The Roman circus

Reconstruction of Colchester's Roman circus by Peter Froste (Copyright Colchester Archaeological Trust)The remains of a Roman circus , an arena for chariot racing, were discovered in 2004, during investigations in advance of the redevelopment of Colchester Garrison, approximately 450m south of the walled town.

Chariot racing was the oldest and most popular sport in the Roman world and the Colchester  circus is the only example in the country.  It is one of only six locations in the northwest provinces of the Roman Empire where circuses have been securely identified.

The Colchester Roman Circus is a classic example of its type - an elongated arena, approximately 450 metres long and 74 metres wide, comprising of a racing track flanked by tiered seating, known as a 'cavea', along the north and south long sides and around the curved (east) end. This would have provided perhaps as many as six tiers of seating around outside of the track, providing an estimated seating capacity for 8,000 people.

At one end of the track there was a row of eight starting gates and at the other a sharp 180 degree turn. The two long straight sections were separated by a barrier called a ‘spina’, which supported a series of decorative columns and other features, including lap counters and pressurised water features. 

It was constructed around AD 125, probably on the orders of the emperor, Hadrian, who was in Britain at that time. The circus had already gone out of use by the end of the Roman period.

The building, i.e. the above-ground structure, is poorly preserved and there are no upstanding original walls or earthworks (which is the reason why the Circus was previously unknown).  Today the Roman Circus Centre provides information about the site and visitors can see reconstructions of the starting gates and the seating. 

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