“What have the Romans ever done for us?” the Monty Python team famously asked in The Life of Brian.

Well, new archaeological research from England suggests that as well as aqueducts, sanitation and straight roads, the Roman Empire also left behind evidence of a gruesome enthusiasm for violence and beheadings.

Improved forensic techniques have been used to re-examine 39 skulls, first unearthed in London in 1988 – and the results have provided the first physical evidence of gladiatorial action having taken place in London.

Archaeologists believe the finds are connected to a Roman amphitheatre that once existed at the site. Some of the skulls may have belonged to gladiators or common criminals killed for the entertainment of the Roman public.

Others could have come from enemy soldiers slain in battles in what is now Scotland. But the new evidence suggests that whoever they were, they lived brutal lives and died very violent deaths.

“The level of violence here exceeds the level needed to kill someone,” Rebecca Redfern, from the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London, said. She added that they showed “lethal, multiple blows to the head” along with evidence of earlier violent injuries that had healed before the victims’ deaths.

Some heads had been decapitated with a sword, one of the skulls had part of its jawbone sliced off and almost all had been the victims of violence.

“We believe that some of the heads may be people who were killed in the amphitheatre,” Dr Redfern said. “Decapitation was a way of finishing off gladiators, but not everyone who died in the Roman amphitheatre was a gladiator. It was where common criminals were executed, or sometimes for entertainment you'd give two of them swords and have them kill one another.

“Other heads may have been brought back by soldiers from skirmishes, probably on the Hadrian or Antonine Walls – again, it would have taken weeks to bring them back, so not a nice process.”

Even more gruesome is the suggestion that Roman “head-hunters” could have gathered the heads for public display. Dr Redfern notes that the skulls were found within the walls of the old Roman city of London, where corpses were not supposed to have been buried.

She believes that they were instead left for years, rotting in open pits. “It is not a pretty picture,” the archaeologist said. “At least one of the skulls shows evidence of being chewed at by dogs, so it was still fleshed when it was lying in the open.”

Questions for discussion and debate

  1. Why do we find Roman artefacts in Britain? What can this tell us about the Romans?
  2. How do archaeological discoveries tell us about the ways people lived in the past?
  3. Do you think modern audiences are more or less bloodthirsty than Romans? Explain your answer.
  4. Is it ever right to kill? Discuss the different arguments.

Related resources 

Introduction to the Roman Empire
Use this lesson presentation to explain who the Romans were and focus on historical key words.

Life as a Roman soldier
Discover the details about life as a soldier in the Roman army with this engaging lesson with plenty of activities.

Ancient Roman food and drink
Find out about Roman eating habits and see if they are as gruesome as their killing habits!

Would you really want to be a gladiator?
Teach your class about the visceral reality of life as a gladiator and challenge them to use their empathy skills.