Villas in Roman Britain



Originally an almost 4m diameter Belgic hut in the early 1st century AD, made from four or five posts supporting a tent-like roof. Animal skins may have been used, though some daub was found.

A second Belgic hut was erected around the time of the invasion, which may have been rectangular rather than round.

Between 60-70 AD a Roman corridor villa was built. It had four rectangular rooms, one of which was divided in two A timber verandah ran along the west side.

In the late 2nd century, the verandah became a stone corridor, with the outer wall supporting posts for a lean-to roof. A wing was built at each end of the corridor, and at the north end this was two-storeyed. 

In the early 4th century the whole house was destroyed by fire, and much of the stone was robbed for buildings elsewhere. Lockleys was reoccupied and a new building was put up at the south end of the site.This was simple with small rooms and thin walls, but subsequent ploughing has made it difficult to complete a siteplan. From coin evidence this is believed to have been in the mid-4th century, but it was abandoned shortly afterwards and never reoccupied.

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North Leigh

Developed from a Celtic farm, the exact site of which is yet to be discovered. Around 100 AD, the first Roman type buildings were erected, under the present north west wing. These are three buildings which were originally separate ~ now named building 1, building 2, and the north baths.

Building 1 was a winged corridor villa. Building 2 was initially a hall or barn, or maybe an aisled hall. A mosaic pavement ran along part of the building, and connected with a similar mosaic pavement in the corridor or building 1, so it was unlikely to have been used for farming These buildings were shortly joined by adding rooms between them.

The north baths were built at an angle from these rooms, and had all the necessary rooms for Roman baths (apodyterium, frigidarium, etc). The semi-circular apse at the lower end of the baths will have contained the cold water pool which finished a visit to the baths.

Two wings were subsequently added, the north east one in line with the north baths, and another bath house (the east baths), was added at the lower end of this wing. The south west wing contained mainly workshops.

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North Leigh 2

In the early 4th century, the whole of the north west wing was rebuilt. The rooms were now larger and a corridor in front of these extended along the whole wing overlooking the courtyard, and connected in the corridors of the two adjoining wings.

A new set of north baths were built over the old ones. The east baths were still in use, and had a laconicum.

The courtyard was closed by a fourth corridor which contained the 'porter's lodge' in the centre.

In the north west corner of the villa stood the dining area, in which there is an excellent geometric mosaic ~ again of 4th century date.

It is not known how long the villa lasted but it appears to have had squatters, at an unknown date. The family had presumably moved out beforehand. Charred wood, blackened floors, and molten lead suggest that the north west wing was destroyed by fire.

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Six miles north of Corinium is Chedworth, which overlooks the river Coln. A spring rises in the north west corner of the site which still supplies a nymphaeum, an octagonal pool.

Over 20 villas have been found outside of Cirencester, but Chedworth stands out particularly because of its size. 

There were three separate ranges of buildings containing some fifty rooms on the south, west, and north sides of a large rectangular courtyard. 

The west wing was originally the main part of the house, and there was a small bath house by the pool on the north side, and a further building on the south side. These buildings weren't particularly luxurious, and were set up in the early 2nd century.

A fire destroyed much of the west and south ranges and rebuilding took place, adding a number of rooms to the north wing where the bath suite was enlarged.

In the early 4th century luxurious elements were added to the villa. A verandah was built around the courtyard in front of the buildings on the three sides, and another verandah was built directly connecting the north and south wings, and closing off the fourth side of the courtyard.

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Chedworth 2

Also in the early 4th century, additional rooms were added to the south wing to connect it to the west wing, and these were probably a kitchen and lavatory, and also a furnaxe room adjacent to the west wing dining room.

The north baths was given additional rooms, and another bath suite replaced the rooms at the north end of the west wing, so the baths were almost adjacent to each other on either side of the pool. The west dining room was also enlarged.

Chedworth continued to be inhabited into the late Roman period, at some point in which chi-ros were carved into the stonework around the pool.

Chedworth had two sets of apartments, perhaps for two families or for multiple generations of the same family.

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Chedworth 3

The villa's mosaics will have been designed and laid by artists from the Corinium mosaic school. The most notable mosaic is in the west dining room, and is divided into two distinct areas.

One is where diners would have lain around a central table, and the adjoining area where the entertainment would take place. The former area has a square mosaic made up of square panels and bordered by an acanthus scroll and a guilloche pattern.

The acanthus scroll in particular has been very finely executed, and is very similar to the floral scroll on a mosaic at nearby Woodchester.

The mosaic in the other area of the room had a central, octagonal panel, which is now lost. Around it were eight wedge-shaped panels containing scenes of Bacchic worship.

The four corners of the mosaic contain representations of the seasons as Cupids. Summer has a basket of flowers, Spring has another flower basket and a bird, and Winter is wearing a birrus britannicus and holding a dead hare and a bare twig. Autumn is missing.

Chedworth was still inhabited in the late 4th century, and possibly the 5th.

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This villa is eleven miles from Cirencester, and contains the largest mosaic ever found in Roman Britain, known as the Great Pavement. 

Samuel Lysons' plan of the villa shows an inner, central, and outer courtyard. There are 37 rooms around the inner courtyard, and the room containing the pavement is at the head of this courtyard.

The mosaic was made by the Corinium school of mosaicists, and shows Orpheus in the centre of the pavement, charming the beasts which surround him. There are birds in the innermost circle and animals in the next, beyond which was an acanthus scroll.

The roof of the room was supported by four pillars, with the Orpheus mosaic between the pillars. Beyond the pillars were mosaics of water nymphs and geometric patterns. One million tesserae were used in the pavement.

The east wing of the inner courtyard was not well recorded but Lysons' details suggest that a bath suite was here. Six of the rooms in the west wing had mosaic pavements.

Thirteen mosaics are recorded at Woodchester, and there are definitely more. This number of mosaics is exceeded only by Fishbourne Palace in Britain.

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Woodchester 2

A mosaic in the basilica at Trier in Germany has a square panel identical to one of those from the Great Pavement. 

The south side of the central courtyard had a monumental gateway. The buildings around this courtyard were aisled and may have been barns, stables or quarters for farm workers. 

The formal layout of the villa is interesting because the visitor passed through the outer, then central, and final inner courtyards, where he would face the room with the Great Pavement. This arrangement is unusual and the main room is far larger than any other in Britain.

Cirencester became a civitas capital at a later date, but Woodchester was built before Cirencester achieved this status, so the identity of this villa's owner remains a mystery. 

The villa was occupied between the early 2nd and late 4th centuries, and the Great Pavement dates to around 325 AD.

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Fishbourne Roman Palace

The palace was built during the early years of the Roman occupation, although we don't know who owned it. Barry Cunliffe suggested that it may have been Cogidubnus of the Regnenses.

It was on the site of two of the store buildings which supported the Legion II in 43 - 47 AD during the military advance under future Emperor Vespasian to the south and southwest of England.

Between 65 and 75 AD the wooden store buildings were pulled down, and the stream which had run between them was filled in. A substantial stone building was now constructed, with an enclosed garden with a long range of rooms on the east side, and an elaborate baths suite in the south. A colonnade ran round the other two sides and continued in front of the east range.

The quality of the workmanship and of some of the stone and marble is very high, and pavements have been recovered as well as pieces of marvle from walls or floors in opus sectile. Foreign craftsmen must have been brought in to build this 'proto-palace'.

In c. 75 AD work began on a huge palace, again employing foreign craftsmen. Fishbourne was planned and built as a palace from the start, though it did incorporate the 'proto-palace' in its southeast corner. Fishbourne was built with four wings around a large central courtyard (an elaborate garden), with lawns, box hedges, and probably fountains lining the central path in alternate square and segmental divisions. 

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Other villas

The villa at Great Witcombe was minimalist, but had a large verandah, triclinium and servant's quarters, which indicates its function was geared towards entertainment, but perhaps not lived in very often. The farm was well-provided for, and may have made a good profit for the family under a bailiff. 

Hambleden villa had a high capacity for drying corn, but little else. The find of 70 bronze pens in the vicinity has led to the suggestion it may have been used for corn to supply soldiers, and was therefore state-owned, with the pens belonging to officials. 97 infant burials were also discovered at this villa, so slave labour was probably used. 

Living arrangements for the tenants were the downside of the villas, so the tenants occupied and built the small casae (cottages) around the villas.

Aisled barns were either communal quarters for slaves or houses for bailiffs. Llanwit Major villa shows one of these barns having a private area for the bailiff, built behind the villa to show social differentiation. The villa declined before the barn, indicating the estate still turned a profit.

Lullingstone villa has the chi-ro symbol and Christian apartments separated from the rest of the villa, possibly indicating a church.

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