What does it show?
This object is often referred to as a vase, but was probably made as a drinking cup to be used at a dinner. The decoration consists of three distinct scenes. In one, two gladiators face each other. The one on the left is a heavily armed gladiator called a secutor (pursuer) with helmet, body and leg armour. He strides forward with his sword raised, his shield protecting his body. He charges a lightly armed retiarius or netman, who has some body armour, a neck and shoulder guard and an armguard. His main weapon, a trident, lies abandoned on the ground and he raises his finger to indicate surrender. The next scene to the left shows two men, one armed with a whip, the other with a club in each hand; they are baiting a bear which charges the man on the left, but has been struck by the lash of the other man’s whip. The final scene shows a dog chasing two stags and above the dog a hare. These scenes show three types of combat that took place in the Roman amphitheatre: human against human, human against animal, animal against animal.
Who were these gladiators?
Gladiators could be criminals or slaves or free men who had been forced by circumstance, or occasionally had volunteered, to fight in the arena. Even though gladiators could acquire a degree of wealth, fame and popular mystique, they were regarded as among the dregs of society. These gladiators all have their names incised on the vase: Secundus and Mario are fighting the bear; Memnon and Valentinus are the secutor and the retiarius. It is not known whether the names were added as part of the manufacturing process, in which case it is likely that the cup was made for a specific event and perhaps too that these gladiators were well-known. Another possibility is that the purchaser added the names after seeing these particular fights.
Near Valentinus is another inscription indicating that he is from the 30th legion, which was never stationed in Britain. Memnon has a number marked near him: VIIII which indicates that he has fought and survived nine times. We know of other examples of gladiators being attached to legions, so perhaps we have here a case of Valentinus joining a troupe of gladiators touring Britain which included the experienced Memnon.
Gladiator fights and animal hunts typically took place in purpose-built buildings called amphitheatres with a central arena and seating all around. Twenty or so amphitheatres are known from Britain; some are associated with military forts; others are located just outside large towns, usually the capitals of the tribal regions into which the Romans divided Britain. The two amphitheatres near the legionary headquarters of Caerleon and Chester were built with stone outer walls and so bore some resemblance to famous amphitheatres such as the Colosseum in Rome.
Amphitheatres and being Roman
Amphitheatres and gladiator fights were very distinctive aspects of Roman culture. In Britain, gladiatorial games were mainly put on as elements in festivals for the gods and, in particular, for honouring the divine emperor. In the case of the urban examples, the construction of an amphitheatre and the sponsoring of games provided opportunities for local individuals or the town government to demonstrate both their wealth and their allegiance to Rome. An amphitheatre was therefore a very visible demonstration of Romanisation, the acceptance of Roman rule and the adoption of Roman culture. However, as with most aspects of Roman Britain, the question remains as to how far beyond the elite Romanisation penetrated into British society. Finds of small, cheap objects to do with gladiators are frequent across Britain, so in this case, even though gladiator fights did not take place very often, there does seem to have been widespread popular interest.
Follow the Gladiators link for a very good general introduction to gladiators, an article and animation about the Colosseum, and a gladiator game.
The Colosseum in Rome
Comprehensive website with detailed information and images about the Colosseum and the gladiatorial games.
Information about the amphitheatre in London
Gladiators: a cemetery of secrets
Details of the excavation of a possible gladiator cemetery in York.
Gladiator graveyard discovered
BBC News article about a gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey.