Ancient Roman vase is 1st evidence of gladiator battles on English soil

New analysis of artifact from late 2nd century, discovered in Colchester in 1853, depicts duel between fighters Memnon and Valentinus

The Colchester Vase depicting a gladitorial battle circa 2nd century CE. (Wikimedia/Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Colchester Vase depicting a gladitorial battle circa 2nd century CE. (Wikimedia/Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)

New research on an ancient vase discovered in England in 1853 suggests, for the first time, that gladiator battles took place in Roman Britain.

Gladiator battles were a form of Roman entertainment featuring armed combatants facing off against each other, wild animals or even condemned criminals, and have been popularized in modern culture via movies such as “Spartacus” and “Gladiator.”

The late 2nd-century CE vase discovered in 1853 in the southeastern English town of Colchester — known to the Romans as Camulodunum — which features an inscription bearing the names of two known gladiators, was previously thought to have had the names inscribed on it after the vase was fired, meaning that they were thought to be a later addition.

However, new research reported by The Guardian revealed the names were inscripted before the clay was fired, indicating that the gladiators lived in Britain at the time of the vase’s creation in 160-200 CE.

“It’s the only evidence of a Roman arena gladiator combat actually being staged in Britain,” Frank Hargrave, director of Colchester and Ipswich Museums, told the newspaper.

“There are no written descriptions. The vase is such high quality that there’s been a bit of snobbery, an assumption that it couldn’t possibly have come from Britain, whereas all the analysis has now put that to bed,” he said.

A scene from the 2000 movie ‘Gladiator.’ (Screenshot/Youtube; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Glynn Davis, a Roman archaeologist and museum curator, labeled the discovery “incredibly significant,” noting that nothing else similar has been found in Britain.

“It’s a commemorative piece, almost a trophy for the trophy cabinet. Later, it’s used as a funerary vessel. There must be an intimate connection with the deceased. They could well have sponsored the games. Or they were an absolute sports nut. For whatever reason, they saw the fight and thought, ‘I want a memento of that.'”

Inside the vase researchers had found cremated human remains, which analysis showed to belong to a “non-local [male of] potentially European origin” said to be over 40 years old.

Decoration on the exterior of the vase depicts two armor-clad men attempting to lure a bear and a dog, while those animals chase a hare and deer.

Colchester Castle, England. (Wikipedia/Dr Neil Clifton; CC BY-SA 2.0)

The men are identified as Memnon and Valentinus, which The Guardian said were thought to be stage names. The vase depicts Memnon overcoming his opponent, who is seen holding up his forefinger, apparently a gladiator symbol of submission.

“Memnon appears quite often in Roman literature,” John Pearce, a senior lecturer at London’s King’s College told The Guardian.

“He’s described as this massively impressive ‘black-skinned’ person, this hero who comes from Troy. I’m wondering why Memnon would be chosen as the name of the gladiator. Is that because we’ve got a black gladiator who is from somewhere well south of Colchester – from north Africa?” Pearce speculated.

The vase, among other Roman artifacts, is set to go on display from July in Colchester Castle.

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