In one scene, "bestiarii" (beast fighters), labeled Secundus and Mario, are fighting a bear, while in another, Memnon and Valentinus fight as "secutor" (chaser) and "retiarius" (net man), a fight that pitted a lightly armored man against one with a trident and a net, as a metaphor for the fisherman and his prey. Valentinus is described as being in the 30th legion, which was stationed in northwestern Germany, and Memnon is annotated with the Roman numerals VIIII, meaning he fought and survived nine times. 

Because of the intricacy of the decoration, it was long thought that the vase could not have been made in Britain. But a growing body of evidence for the pottery industry in Colchester allowed the research team to identify the vase as a locally made vessel dating to A.D. 160-200.

The vase was likely created as a type of commemorative cup that was then repurposed as a funerary urn.

Scientific analysis of the cremated bones have revealed that they are the remains of a robust man who was older than 40 when he died. His teeth showed that he did not come from Colchester but rather southwestern England, or possibly from beyond the British Isles. But he wasn't one of the gladiators mentioned on the vase. 

The use of the gladiator vase as an urn, however, may suggest an even more personal connection. "I think it more likely he was associated with this event in some way," Tuck said. "Since we know some of the trainers were former gladiators themselves, he could have easily been a retired gladiator who was still involved in the spectacle."

With its gladiatorial themes and locally sourced clay, the Colchester vase is a remarkable example of Roman-style games taking place in a far-flung part of the empire. Given the lack of written descriptions of events like these in Britain, the Colchester vase provides conclusive evidence that gladiatorial contests occurred there and that people took home souvenirs of their adventures.

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