Lesley Wood, a retired Civil Servant, had put together her talk following a visit to the site in Colchester in October. She started by reminding us that Colchester, then known to the Romans as Camulodunum, was the capital of Roman Britain. It was very much a mini-version of Rome itself, with temples, basilicas and baths. The Temple of Claudius was later incorporated into the mediaeval castle. The circus site was discovered as recently as 2005 and was reckoned to be the largest outside Rome. Its location is some distance away from the main part of the town, lying near the present Circular Road North. It was a long arena, with a 450 m track and a central division called a Spina. Unfortunately one end is buried under the Flagstaff House complex, but the other end is laid in open ground, enabling extensive excavation work to be carried out. The nearby Visitors' Centre presents talks and has scale models of the city. Reproductions of the entry gates, the starting area and the seating tiers have been added. Roman VIPs enjoyed views of the circus from a raised balcony above the entrance.
A racing event would begin with a procession from the temple, preceded by the important citizens. The racing teams, called factiones, would enter at the gates, wearing appropriate “team” colours of white, red, blue or green. The chariots would be drawn by teams of two or four horses, mostly imported from North Africa or Spain. They would have needed 5 years of training and would work up to about 20 years before being retired.
The charioteers would be well padded to protect themselves from multiple accidents and would carry a knife to cut themselves free in an emergency. They raced round the track seven times in races that were often frenzied and brutal. Crashes, either random or deliberate, were frequent. Cheating was endemic since huge sums of money were involved through betting. The prize money was often considerable. A somewhat jerky clip from the chariot race in Ben Hur was played as a reminder of how brutal the races could be.
The Circus site is not the only one in Colchester to benefit from recent excavations. Extensive “digs” have taken place in front of the old Colchester Hospital with some valuable finds such as pottery ovens, coins and graves. Lesley rounded off her fascinating talk by showing a slide of a painting of the Emperor Claudius (AD 43) by Peter Froste. She encouraged us to go to the visitors' centre and see for ourselves before the centre closes over the Christmas and New Year period.