Gladiators in the North of England

Knowledge of the Roman period in Britain is growing all the time, thanks to new excavations and the application of scientific techniques. Human remains from the site at Driffield Terrace in York have been the subject of speculation for some time: were the 80 plus skeletons of young men exhumed over the last decade a group of aristocrats punished for their part in a revolt against the Roman Emperor Caracalla? That was one theory, but it seems that forensic science has revealed that the truth is something quite different – it was a graveyard for gladiators.

The group of well-built young men had been decapitated, leading to bizarre theories about pagan rites, or punishment for outsiders such as Christians. They also had evidence of hammer blows to the head, which became of greater interest when a group of burials of gladiators with the same type of blows, and also decapitation, were discovered in Ephesus, Turkey, three years ago.

The result of forensic work on the skeletons, recently announced, show a variety of evidence which would support the view that the men were gladiators. Many of the 1,800-year-old remains indicate much stronger muscles in the right arm, a condition to be expected in men who had been subjected to years of training. Analysis of the tooth enamel showed that the men came from a wide range of Roman provinces, including North Africa, also a normal feature of gladiator recruitment.

Imagine coming from North Africa to fight in York! York was a provincial capital and major military base for the Romans, and is famous for the fact that the Emperor Constantine took the purple there is AD306. It seems that the town was a flourishing place with a social life which included watching man pitted against beast in the amphitheatre. And it seems that the residents ate well too, if the funeral feasts are anything to go by. Literary sources tell us that gladiators were the ancient equivalent of premier footballers, with huge followings and lavish lifestyles for those who survived long enough. The funeral feasts for these Northern ‘stars’ included beef, pork and horsemeat and they were provided with a variety of grave goods for the afterlife.

Decapitation was a common way to meet one’s death at the end of a contest (witness also the skeletons excavated in the amphitheatre in Durres, Albania) and the coup-de-grace was often delivered by a hammer to the head. But it was the evidence of a bite from a large animal that really sealed the interpretation – probably from a lion, tiger or bear. There were also a broad range of other healed and unhealed injuries associated with violence found on the skeletons. As Dr Michael Wysocki, senior lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire, put it: "It would seem highly unlikely that this individual was attacked by a lion or tiger as he was walking home from the pub in York 2,000 years ago." So, gladiators it is then……