Scheduled Monument: Roman Circus 200 m south of Abbey House (35614)

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Authority English Heritage
Date assigned 13 November 2007
Date last amended


Description of the monument: The monument includes the buried remains of a Roman circus or chariot racing track and a section of the precinct wall relating to the Benedictine Abbey of Saint John. The monument is orientated east to west and is situated to the south of Colchester town centre on the crest of a prominent ridge. The classic Roman circus is an elongated oval track flanked by cavea (tiers of seating) along two sides and around the curved end. A low barrier known as a spina runs down the centre to prevent collisions. Turning posts known as metae were placed at either end of the spina and at the open, non curved, end was a row of starting bays known as the carceras. Circuses were used originally for chariot racing and boxing but athletics and wrestling also became popular. The Colchester circus is orientated east to west and measures 448.2m in length and between 71.1 and 74.2m in width. The area of protection also includes a ten meter buffer zone around the circus which was considered necessary for the support and preservation of the monument. Three area excavations and a number of evaluation trenches have been investigated and all contribute to our understanding of the form and fabric of the circus. Most recent excavations (2007) by the Colchester Archaeological Trusthave exposed a section of the spina at the junction between Napier Road and Circular Road North. All the evidence helps to illustrate and confirm the archaeological potential of the monument. It has been calculated that the circus had a seating capacity of around 12,500 – 15,000. The starting gates are thought to have been situated at the western end of the structure with the semi circular end to the east. The stand or cavea at Colchester varied between 5.8m and 6.0m in total width. It was built of earth but was retained by stone or timber walls, a similar method of construction to that found in theatres and amphitheatres in Britain and elsewhere. At Colchester it is thought the cavea was timber framed as the foundations, which were only 150mm deep, were too shallow to support a stone superstructure. However large exterior buttresses with parallel, less substantial walls 5m inside imply the outer cavea wall was probably of stone and has been estimated to be at least 4-5m in height. These may have supported blind arcading enhanced with pilasters much like examples on the continent. Finds from robber trenches certainly confirm the presence of Romanised decorative architecture such as tile coursing, opus signinum facing mortar (fine Roman concrete), and a piece each of column and incised marble facing (possibly Purbeck). The stone used in the foundations of the cavea is greensand which is rare elsewhere in Colchester probably because it had to be brought in from Kent. On the whole, dating evidence from the circus is limited but based on the dated contexts of the stone elsewhere in the area the use of Kent greensand implies it was built in the second century AD. The sheer scale of the building was so great that it is believed that the emperor must have paid for its construction. Hadrian’s visit to Britain in AD122 is associated with a revival of public buildings in towns and it is thought that he may be responsible for the construction of the circus at Colchester. A number of glass and pottery finds discovered in Colchester in the past depict images of chariot races. Given the discovery of the circus it is now thought that some of these may be souvenirs of actual events. New finds associated with the sport include a piece of horse furniture which was recovered from a robber trench of the inner wall. A coin from a grave dated to the early first century AD features a four horse chariot and rider and is a rare find in Britain. A silver coin found in a rare hoard dated between 150BC and 117AD also depicts a four horse chariot. It is unclear when the circus came out of use but it is possible that it stood as a ruin into the Norman period. The circus was probably still a standing ruin when St John’s Abbey was built around c. 1100 AD. Early medieval pottery from a trench dug to extract building material suggests that some Roman walls may have been dismantled and used in the abbey construction. The abbey precinct wall exhibits some odd bends in the south west corner and implies that its alignment may have been, at least in part, determined by elements of the surviving circus. A section of the precinct wall lies approximately 60m west from the eastern end of the monument. It stands to almost 2.5m high and although there is evidence of dressed facing stone it survives mainly as a randomly coursed stone core. This section of walling is included in the scheduling. Excavation also confirmed that the circus was surrounded by a contemporary cemetery. A total of 516 burials have been excavated and recorded. The known areas of the cemetery have been fully excavated and preserved by record and have not therefore been included in the area of protection. All buildings, with the exception of the upstanding precinct wall are excluded from the scheduling as are all road and path surfaces, fences, signage and tennis courts. However, the ground beneath all these features is included. Assessment of importance The Colchester Roman circus is a unique archaeological monument in Britain. It is the only place in the country where there is excavated and convincing evidence for a circus and is one of only six locations in the north west provinces of the Roman Empire where circuses have been securely identified. The area excavations and numerous trenched investigate highlight the archaeological potential of the site and the scope for improving the knowledge and understanding of such buildings not only nationally but international context. The Roman circus must be considered in conjunction with other monumental buildings or structures surviving from Roman Colchester. It provides further evidence of the importance of Colchester as one of the principle urban centres of Roman Britain. Map extract The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 10 meter boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument’s support and preservation.

External Links (1)

Sources (1)

  • Scheduling record: Inspector's Report: Roman Circus 200m south of Abbey House.



Grid reference Centred TL 9961 2453 (476m by 100m)
Map sheet TL92SE

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Record last edited

Nov 6 2019 4:47PM

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