Roman Villas



Fishbourne Palace does not support the general pattern of Roman - British villas

Villas are on of the most prominent forms of evidence of the Roman occupation of Britain

The discovery of the majority in the 1950s changed perceptions about levels of economic and social development of Roman Britain

The general pattern of the development of villas seems to differ from that of towns

It seems as if the countryside took longer to be 'Romanised' than the towns

The issue of the 'late - flourishing' of villas is more complex, there were changes in government and administration of Britain under Constantine:

- Financial responsibility (taxation)

Local areas based in civitas capitals (towns)

Responsibilites in the late Roman empire became hereditary

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- Did noble Britons move out to rural areas to escape the costs and responsibilities of living in towns? Could this explain the changes in use of 

- Theatre at St. Albans

- Basilica at Silchester

- Economic growth led to political stability in the 4th century 

- Possible surplus of wealth due to industry and agriculture and population growth

- The construction of large villas were in key areas where:

- Agriculture allows: fertile soil, labour, markets

- Location: water, roads, general topography

'Villa' = 'Farmstead' in Latin

'Villa Urbana' - (City/Urban farms)

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Wealth for those who own villas from textiles and sheep

Huge concentration of villas in the SOUTH EAST half = GOOD FARMING

There were some notable gaps because of fenland, moorland and Iron areas

There were some villas in the north, but NOT the WEST

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Lockleys Villa


- Winged corridor villa near Welwyn in Hertfordshire, demonstrates first stages of the architectural development of the villa

- The 1st structure on the site was a native round house

1) Early 1st century: Belgic hut and gully

In the first decades of Roman occupation this was replaced by a row house or casa, a simple rectangular building with a line of rooms, with a verandah in front

2) 1st Roman building about 65 AD

Middle of the 2nd century: verandah replaced by a more substantial corridor and a new wing added at one end

3) 2nd Roman Building 150 AD

By the middle of the 4th century a further wing was added at the other end of the building completing its transformation into a 'winged corridor villa' (335 AD)

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Lockleys Continued

- At all stages in the process the plan of the original suite of rooms from the first Romano - British phase was preserved 

-  The Lockleys villa also demonstrates the simple cottage type of villa in its early phase

- The winged corridor type of villa became popular in the 2nd century and was increasingly elaborated until the 4th century saw the full introduction of the courtyard type of villa

- The large courtyard villas maintained the farming functions of the villa

- North Leigh had farm buildings

- Chedworth villa had a double courtyard, leading to the suggestion the inner courtyard was used as an ornamental garden, whilst the other was to hold livestock/a farmyard

- The idea courtyards were used as farmyards is drawn from the evidence they were sometimes attached to aisled barns e.g STROUD in GLOUCESTERSHIRE

- Was an aisled house, had additions and a courtyard and bathhouse and 'barracks'

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Bardo Mosaic in Tunis of a villa - pretty much the same layout as Romano - British villas

Meonstoke - 4th century Roman villa, abandoned then fell apart. An entire wall can be seen because it fell to the ground and got buried, therefore we see all bricks, mortar and arches

It is two stories high, proving most villas were usually this height

The largest and wealthiest villas have:

- Seperate accomodation blocks

- Bath houses, even multiple

- Elaborately decorated mosaics

Fishbourne was an exception because it was built 300 years before its time in the 1st century. The mosaic quality is very high, but it was a villa built for a British king (Cogidubnus?)

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- The owners would normally have been wealthy Romano - British, except from cases like:

- The grand 4th century courtyard villa at WOODCHESTER in GLOUCESTERSHIRE which may have been made for an imperial official

- But most villa owners would not necessarily all be Romans, but form part of the upper class of native society, which had become thoroughly Romanized.

- In this case we can see how the farm house at Lockleys developed from a simple Belgic hut into a winged corridor villa

- It is necessary to assume continuity of the land owning classes of British society. Their inclusion in the upper classes of society was necessary for securing the process of Romanisation. 

- The presence of heating systems, mosaics, and wall paintings in the grand villas show how the British upper classes came to enjoy the heights of Roman civilisation

- Because they were introduced to these priviledges they would have fought strongly to preserve/protect their province

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- Occasionally there are two sets of domestic apartments in a villa, like 


- Meaning there is a possibility the villa may have had multiple occupancy by more than one family or more than one generation of a family

- Villas were commonly the country houses of rich families who also had expensive town houses

- They would have been used for summer and weekend entertainment of social peers and business associates 

- In villas the luxury of town was brought to country, where tired businessmen could combine country pursuits like hunting with the pleasures of the bathhouse

- The domestic quarters of the villa at GREAT WITCOMBE in GLOUCESTERSHIRE appear to be small, but the house has a long verandah with a fine dining room and extensive bath suite.

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- Although the needs for entertainment were catered for, it is debatable whether the villa was meant to be lived in for lengthy periods of time

- The villa at Great Witcombe does have extensive servants quarters and its clear the practical needs of the farm was catered for 

- Presumably the farm at Great Witcombe like so many others, could be run at a good profit by a bailiff employed by a landowner who wouldn't have needed to maintain regular personal oversight of the farming activities 

- So villas had TWO functions:

- The grand business of entertainment and recreation for the upper classes e.g luxurious reception rooms and bath houses

- Productive farming units e.g barns, stables, mills and corn - dryers. 

- It is doubtful whether all villas did both functions

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- Sites where the most funtional houses were found can make it easy to suppose in these cases estates were probably run by bailiffs with the landowner rarely making an appearance

- The villa at HAMBLEDEN in BUCKINGHAMSHIRE had a huge capacity for drying corn, but lacked in barns and granaries, it was clearly an economic concern because it may have been state property to create a production of corn to feed the armies active in the northern parts of the province

- Many of those who lived on the villa estates woul have been slaves or tenant farmers bound in debt to landowners e.g villa at Hambleden = 92 infant burials in farmyard area, evident of illicit unions between the members of the labour camp

- The system needed slaves for full economic efficiency, but it left smallholders and tenants in weak positions as they were unable to make sellable produce in sufficent quantities to compete in the open market

- These lower classes of villa society would have had to live in inferior accomodation, it is presumably these people who occupied the cottages that continued to be build right up to the end of villas

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- The 'aisled barns' - another simple type of farm on villa estates were either bailiffs houses or more likely used as communal quarters for the slaves

- Some of the aisled buildings can be seen at:


- This shows signs of internal divisions, which could have provided privacy for bailiffs living under the same roof as their work force

- Often an aisled barn was built beside a grander villa, suggesting social differentiation between the landowner and his employees/slaves

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Distribution of Villas

- This reflects the distribution of towns

- It also reflects the presence of imperial estates where there were significant mineral resources, and productive arable land may have been inherited by the emperor from the tribal lands of the Iceni or drained by imperial engineers 

- E.g. The lands around the WASH has significant mineral resources 

- The majority of villas are concentrated on the south side or area of the Fosse Way

- This shows the villa system was part of the process of Romanisation which was more fully effected in those parts of the province first to be conquered and contained the richest farming land 

- Pockets of villas exist in:

- South Wales, Yorkshire, Humberside

- But it is clear much of the western and northern areas of Britain continued farming practices current before occupation.

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Distribution of Villas

- Villas were part of the process of handing the province over to civilian control

- Like cities, they are absent from parts of the province which stayed in military hands

- Whilst the cities and towns went into decline in the third and fourth centuries the villas seem to have thrived, there are signs of villas emerging as social units in their own right

- There is considerable evidence for the practice of Christianity in the 4th century villas 


- The presence of Christianity is evident from the famous wall paintings showing the Chi - Rho symbol of Christ and Christian praying figures

- The Christian apartments were separated from the rest of the villa, could have been accessible to the rest of the local community as a church?

- The development of houses show how Britain was very much a part of the Roman Empire, following the fashions from other provinces

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Distribution of Villas

- There wasn't a particular moment that marked the end of villas, they were flourishing during the first quarter of the 4th century but went into decline thereafter

- Although the comfortable arrangements created for the Romano - British aristocracy couldn't be sustained, and though some villas were abandoned, its clear the sites of other villas were occupied beyond the formal end of occupation:


- A winged corridor house had developed here to a courtyard villa by the 4th century

- In the 5th century the house and bath - suite were demolished and their site taken over for animal pens

- In place of the former grand house was a simple two - roomed cottage. So the lands of the house continued to be farmed but there was no need for luxurious quarters anymore

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