images of chariot-racing from Roman Colchester

This week, Trust director Philip has been doing some research into the images of chariot-racing from Roman Colchester. He has also been looking at scenes of gladiatorial combat, as these might sometimes have been presented at Roman circuses during ludi circenses (public games in a Roman circus), between the chariot races.

There are two very well-known and significant Roman objects from Colchester which show images of chariot-racing: these are the complete ‘Colchester circus vase’ and a complete glass ‘circus’ cup, both of which are on permanent display in the Roman Gallery at the British Museum in London. The Friends of the Trust (FCAT) visited the British Museum in 2013 and were able to view both objects. These two objects from Colchester – the circus vase and the circus cup – are both cited in the important book on Roman circuses by John Humphrey (Roman circuses: arenas for chariot racing, published in 1986), when he discusses images of Roman circuses and chariot-racing in Britain. The glass circus cup shows accurate details of a Roman circus and seems to represent four chariots taking part in a chariot race from the start to the finish, and even includes the names of the charioteers (who were obviously famous and popular charioteers of their time). In 2011, the Trust held a competition for children to design their own glass ‘circus’ cup.

Colchester Archaeological Report 8 (Roman vessel glass from excavations in Colchester, 1971-85, published in 1995, pp 42-50) states that ‘… A minimum of 13 [glass] circus cups decorated with nine different designs are therefore represented at Colchester…’, including both chariot cups and gladiator cups. The Trust excavated ten fragments representing seven or eight ‘circus’ cups on our major sites in Colchester town centre in 1971-85, ie at the Balkerne Lane site, the Culver Street site and the Sixth Form College site. The fragments of at least five ‘circus’ cups were found in Colchester before 1971: these were from the Head Street GPO, from Sheepen, and from an unknown site. The well-known complete glass ‘circus’ cup from Colchester was retrieved from a cremation burial in the Roman ‘west cemetery’ in Lexden, and was bought by the British Museum from Edward Acton in 1844.

While checking in an old volume of drawings of archaeological finds from Colchester, Philip found what looks like a chariot-race represented on a Roman lamp from Maidenburgh Street in Colchester! This shows a biga (two-horse chariot): bigae were used in chariot-races but these were not as popular as the chariot-races of quadrigae (four-horse chariots). (The old volume of drawings is Parish’s portfolio of antiquities: no. 1, Colchester, by Josiah Parish, published in 1876, and now in the Trust’s library.)

The images show some of the images of chariot-racing from Roman Colchester: the ‘Colchester circus vase’, a modern replica of a two-frieze circus cup (fragments of which were found by the Trust in the town centre), and two Parish drawings, one of the complete (three-frieze)  ‘circus’ cup and one of the chariot-race lamp.


Colchester vase