London’s Roman Amphitheatre – The London under London

Discovering what remains, my new favourite past time
Discovering what remains, my new favourite past time

Call yourself a Londoner? Never been to the Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre? Shocking!

I may not live in Central London, but I consider myself a Londoner. I live south of the River, Greater London, one foot in the busy, dirty, bustling London I love and one foot in the quiet, clean and green London Borough of Bromley.

Like a true Londoner, I am lazy. So many places to see, to sample, to experience. But I am a creature of routine and habit. Same places, same routes, familiar and comfortable. My excuses as easy to reel off as a shopping list. I don’t have enough time, money or opportunity to see all these galleries, museums and history houses. The nooks and crannies of a London literally bursting at the seams. That of course is half the trouble. There is too much, where do you start?

I think of the years I worked next to the Globe Theatre and have still never been. The days and days trudging past the Royal Courts of Justice and yet never took a lunch time to go to the public gallery and lose myself in a court room drama. I am a disappointing, forgetful lover of London.

No longer. This has to stop. My youngest son has a few mornings at nursery. The time is now to seek out a London hidden to me. Not because these places are hard to find or to get to, or because they cost too much. They are hidden to me because I haven’t opened my eyes to them. I look down, my eyes occupied on this morning, this afternoon, tomorrow and next week. Minutes and hours filled with an endless ‘to do’ list. I need to pay a bit of attention to the London I love, I have been neglectful for too long.

Today marks a change. I have a meeting at the Museum of London 12-2pm. I am in London, it is 11.15, not long. Not much time, but I am going to use it. I am going somewhere I have never been before. Time to open my eyes to London, no more wasting time.

My new found obsession with Roman London is leading me to the Guildhall. I have been thinking, contemplating and touching Roman lives for a little while now. Roman pots, Roman adornments, Roman carvings, death and remembrance, life and every day living. What began as a visceral immediate sensory connection with my Roman ancestors via small pieces of broken pot is being expanded, is growing. I am pushing out my knowledge in all directions. Sculpture, funerary practices and now Roman amphitheatres.

Did you know London’s Roman amphitheatre lies under the Guildhall? Did you know you can see it for free? Yes? Have you been?

I am going. I don’t have long, but I have enough time to scratch beneath the London itch that has been bothering me. I am on a journey of discovery and it starts now.

My visit doesn’t begin well. As I enter the Guildhall Gallery a security guard approaches me and asks to scan my bags, as I attempt to put my bag on the scanner I spend an embarrassing 10 mins trying to disentangle myself from headphones and a scarf, I think the guards find it all very amusing. I forgive them, there is something about having your bags scanned, I feel like I am off on holiday, or perhaps more likely I am in a strange James Bond film where this security process is merely a pre-cursor to discovering the treasure; diamonds and gold hidden in some impregnable fortress.

Once inside the Guildhall Art Gallery there is an air of quiet protection, a watchfulness, a guardianship of London history. After all they have been sitting on this gateway to our understanding of Roman London since the 15th century yet bizarrely the Roman remains were only found in 1988. A protected slumber as layers of history silted over the site that stood as a central expression of the Roman Empire in London and the Roman way of life.

I was torn at once as soon as I entered the gallery. Paintings? the new Victoriana exhibition? Where do I start? But I had come to see the London under London. When I saw the sign “Roman Amphitheatre only accessible by lift to the basement” my excitement levels went up, heartbeat increasing, anticipation pulsing through me. I had to uncover this link to Roman life down underground, lifts and corridors, things kept secret and hidden. Why do such things hold power over us?

Tunnel of destiny - Where will it take me?
Tunnel of destiny – Where will it take me?

I walk along a long, long dark corridor. It is a strange thing. I imagine visiting the amphitheatre as a Roman, the same anticipation and excitement, finally emerging into the light. You enter the amphitheatre by what remains of the Eastern Gate. There is precious little to give you an idea of size and scale, a structure originally 100 metres long and 85 metres wide, maybe holding 6-7,000 spectators on wooden tiers of seating supported on the stone walls I see before me. I try to imagine what it would have been like to come and see what passed for entertainment in 2nd century London, a gladiator battle? a public execution?

Precious little to lead us to a vibrant once living space
Precious little to lead us to a vibrant once living space

I try to imagine the noise and scale, the sheer numbers of people, 6,000-7,000 people from a Roman London population of around 20-30,000, an impressive sight. I remember going to the O2 in Greenwich, originally the Millennium Dome, to see a comedian, the massive scale by comparison, holding up to 20,000 people in an overwhelming 320 metres of barn-like space. London’s Roman Amphitheatre might seem small but in the heart of a busy London trying to ape a far distant Rome that many may have never seen, such a space and congregation of people would have had a powerful effect. I am staggered to get my head round the 50-80,000 spectators that filled the Colosseum in Rome. This London replica would have been a more intimate affair, the noise smells and colours an immersive, inclusive experience.

It is so hard to breathe life into stone walls, to build a mental picture for visitors to inhabit. What remains is but a fragment. I stand at either end of the room, I squint and lose myself, try to imagine these modern visitors as Romans, filling seats and filling the space, their excitement an audible hum and buzz. It is hard, there is no doubt about it.

View 1 - entrance, I try to imagine a space full, the noise building
View 1 – entrance, I try and imagine a space full, the noise building
View 2 - looking to the Eastern Gate entrance, imaging the entrance of perfumers. To face death or adoration?
View 2 – looking to the Eastern Gate entrance, imaging the entrance of performers. To face death or adoration?

I love the light figures that adorn the walls, trying to impress a sense of action in this still and quiet underground space. I particularly like the scene below reflected in glass. It makes me think of mirror images. I wish I had a history mirror that would give me glimpses of Roman London. It feels so far away, hard to fathom. Yet there are links to our Roman ancestors. Have these visitors not come for entertainment, have I not come to visit the amphitheatre in excitement and anticipation. These tourists and Londoners alike, from a modern London, a modern world, we mirror the Roman visitors who came to congregate, to experience and to be entertained in this space. I feel faint, faint echoes of this.

Mirror worlds. Where is the Tardis when you need it?
Mirror worlds. Where is the Tardis when you need it?

I look at his light figure below, from a distance, whole, bright, shinning, but close up a patchwork of lines and connections. I feel an affinity with this figure. Am I not the same, a modern 21st century patchwork of connections to people and places. A construct of other lives and histories, the lines drawn connecting me to my ancestors. Perhaps they even run back in time as far as this Roman London, this Roman time and place I seek.

We are just the amalgamation of the connections we make
We are just the amalgamation of the connections we make

My time is up, the pressures of the modern world curl around me. I must say goodbye to this strange experience, this London under London. I am no longer a forgetful lover of London, we have had our first stolen moments, an assignation, a moment to treasure and remember. I am proud of myself, I have made a start, no excuses today. I can’t wait for my next discovery, once you ignite a flame of passion it is very hard to extinguish it and I am not sure I even want to try.

Trying to interpret the edges of Roman life.
Trying to interpret the edges of Roman life.


Guildhall Art Gallery and London’s Roman Amphitheatre

Opening Hours
Monday – Saturday, 10am-5pm
Sunday, 12 noon-4pm

Closures are sometimes required at short notice due to civic or state functions at the Guildhall. Please check our Plan Your Visit page for regular updates, or call 020 7332 3700 / textphone 020 7332 3803 for a daily recorded message giving further details.​

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