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9 December 2020: Colchester’s Roman CircusA map showing an elongated structure overlaid by roads

This was a last minute change of programme for our local NT Supporter Group. Lesley Wood of U3A kindly stepped in over the weekend to give us this talk on Colchester’s Roman Circus.

Colchester, known as Camulodunum in Roman times, was the original capital of the Roman province of Britain. It was modelled on Rome itself. The remains of a number of the civic buildings have already been traced. It has long been known that Colchester Castle is built on top of the remains of the Temple of Claudius and there was also a theatre capable of holding 3,000 people. Some of the expected buildings, such as the market and the amphitheatre, have still to be found.

The Roman circus was discovered in 2004, during excavations at the site of a former army barracks. This was not a circus in the modern sense but a stadium for chariot races. It was outside the walls of the Roman city, some 20 minutes’ walk from the temple. It is the only known example of a Roman circus in Britain.

There is now a visitor centre on the site. Lesley visited it in October.

The circus would have been some 450 metres long. Only the area from the starting gates to about two-thirds along has been excavated so far, as the other end is under a large occupied building.

Low walls have been built to show visitors where the starting gates were. If you look through a perspex screen at the site, you can see the outline of the structure that would have contained the gates; Lesley showed us a photograph. The gates were side-by-side in wall forming a straight end.

From there the chariots would race to the spina, which divided the track into two parallel sections. The far end of the circus was semi-circular. Here the charioteers would turn round the spina to race back up the other side of the track before turning again at the near end of the spina and going round again. Races were typically seven laps of the spina. The first charioteer to get to the spina at the start could get himself into the most favourable position for the turns.

The chariots were light contraptions with nothing for the charioteer to hang on to; there is a modern replica at the visitor centre. The chariot would be pulled by two horses or sometimes by four. The charioteer would stand in the chariot with the reins in his left hand and a whip in his right. He guided the chariot by controlling the horse on the left (which would have been nearest the spina during the race). Slung on his back would be a large knife that he could use to cut himself free in the event of an accident.

There were four chariot “factions”: white, red, blue and green. According to Roman tradition, these colours reflected the four seasons. The charioteers started out as slaves but if successful could win enough money to buy their freedom. The top charioteers could become the Roman equivalent of millionaires. Cheating was rife.

The event would start with a procession from the town to the circus, entering through the middle gate, which was wider than the others. The procession would include the most important citizens and the charioteers with their attendant slaves (six per chariot).

The civic dignitaries would occupy the seats of honour on top of the starting gates. The rest of the spectators occupied tiered seating on each side of the circus and around the semicircle at the end. The circus could seat an estimated 8,000 people. It was one of the few places where men and women could sit together and the only place where betting was allowed.

Chariot races were the equivalent of today’s football matches. The noise from the crowd could be considerable, making it impossible for the charioteers to hear any starting signal. Each race was therefore started by the most senior dignitary dropping a handkerchief.

The charioteers would travel from circus to circus all round the Roman world. Lesley thought that the Colchester circus would have seen races at least once a month and possibly once a week. They were free for the populace, the cost of each race meeting being met by one of the local magistrates.