Roman Villas in Britannia

The final days of the Roman Empire in Britannia, modern day Great Britain, were played out sometime in the early fifth century. The exact date is disputed in academic circles, but let’s go with the commonly accepted date of AD 410. The farewell was a seismic event for the people of the province. It is hard today for us to truly imagine the terrifying impact it must have had on those living in such uncertain times.

The evidence in the ground suggests that the Roman Villa came to Britain very soon after the Roman conquest in 43 AD. Not just villas were constructed though. Fishbourne, in West Sussex, was at first thought to be a grand villa of exceptional quality, but upon further excavation and to the astonishment of archaeologists, it became clear that what they actually had was a palace. Not only that, it was of an unexpectedly early date. Fishbourne was constructed around 75 AD, a little over thirty years after the invasion and only fifteen years after the Boudican revolt.

Informed speculation suggests that it could have been built for the client king, Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, King of the Regnenses, or possibly a high official in the new Roman provincial government, possibly Sallustius Lucullus, a Roman governor of Britain of the late 1st century. I am more inclined to go with the first possibility, as the Romans would have richly rewarded local kings who had accepted the rule of Rome and cooperated with the new administration. Cogidubnus was also given control of the land of the neighbouring Atrebates, so he was most definitely in favour with Rome.

Nobody knows for sure what the actual truth is, as the concrete evidence does not yet exist, but it would seem far more likely to have been the palace of a king, who by having the palace as his residence, displayed his Romanitas and loyalty to Rome. The Roman invasion itself was actually triggered by the over-throw of Verica, king of the Atrebates and a supporter of Rome, whose lands Cogidubnus inherited post 43 AD.

Client kings served the Romans well during the early decades of the establishment of the new province of Britannia, and were known by the Latin term, ‘Rex Sociusque et Amicus’ – ‘king, ally and friend’. They became fully immersed in the Roman way of life, and fully adopted Roman ways. They enjoyed all the imported luxuries and delicacies the Roman Empire could offer.

Romanitas in Britain did not begin in 43 AD and end in 410 AD. The tribes in what is now Southern England had been fought and beaten by Julius Caesar when he had reinvaded in 55 BC, after he had landed an expeditionary force the year before. Caesar took the decision to invade Britannia, because powerful British chieftains had secretly aided the Gauls of France in their war against Rome. He wanted to impress upon the Britons that they did not want Rome as an enemy.

The invasion was a reconnaissance-in-force or a show of strength to deter further British aid to the Gauls rather than a full-on war of conquest. What Caesars invasion did do was establish alliances with British kings in the area, which smoothed the later invasion of AD 43. That would certainly explain the lack of opposition to the Roman landings in Kent and Sussex. It has also been said that the Britons were simply not expecting the invasion force at the time of its arrival. Given the maritime links between Britain and France, and the size of the navy taking the invasion force to Britain, over 900 ships, I find that difficult to believe.

The southern tribes of Britain prior to 43 AD were the only tribes in Britain to use coinage, and they most certainly traded extensively with Roman Gaul for almost a century prior to 43 AD. It is very likely that the Celtic tribes either side of the Channel were closely related to each other and a desire for Roman trade goods from across the Empire would have existed in Britain. To a large extent, Romanitas – the Roman way of life, had been imposing itself with the southern tribes for a long time prior to the Claudian invasion. The aristocratic elites coveted those exotic goods from the Mediterranean and even further afield, such as silk from China, and spices from India.

All the above brings up an intriguing question. Did Roman Villas, or structures showing Roman influence exist in Britain prior to 43 AD? Would the construction of a Roman influenced building have conveyed sophistication, when measured against a traditional Celtic Roundhouse? A ‘cottage house’ was discovered at Ower in Dorset, and is dated to the early 1st century AD. It has definite elements of Roman design, in that it was an elongated Roundhouse, with straight walls connecting the rounded ends, and was fitted with a thatched, pitched roof. It was also constructed of cob and timber, rather than wattle and daub, and had the rather un-Celtic addition of a porch. Some years later it was made fully rectangular in the usual Roman fashion. Did other such structures exist prior to 43 AD?

It is estimated that over 2000 Villas were built in Britain during the Roman period; it could well be more as many are yet to be discovered, with some being constructed as late as 360 AD. That was incredibly late given the instability in the Empire at that time, which manifested itself in Britain with the Great Barbarian Conspiracy of 367 AD, when an alliance of Irish, Picts, Franks and Saxons over-ran Hadrian’s Wall and surged across the province. It was not until 368 AD that Rome fully responded with the famous general, Theodosius, being sent by the Roman Emperor Valentinian with extra Legions and Auxiliary troops to crush and expel the invaders. Britain was in a poor condition, with many of its military forces having retreated to fortifications or deserted, joining in with the barbarian plundering. Theodosius having defeated the barbarians, issued an amnesty to deserters, but also had many of the disloyal Roman forces executed as an example.

No Roman Villas predating 43 AD have yet been discovered, but such a find would be extremely exciting if it were to be unearthed. Recently there has been some incredible news from Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, which was constructed around 120 AD. During on-going excavations at the site in 2017, a mosaic that was previously believed to date from the fourth century has now been radiocarbon-dated to around 100 years later, 450 - 480AD, well after the generally accepted end of direct Roman administration. In fact, over half of the coins found at Chedworth date from the mid-late 6th century, clearly indicating Romano-British occupation well into the Anglo-Saxon expansion period. That would tie-in with the famous Romano-British victory at the Battle of Badon around 500 AD, which held back the Saxon advance in the west for at least fifty years. 

Many large, richly decorated Roman villas have been found in the countryside around Cirencester, which is about eight miles from Chedworth. By the end of the fourth century, Cirencester was the second largest Romano-British town after London and had become the capital of a separate province, Britannia Prima. The wealth of these many lavish villas surrounding this provincial capital surpassed that of any group found across the rest of Britain.

Chedworth Roman Villa

Despite the Saxon Advent around 450 AD, Romano-British life continued, especially in the West of what is now modern-day England. The fact that mosaic floors were being laid well into the 5th century indicates the skills still existed to do so, along with the manufacturing ability and economic strength to support such luxury items. Romano-British society did not revert to primitivism; it continued to flourish, even whilst being under pressure from Germanic invaders. We can take the modern example of Rhodesia from 1966 - 1980 to see how that is possible, how a people under siege and fighting can maintain a civilised and highly advanced society. Romano-British life in Britannia did not fully collapse until the 7th century when Anglo-Saxon pressures became too great.

The Roman Villa was not just a stately home in the countryside for an urban Romano-Briton; it was a working estate, usually agricultural but not exclusively. They could be industrial, where fabrication took place, or they could be studs for horse breeding. The Roman Army in Britain had a constant need for good horses. Indeed, a villa estate could be a mixture of all these things. It is little wonder they endured, even as urban life in the cities was diminishing, as they formed self-supporting communities. Indeed, some may have developed into villages in the early medieval period, when the villa building itself no longer existed. The original villa having been abandoned, forgotten and left to the ravages of time, and the knowledge of its Roman origins had been lost.

There is a great example of continuation of use from the Ditchley Roman Villa in Oxfordshire. The archaeology strongly indicates that the Villa estate evolved into a later estate called Ditchley Park, with the new country house being less than a mile away from the original Roman Villa. The original Roman Villa estate consisted of some 354 hectares and the modern parish boundaries for the most part, follow the old Roman boundaries. That is pretty strong evidence for a continuation of use through the post-Roman and Saxon period. As time passes, we may discover more examples of this in present day England and Wales.

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