Classics: Rethinking the Colchester Vase

(By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – The Colchester Vase, around 175 AD, Colchester Castle Museum, Camulodunum (Roman Colchester), CC BY-SA 2.0,

This fascinating object, made of local clay (or so it is said) around the year 175 CE, is on display in Colchester Castle museum. It was discovered in a Roman grave in West Lodge, Colchester, in the year 1848. It is known as “The Colchester Vase” but it was probably not used as a vase. Perhaps it was a drinking vessel, but we don’t really know. Its final use, however, was as a funerary urn.

The vase is decorated with three main scenes:

  • two men fighting each other
  • two men baiting a bear
  • a dog chasing two deer and a hare

Thus the vase encapsulates the three types of entertainment that were commonly on display in the Roman amphitheatre: men fighting men, men fighting animals, and animals fighting animals.

The two men fighting each other are depicted in some detail and can be identified as two types of gladiator. The one with sword, shield and helmet was known to the Romans as a secutor. The other one, with bare chest and legs, arm and shoulder guard, has dropped his weapon (a trident) and is known as a retiarius.  He is still holding his net (rete) in his left hand. The retiarius can be seen raising one finger. This is known as missio: the fighter appeals to the sponsor of the games, who has the power to decide whether he lives or dies. He will indicate this by turning his thumb up or down.

The vase is also inscribed. There are four names, which seem to correspond to the four human participants in the show: Secundus and Mario are fighting the bear (so says the museum’s guidebook – read on for another interpretation); Memnon and Valentinus are the secutor and the retiarius. Next to the name Memnon is the abbreviation SAC and the Roman numeral VIIII, indicating that Memnon, a secutor, had fought and lived nine times. Next to Valentinus (the ‘s’ is omitted) is the word LEGIONIS and the number XXX. This indicates that Valentinus was attached to the 30th legion of the Roman army.

However, the fact that the 30th legion was never stationed in Britain begs the question – why does a vase made locally in Colchester record the name of a gladiator attached to a legion overseas? The British Museum suggests that Valentinus was on a tour of Britain with a troupe of gladiators which included Memnon. You can decide for yourself if this sounds convincing or not. If the vase is not a local product after all, the difficulty disappears. It is worth questioning how certain the clay analysis is. Can we be sure that the vase was not, in fact, manufactured abroad?

A second curiosity is the name “Mario”. As our Latin students as Ipswich High School will know, Mario is the dative form of the name Marius, the form used for dedications (“for Marius”). Furthermore, the name Secundus is not written above the first beast fighter, but rather both names are inscribed above the second one. This could suggest that neither name refers to these figures. There are also grounds for concluding that the two sets of names were inscribed by two different hands. Our family’s suggestion (my wife and I have been discussing this since our recent trip to the museum) is that the vase could have been a gift from Secundus to Marius. Perhaps the vase was originally decorated with generic scenes, and Secundus had the names of two contemporary gladiators inscribed on it after he had bought it. Perhaps at a later date, or even once Marius had died (the find context was a grave, after all) he dedicated it to his friend Marius.

This still does not solve the problem of the 30th legion, but it does indicate how information in museum displays and guidebooks very often glides over difficulties and gaps in knowledge. Younger children are usually very good at asking questions and interrogating adults on how they know what they claim they know. As we get older accept we tend to more easily accept what we are told. But it is often worth returning to that youthful scepticism and genuine sense of inquiry and curiosity in order to test commonly held “knowledge”. Often the appearance of knowledge is only that – an appearance. One of the things we are trying to do in the Classics department at Ipswich High School is to teach the students how to question. We don’t aim to teach “information” that is to be recalled in exams. We prefer to teach the pupils how to think and how to challenge authority.

by Dr G Gilbert

Head of Latin and Classics, IHS