In 1988, archaeologists from the Museum of London made an astonishing discovery. Preparations were being made to rebuild the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City. But during the dig, the ancient ruins of a huge structure were found lying beneath Guildhall Yard. The archaeologists had discovered the capital’s only Roman amphitheatre.
Built around AD70, the venue was used for more than 200 years to host gladiatorial combats as well as sporting events, wild animal fights, performances and even public executions. It was large enough to seat a fifth of the population of Roman London – that’s about 7,000 people. Think of it as an ancient Wembley, but with more blood.
Following the discovery, the plans for the new Guildhall Art Gallery were redesigned to incorporate this astounding piece of architectural history. In 2002, the doors to the amphitheatre (now 20 feet below street level) opened for the first time in nearly 2,000 years.
You can visit the remains of the amphitheatre today as part of a trip to the Guildhall Art Gallery, which also houses the City of London’s art collection and a new exhibition, ‘Architecture of London’, which opens today. The gladiators may be long gone, but the place they battled is a fascinating throwback to the era when London was born.
By Katty Pearce, curator at Guildhall Art Gallery.