Monday, 25 April 2016
The Roman Amphitheatre in Caerleon
This impressive amphitheatre is the only one of its kind preserved in Britain and is free to visit, a microadventure 2000 years back in time. It is remarkable that any of it survives as many of the stones were plundered by local inhabitants as building materials for their own dwellings. The Romans settled in Isca, as they called Caerleon, deriving the name from that of the river Usk (Wysg), from 74 A.D. to late in the 4th century. The town was a neat walled rectangle housing members of the Second Augustan Legion, transferred from Strasbourg to Britain in 43 A.D. Most of it is buried under the present village.
The troops watch
This construction was used for gory combats between gladiators, animal baiting and military exercises and was built around 80 A.D., the same time as the Colosseum. Up to 6000 soldiers would watch from the massive oval earth banks revetted with stone and buttressed on the outside. On the inside the stone was covered with white plaster and on top of the banks were tiers of wooden seats. You can still see a working drain beneath a grille.
I was transfixed by the sign on the floor where a gladiator stood before entering the arena, possibly never to come out alive.
Legend and fact
Until the twentieth century the site was known as King Arthur's Round Table, possibly because of Tennyson's links with Caerleon, and was believed to be Camelot. (The poet pondered on and planned Idylls of the King in the Hanbury Arms.) It was excavated in 1926-7 by Sir Mortimer Wheeler and his wife and revealed as the marvel we can relish today.
I stood where he stood when his blood
Ran cold and dry, then hot
As Roman sun, so distant now
And cooling like his fighter's vow
To win at Camelot.
Then and now
Where there was crimson-stained sand, there is now grass, and where men and beasts fought to the death, small boys can now have an informal game of football - though the last one I happened to see was getting fairly blood-thirsty by the end. It quite put me off my CAKE.
There is open access to this site. Other sites of great interest are: the friendly Museum, the Roman Baths and the remains of the Barracks - all free to enter. You can also go on to Usk on the no 60 bus where the Legion was stationed previously.
Apart from the number 60 bus (see footnote at the very bottom of page) there is a frequent local service (27, 28, 29) between Caerleon and Newport, about 10 minutes away.