History of Chester Roman Amphitheatre

Chester Roman Amphitheatre was built in the late first century AD, when many such buildings were being constructed throughout the Roman Empire. It lay just outside the south-east corner of the Roman legionary fortress, and was probably used both for entertainments and for practising troop manoeuvres and weapon training.

The north entrance to the amphitheatre, with the shrine to Nemesis

The north entrance to the amphitheatre, with the shrine to Nemesis

Only about two-fifths of the oval amphitheatre is visible; the rest lies unexcavated behind the brick wall. In the excavated part, two entrances have been exposed: the larger lies on the long axis to the north, while the smaller lies on the short axis to the east. Lining the arena is the original stone wall, although, owing to later removal, some sections are missing and there is modern concrete backing.

Excavations in the 1960s suggested that the building was originally constructed entirely of wood, but further archaeological investigation in 2001 cast doubt on this theory. The stone structure seen today had an outer wall 9 feet (2.7 metres) thick, marked out by concrete slabs set in the grass. Inside it ran a corridor linking the entrances that led to stairways taking the spectators up into the seating area.

Description

The two entrances visible today were used by the performers; their sloping floors show that the arena floor was sunk over 3 feet (1 metre) below Roman ground level. Just inside the corridor of the north entrance is a set of stairs, which led to a small room housing the officials who controlled activities in the arena.

Inside the arena was a small door to the left of the north entrance. The room behind it contained an altar dedicated to the goddess Nemesis, who was believed to control the fate of the performers. In most amphitheatres, these shrines were outside the arena; perhaps some performances in Chester included a visit to it.

The amphitheatre did not enjoy a long initial period of use: by the 120s AD it had become derelict and was being used as a rubbish dump. This happened around the time that the Twentieth Legion was posted north to help build Hadrian’s Wall. It was not until about AD 275 that it was brought back into use, when new paving was laid inside the arena, the shrine to Nemesis was refurbished and a colonnade was inserted in the east entrance. It remained as a functioning amphitheatre until finally being abandoned about AD 350.

During the fifth or sixth century there may have been a timber hall in the arena, standing for long enough to need rebuilding. Later the large blocks in the east entrance were inserted. On one side it is still possible to see the very worn steps that led down into this space, which was possibly built as the crypt of the original St John’s Church in the seventh century.

Most of the later history of the site is one of neglect and demolition: during the medieval period it was nothing more than a quarry for building stone and a convenient rubbish dump. By about 1200 houses had been built over it, and it was not until the 1950s that it was uncovered and later excavated.


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Drawn plan of excavated area of Chester Roman amphitheatre

Drawn plan of excavated area of Chester Roman amphitheatre
© Historic England

Further Reading

Thompson, FH, ‘The excavation of the Roman amphitheatre at Chester’, Archaeologia (1976), 105, 127–239 

Note 

The text on this page is derived from the Heritage Unlocked series of guidebooks, published in 2002–6. We intend to update and enhance the content as soon as possible to provide more information on the property and its history.

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