Londinium AD 120: The first British Gladiators?

A new forensic examination of skulls which were discovered in 1988 in the Walbrook Valley has suggested that they could be the remains of gladiators. The examination, carried out by the Natural History Museum in conjunction with the Museum of London, found that the skulls had suffered “blunt force trauma” to their front and sides. As a result of this examination, several theories have been put forward to explain what had happened to the victims – mostly young men who had died between AD 120-160. One suggestion is that they are the severed heads of barbarian enemies taken by the Roman armies on the frontiers of Britain. However, more credible are the ideas that they were executed as criminals in the nearby London amphitheatre, or else had perished in combat as gladiators. Such gladiatorial graves have been found on mainland Europe, and it could be the case that this is the first example of the phenomenon in Britain.

One remembers the old adage from Viz, “A Pint and a Fight, a Great British Night”. From gladiators to glassings, tastes in London don’t seem to have changed much. A friend from Kentish town was shaking his head mournfully over the weekend: “there are two murders every week in the local paper” – but if these skulls are anything to judge, ’twas ever thus in London. Or as the Romans would say, “nihil sub sole novum“.