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Carmarthen Cameos-4 (Moridunum, the Roman amphitheatre)

Can you imagine going to London and not stumbling into dozens of souvenir shops and kiosks? Can you imagine London not trying to make a fortune on the City’s memorabilia: replicas of the Tower, Sherlock Holmes’s caps, etc? Or Manchester not selling fridge magnets with the Old Trafford or the Town Hall images? If not this regular tourist’s merchandise, then what about books, guides, walks, diverse and sundry brochures?

There are a few arts&crafts shops in Carmarthen, but if you’re looking for thimbles, towels, books, Welsh love spoons, etc, you’ll have to walk a fairly long way from the train station to the Carmarthen Tourist Information Centre in 11, Lammas St – and don’t be surprised if you don’t notice it first, or don’t realise that this is you souvenir-searching destination. Finding it will not only solve the problem of souvenir-buying, but can also help to find out, for instance, how many castles there are in the reachable distance from Carmarthen (not including Carmarthen Castle, which wall you see immediately upon walking out of the train station). The staff is friendly and helpful, which doubles the pleasure of visiting the shop.

However, if you’re looking for the Roman amphitheatre, Moridunum, which is one of the seven remaining in England, you may be somewhat disappointed. The amphitheatre is now surrounded by houses, which may be the reason why there is no pole with an arrow pointing towards this precious piece of history. You really need to trust your gut feeling when, walking in Priory St past the raised ground, you think for a second that the amphitheatre may be on top of or behind that hill. It is indeed there, but personally, I walked past it. If you’re a prospective visitor to Carmarthen, I’ll give you a hint: when you approach the mentioned raised ground, take an asphalt walk that runs from the pavement to the top of this small hill. If in doubt, there’s another hint: a telephone booth marks the spot where the asphalt walk parts with the pavement.

Amphitheatres were very popular in Ancient Rome – so much so that the Romans had been erecting these elliptical structures in all their colonies. Moridunum was built during Roman presence in Carmarthen, which was between AD 75 and AD 120. The arena measures 46 by 27 meters, which makes Carmarthen’s amphitheatre almost twice as small as the Colosseum.
Today, of the original structure we can clearly see at least two entrances. Several steps have survived, which, one may take a guess, were used by the visitors to walk to their seats. The relief of the stalls is well seen.

The place of Roman amphitheatres in British history and literature may be somewhat complex. Because of its round (or elliptical) form, an amphitheatre in Caerleon was thought to be the very Round Table where King Arthur and his knights had met. The excavations held in the 1920s unveiled some of the structure, which allowed to cast doubts on Caerleon’s connection with King Arthur.

Yet the real purpose of amphitheatres needs not refute a connection with Arthurian legend. If we agree with those historians who date King Arthur back to Roman Britain, then he and his court could well have been using an amphitheatre as their meeting point. In cases like this one, we shouldn’t depend either on words, or on the later interpretations. This is all the more relevant because one of interpretations of the name ‘Carmarthen’ is ‘Fort of Myrddin’ (or Merlin), which means that the Knights of the Round Table could stop by at Moridunum. We’re dealing with legends, after all, so let’s keep our minds open and allow for a possibility that Carmarthen and Moridunum amphitheatre may once have been marked by the presence of King Arthur and his faithful companions.

In spite of its place in history and legend, these days the amphitheatre looks forgotten. It’s impossible to say, how many people are actually visiting the spot, and the Wikipedia article is just as precise as short. Meanwhile, the amphitheatre continues to serve its purpose. Battles are still held, only this time it’s the battle against the Time. The amphitheatre may be bravely withstanding oblivion, but the old armchair, left to die in the arena, could not emphasise the passage of time more.


Historical sketch about Moridunum and Carmarthen in the Roman period at Roman Britain

An interesting survey on the archaeology of Romano-British South West Wales (A Research Framework for the Archaeology of Wales)

If you’re interested in Rome, its history, architecture, culture, and, in particular, Roman amphitheatres, there is no better site to visit than The Colosseum. Created by Andrea Pepe, The Colosseum offers a colossal (excuse the pun) amount of information about one of the most remarkable monuments of Ancient History. The site traces the history of the Colosseum through the centuries and of the Games that were held there. It also looks at the process of building, including various schemes and descriptions of building materials.
The b/w photo of Caerleon amphitheatre is the courtesy of Data Wales.

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