Britain’s only surviving gladiator armour has been identified as likely to have come from Colchester. On loan from the British Museum and on display now in a Gladiator exhibition at Colchester Castle, the ‘Hawkedon helmet’ found in Suffolk is believed to have originated from the Roman city of Colchester.
Sensationally, it may have been taken as loot by Boudica’s forces following the city’s sacking in AD 62. The helmet’s appearance in Gladiators: A Day at the Roman Games represents the first time it has been displayed in Colchester, despite its suspected origin there.
The bronze helmet is three times the weight of its’ contemporary Roman legionary’s equivalent with a broad neck guard of a type recognisably worn by a type of gladiator known as a provocator. The face visor is missing but comparative analysis of other helmets from Pompeii offers a sense of what it may have looked like.
Historical weapons expert and TV presenter, Mike Loades, said: “The function of these helmets was to put on a show, to look impressive and to create the clashing sounds of a stylistic combat, hence the large neck guard.”
High-quality chemical analysis conducted by a partnership between the Universities of Reading (Peter Bray), Liverpool (Matthew Ponting) and the British Museum (Richard Hobbs), show the helmet’s visor attachment to be of the highest quality brass. This would have been a striking gold colour and in strong contrast to the tin-white coating of the main dome of the helmet. The purity and zinc level of this brass support it being a direct import from the centre of the Empire, and underlines the level of investment in gladiatorial games, even in the distant province of Britain.
Colchester Museum's senior curator, Glynn Davis, said: “This helmet is a fantastic survival, especially as it is the only piece of authentic gladiator armour ever found from Roman Britain. We were recently able to identify an actual gladiatorial event, that we believe took place here, from the famous Colchester Vase. To also have on display this helmet, which was worn by a real-life gladiator, brings the reality of Roman arena combat in Colchester to life.”
Richard Hobbs, Senior Curator of Romano-British and late Roman collections at the British Museum, said: “The helmet is incredibly rare and is demonstrative of the importance of the Games in Roman Britain. It will give visitors to Colchester’s gladiator exhibition a unique opportunity to see the only surviving armour of its type in the UK.”
Councillor Cllr Michelle Burrows, Portfolio Holder for Leisure, Culture and Heritage, said: “I urge everyone to come and see Gladiators; a Day at the Roman Games at Colchester Castle. As well as the Hawkedon helmet there are Gladiatorial objects from all over Britain on display. It is a fabulous family exhibition and we’re incredibly grateful to the British Museum and all the many lenders to this exhibition, and to our funders, Arts Council England and the Art Fund.”
As well as the exhibition, which will be on at Colchester Castle until the 14 January 2024, you can find out more through the online ‘In Conversation’ series featuring experts discussing themes from the displays with Colchester Museums curators. The first of the series with historical weapons expert Mike Loades can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWt6IiVl8zU and the next in the series with bestselling historical novelist, Simon Scarrow will be live on 28 September at 7pm on Colchester Museums’ YouTube channel.
Page last reviewed: 22 September 2023