Monday, 28 March 2016

The Romans in Britain Part One - Fishbourne Roman Palace

This Easter Bank Holiday weekend Carolyn, Will and myself spent a pleasant couple of days travelling back in time with visits to the the Roman Palace at Fishbourne, the third century Roman villa at Bignor and a call in to the historic dock yard at Portsmouth, home to all things Royal Navy.

As a traditional part of JJ's Wargames I thought you might like to share in some of the highlights of our trip and so have split our visit into bite size chunks that will form the theme of several posts over the next few days.

The discovery of the Roman Palace at Fishbourne outside Chichester (Roman - Noviomagus) is as old as me when the first identifiable remains of the building were unearthed in 1960 during the laying of a water-main.

I first visited the site on a school trip at the tender age of thirteen so was very much looking forward to only my second visit in fifty five years.

When the Emperor Claudius decided on an invasion and occupation of the island of Britannia in 43AD, the history of the cold, windy, wet islands off the north west corner of Europe was set to change irrevocably.

The four Legions identified in the invasion forces were Legio II Augusta, Legio IX Hispana, Legio XIV Gemina and Legio XX Valeria Victrix under the overall command of Aulus Plautius under the guise of reinstating Verica, the exiled King of the Atrebates, a pro-Roman tribe, that had come under pressure from its neighbouring tribe, the Catuvellauni led by the two brothers Togodumnus and Caratacus who would lead the principle resistance to the invasion. The occupation of the island would be conducted over a series of campaigns culminating in the first period with the campaign of 58-60AD into what is now north Wales and Anglesey under Suetonius Paulinus.

Legio XIIII make an opposed landing on Anglesey c. 60AD - Angus McBride
The II Augusta Legion was lead by the future Emperor Vespasian and they would spearhead the Roman advance along the south coast of the island down into my "neck of the woods" establishing, in time, their head quarters at Exeter (Roman - Isca Dumnoniorum). Their march was not without resistance along the way with the Roman force having to capture the hill forts at Hod Hill and Maiden Castle.

As the map below illustrates (43-47AD Campaign under Aulus Plautius) the Roman thrust into the south west of the island was supported by the Roman fleet along the coast and military supply depots were established in the wake of the army as it progressed and from this we find the first signs of buildings and occupation by the Romans on the site at Fishbourne as the Roman army built granaries as part of this supply chain.

The first stone buildings that became part of the palace complex are thought to have been built around 73-75AD with the original wooden buildings being demolished in the 90'sAD as the main palace complex was developed still further.

Early settlement at Fishbourne
As can be seen, the complex was built very close to the ancient shore allowing boats to moor very close to the site.

As for who the palace was built for there are inevitably several theories, among the candidates being Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, or Togidubnus, King of the Regnenses and client King who provided support for the Roman occupation, or another local Brit, Sallustius Lucullus the 1st Century Roman Governor of  Britannia who held office after Gnaeus Julius Agricola, or even the palace for the chap the formed the cover story for the invasion in the first place, King Verica himself.

Fisbourne is very obviously a very high status building only emphasised by its similarity of layout to Domitian's palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome and its size comparing with Nero's Golden House in Rome.

Aerial map showing the ancient coast line (in black) in relation to the modern against the location of the palace illustrating its waterfront location
The building remained in use from the 90's AD until its destruction by fire in 270AD by causes unknown with again theories ranging from accident, coastal raiders or unrest during the revolt of the 'British' Emperor Carausius.

Either way the fire proved devastating and the building fell into ruin with much of the stone work and fittings "robbed-out" over time to facilitate the easier construction of other local buildings.

Map to illustrate the two Roman sites visited at Fishbourne and Bignor
along the old Roman road of Stane Street
The model below illustrates the palace at its pinnacle with the four distinct wings surrounding an ornamental garden and comprising state rooms, large ceremonial reception rooms, smaller enclosed court yards and, of course, a bath house complex.

What remains of the one hundred lavishly decorated rooms with marbled walls and mosaic floors are some of the finest first century mosaics to be found in Britain with many of them laid at the earliest construction period of  73-75AD thus making them some of the earliest examples, with the "crown jewel" being the practically unblemished Cupid on a Dolphin floor mosaic probably laid in about 160AD.

Model of the Roman Palace at Fishbourne with my reference points to give you an idea of where the pictures are located
The excavated northern wing of the palace is enclosed by a modern building as illustrated in the picture above with the red lines around the excavated display, and I have put in the numbered stars to give you an idea of where the various pictures were taken in relation to the rest of the complex.

Note the southern apartments wing now lies under local houses and only limited excavations have been done in that area with examples of mosaics discovered relocated into the covered display building on the northern wing

Reconstruction of one of the state rooms in the palace
The picture below of the display building is taken from where the large columned entrance hall was originally situated as seen at the top of the model above.

The first mosaic visible is this badly damaged example in one of the entrance corridors at point 1 on the model.

This being Britain, no body in their right mind would have a building without an underfloor-wall hypocaust heating system and the picture below shows the remains of this system put in in the 270sAD causing the early first century square pattern mosaic to be lifted during its construction. The full hypocaust was not finished before the building was destroyed by fire.

Hypocaust System to underfloor and wall heat the palace

The picture below shows the remains of the Roman plaster, skirting board that ran along the bottom of the painted plaster on the walls up to the mosaic on the floor and was designed to protect the walls when the floors were swept.

In the room below the black and white mosaic floor had damage gradually repaired with pink mortar until its use was finally given over to a blacksmiths workshop in the late third century, with the remains of the forge hearth seen in the top corner and the discovery of two anvils, when excavated in the late 1960's.

The multicoloured polychrome mosaic seen below was laid in the third century over an earlier black and white design. It is called the Shell Mosaic as it appears to show two scallop shells on each side of a central panel  containing fish or dolphins flanked by a row of diamonds

To be found at about Point 2 in the model picture is the magnificent cupid on a dolphin mosaic state room floor. Laid in the mid second century AD, Cupid with a trident rides a dolphin surrounded by sea panthers and sea horses. The room was originally one of the main dining rooms of the north wing that looked out onto the secluded garden courtyards and relied on neighbouring heated rooms to provide warmth to it.

In the picture below can be seen the remains of one of the enclosed garden courtyards seen either side of Point 2 on the model. The cluster of flat stones in the centre is thought to have been a mounting for a small statue or water display and the rain guttering can be seen around the edge of the area. The pile of stones and tiles is all that remain of the walled enclosure that surrounded the space.

Below another third century polychrome mosaic showing Solomon's Knot, surrounded by dolphins and wine vases, with each corner showing a scallop shell.

In the picture below you can see the remains of the original highly decorated wall plaster. A pattern of a red panel surrounded by black and white bands can still be seen on this section of wall that remains.

The sign in the centre of this floor rather says it all. The craftsmanship in these floor patterns are still to be seen two thousand years later.

One of four burials discovered in the building, date unknown due to a lack of grave articles to enable a calculation. The only clear fact is that the burials happened after the building was destroyed as the concrete floor was dug up to enable the interment.

The floor below shows the evidence of damage by the plough and the remains of the edge of a medieval strip field that has cut through the red tessellated floor.

The next picture shows another third century polychromatic mosaic called the Rosette Mosaic with a six petalled rosette at its centre with a small black bird next to it.

The colours are stunning, especially when you consider the age of this floor
Below in the next two pictures are part of what remains of the unusual first century "Fortress Mosaic" so named because the surrounding border represents fortified town wall with castellation along its top, square towers in each corner and gateways at the centre of each side.

This early mosaic was found in 1979 under the Cupid on the Dolphin mosaic and was relaid so it could be seen to its full extent, being the original main dining room floor.

The far end of the display building is taken up by the remains of the bath house

The picture below shows the only indication of the first buildings constructed on the site, namely the wooden granaries built for the Roman army at the time of the invasion in 43AD. The mosaic floor has sunk into the soft infilling of the original post holes from the earlier wooden buildings.

The ornamental garden has been carefully constructed based on the archaeology of the original layout which has revealed the plan of the box hedges that were laid together with the Cyprus trees planted at Point 5 on the model.

The houses in the picture below are built over the southern wing that looked out over the ancient beach front.

The garden of course was considered as an outdoor room and when the weather permitted allowed for the equivalent of the "Roman barbecue" as evidenced by the Triclinium

The centre also has an excellent display of plants that were common for the period or introduced by the Romans to be used as foods or medicines.

The alternative Roman "Prozac".

I'm not sure if Woodruff is the Loperamide of its day.

You would certainly need Wormwood if the Empress Livia came to visit

Fortunately the Adder is the only poisonous snake in Britain, and not much of a threat to healthy adults, so the Southernwood is there for the elderly and kids.

The Cyprus tree plantings give the garden area a very sympathetic reference point for working out where the rest of the palace would have been.

Fishbourne also has a display of other artefacts discovered in or near the villa over the years which help to give the building context.

I love coin hoards and Roman coins in general as a great way of pinning down time and place based on the coins of a given period.

The High Weald Hoard was discovered in 2006 by metal detectorists just up the "Roman" road from Fishbourne near Brighton and is one of the largest Roman hoards discovered in Britain, containing 2,895 silver coins from the third century AD. The hoard contained two very rare coins, with the heads of Tranquillina, wife of Emperor Gordian III, and Cornelia Supera wife of Emperor Aemilianus.

Two very rare Roman coins, top right Empress Tranquilina and bottom right Empress Supera
The following pictures show the various items discovered in the building when it was excavated .

High quality work on these external portico fittings show the status of the building
The tiles always provide a link with the people and animals from the past
Other examples of the fine painted wall plaster within the palace
A particularly fine piece of Samian pottery tableware
In addition items of the Roman army and its early association with the site have also been discovered.

Copy of a Roman helmet, now in the British Museum discovered in Chichester harbour
Roman soldiers metal belt fittings 

Balista bolt head
Claudian period bronze coins from the time of the invasion
As a gamer myself  I always love to see ancient gaming pieces
The Roman Palace at Fishbourne is a unique site here in Britain and is a rare example of a very high status Roman building in the wider Empire that dates from the very early first century with some of the most complete and exquisite examples of Roman mosaics on display. If you get the chance I would highly recommend a visit.


  1. It is a magnificent site. I saw a Time Watch on Romans the other night and they mentioned the possibility that the invasion started from here.
    I believe that I have also read that there is evidence of Roman military here from before Claudius' invasion.

  2. Great photos, thanks for posting!

  3. Nice pictures and a good background. The Romans sure enjoyed the pleasures of life and took it with them wherever they went.

  4. Thanks chaps, glad you enjoyed the read.

    Nobby - This part of the south coast and its proximity to Roman Gaul would always have Fishbourne and other natural harbours like it front and centre in the Roman plans for the island and I think that the archaeology of the site seems to reflect its importance.