By Guy de la Bédoyère
What is a villa?
The classical Italian Roman villa was a working rural
business, with farmland and vineyards. It was also a luxury retreat. Italians
had a real passion for rural idylls – escaping
So what is a
Roman villa in
It is worth stressing that the villa house was only one part of the villa. A villa estate did not just include the main building, and attendant structures like baths, barns, garden shrines and mausoleums. Villa estates could encompass villages of workers several miles away. Unfortunately, without any specific estate records to work from we can only guess at the resources any one villa controlled.
Soon after the Roman invasion began in AD 43, 1960 years ago, there was
a radical change in how houses were built in southern
Left: plan of the early house at Quinton (Northants) (after
biggest effects were in the Roman towns. By the late first century places like
The countryside was different. Fishbourne
change generally was slow and while a few other significant stone houses like
This was also when towns stagnated, and decayed. While public buildings like basilicas, forums and theatres were going out of use or being adapted for different functions, some people started investing vast sums in villas. The likelihood is that the aristocracy, which had once supported urban development, decided to spend their time and money on rural estates.
Because land availability wasn’t usually
a problem and it was difficult to light interiors, Roman villas tended to be
rows of rooms, or wings. The simplest were one row, usually with a corridor.
Then a pair of small wings might be added – we call this the ‘winged corridor’
villa (very common). This isn’t a particularly clever observation – you can see
the same phenomenon in English palaces like
suggested reconstruction of the façade of the winged-corridor house at
To make a house bigger the wings were extended around a courtyard. Then another courtyard and more wings might be added. There was one more type: the aisled villa, built on a plan similar to a church with a nave and aisles. It was a Roman design used for many sorts of buildings.
There was usually a clear distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ rooms. Villa-owners of modest means might put a mosaic in the main reception room to create as grand an impression as possible. The wealthiest could afford to have whole wings given over to rooms for entertaining and dealing with clients.
But every villa in Roman Britain was unique. Most conformed to a basic
type but with huge differences in detail. Bignor (
Almost every villa had extensions and alterations. An archaeologist has to work backwards from the remains of a house in its final form. A common pattern found is a late Iron Age roundhouse knocked down and replaced with a modest rectangular house. That new house might be demolished and replaced with a bigger one, or extended again and again. Roman villa owners could continually ‘upgrade’ if they had the resources, or downgrade when they ran short or changed their minds. At Lullingstone for example, the baths were demolished while the rest of the house carried on for decades.
Villas didn’t have to be a single building. At Sparsholt there were three completely separate buildings around a courtyard. The main house was probably for the family, one was for the baths and the other might have housed slaves and farm animals. Bignor was similar until the owner joined them all together in one large courtyard villa. A villa complex could include barns, latrines, shrines and even family tombs.
Roman villas were mostly built from local materials. That meant timber and local stone. Tile and brick was made from nearby clay in kilns set up for the job, or the local stone was used for slates. Mosaicists worked on site, or brought in prefabricated panels from their workshops.
Timber was vital for Roman house building. The simplest had posts driven into the ground. But timber frames were also used: horizontal sleeper beams and then other posts and beams to make up a frame. Not unlike medieval houses, these timber frames could be built on stone footings and stone foundations, or straight into the grounds. Walls were made of wattle-and-daub, timber cladding, rubble, mud brick or cob.
Timber-frames continued to play a large (but unknown) role in buildings that survive in the record as stone footings. But almost any house that started life as a wattle or timber-framed building, was eventually (and sometimes quite soon) replaced in stone, though not always.
Timber was essential for roofing (see Manufacturing tile and brick below), but since no Romano-British villa
(or any other building’s) roof timbers survive we have a problem of
interpretation. When timber
does survive, the evidence suggest the Romans were
competent and skilful carpenters. A large section of an early second century
timber warehouse was recovered from waterlogged levels at Southwark
‘The sill-beams were joined by means of edge-halved scarf dovetails over which a central beam was clipped. As well as having dovetail and lap-housings the sill-beams also had mortices cut into them … the wood held together extremely well with complete pieces up to 5m. During the lifting various tool-marks came to light as well as further complicated jointings.’ J. Dillon, ‘A Roman Timber Building from Southwark’ in Britannia, vol. xx (1989), 229-30
‘The walls were most carefully constructed, with timber posts morticed and tenoned into sill beams joined by dovetail scarf joints.’ M. McCarthy, Roman Carlisle (2002, 75-6)
If a Southwark warehouse could be built by competent carpenters,
it is fairly plain that skilled craftsmen were working in
As crafts and
trades were handed down and disseminated these carpentry skills would have
become more and more widely available. Nevertheless, there was a vast range of
Roman villas in
Many early villas began life as timber-frames built on masonry foundations. Boxmoor (Herts) villa had loose stone footings with a timber frame on top, and wattle-and-daub walls. The owner added some mortar floors and wall-plaster. By the early second century the house had been burnt down, probably deliberately so that a new house could go up. The new cob house was built on the same alignment, exceptionally sealing the limited evidence for the timber house. Cob was more resistant to fire, but a later owner rebuilt again in stone.
Left: the south end of the winged-corridor villa at Plaxtol (Kent) as it might have appeared in the second century. The form of the windows, height, use of timber frame and so on, are all hypothetical.
Unfortunately, because villas survive normally only as foundations and the lowest courses of stone, it is very hard to know how much any one building made use of timber. Timber staircases for example simply do not survive so we do not usually even know if there was an upper storey. Measuring wall thicknesses or depths of foundations doesn’t provide an answer because buildings were not erected according to precise calculations. Moreover, a building might have been built with a single storey, but was later given an upstairs.
Stone and tile are usually the only structural materials that survive on a villa site, apart from traces of window glass and iron grilles. Timbers rarely survive because they rot and archaeologists can only detect wooden houses when they burned down, leaving carbonized remains, and that happens most often in towns.
Stone survives in foundations and lower wall courses. Occasionally imported exotic stone was used. Fishbourne is the most obvious early example, but it was expensive and normally restricted to decorative features. Very few villas produce traces of imported stone.
Stone walls depend on stone foundations unless a level bedrock platform is available. The Romans dug a foundation trench and filled it with rubble, stone and concrete, depending on what was available. If necessary, timber piles were driven into damp ground.
Most Roman villas in
Every flint nodule is uniquely randomly shaped. Building a wall means gathering cartloads of them, laying each one carefully into place and packing it with lime mortar. Lime mortar is made by burning chalk in a lime kiln and then adding water and an aggregate like sand. But the mortar needs to cure. Freezing destroys the curing process, so lime mortar building was only carried on between April and September.
Strength came from weight and packing rather than the mortar. Constant maintenance was need to stop water getting in and eroding the wall. Neat corners and edges are almost impossible with irregular flints. Roman flint walls were normally held in a frame made up of tile and brick, or with pieces of dressed stone imported from elsewhere. This part of Lullingstone shows a brick arch (above) and on the right brick quoins forming a door jamb. The doorway was later blocked up with more flint nodules. Throughout the building tiles were used as levelling courses. These helped provide regular flat platforms onto which a new band of flint wall could be built.
Limestone from the Cotswolds and
The ease of carving some limestone meant brick and tile quoins were less necessary, and the stone could even be used to make roof slates (generally diagonal, and pierced with a nail hole just as today). Pieces of fully dressed stone were used for corners, window and doorframes, lintels and decorative features, like this example found at Chedworth. Owners of flint villas had to import stone for columns and balustrades, or used wood that has now rotted away.
villa owners made use of handy pieces of stone even if that meant appropriating
public property. At the Clanville (Hants) villa, a
milestone seems to have been removed from the road three miles (
Left: the Clanville milestone (RIB 98) made of sandstone, taken from a road and reused at the villa. It reads M AVR KARINO N CAES, ‘For Marcus Aurelius Karinus, most noble Caesar’ (AD 282-3)
So long as suitable clay, sand and water was available, tiles and bricks were manufactured on-site or nearby. They were laid out to dry before firing and it is very common to find footprints and pawprints of dogs and even children who wandered around across the tiles.
Roman clay roof tiles were generally of two types: the tegula and the imbrex. Tegulae were large rectangular tiles with raised flanges on each side (very approximately around 300x360mm, weight 4.9kg). They were laid in rows down the roof, with the flanges on each side running beside the flanges of the adjacent rows. Some were nailed onto the roof timbers.
The imbrices were curved rectangular tiles (around
15x360mm). A row of imbrices covered the tegulae flanges. The result resembled roofs in
where easily-worked limestone or sandstone was available (like the Cotswolds and
Of course thatch, and wooden shingles, were also probably used but evidence never survives for obvious reasons. A lack, or shortage, of tile though does not prove a villa had a thatched or shingle roof: tiles were routinely robbed from the ruins of Roman villas and other buildings, even during Roman times. Later, Saxon church-builders, for example, used them and the practice lasted well into the Middle Ages.
But no-one knows exactly how the timbers of a Roman villa roof were arranged because none has survived. They had to be steep enough to make sure rain ran off but not so steep the huge heavy tiles would fall off. Some collapsed villa walls give an idea of the angle of the roof pitch, but this clearly varied a little (see What did Roman Villas look like?) below.
Roof tiles were also used for other jobs. One at Lullingstone covers the drain on the mosaic (left). At the Rockbourne (Hants) villa imbrex tiles supported the floor in a hypocaust central heating system. Bricks served as quoins and leveling courses in flint villas, as the frames for windows and doors and as floor tiles.
A Roman tiler in
has been found at several places in
Left: one of the distinctive flue tiles manufactured
in the kilns at the Ashtead (
Roman villas were all about status. The richest decorated their best rooms with mosaics and painted wall-plaster, exotic stonework, furniture and statuary. The subject matter showed off the owner’s taste and knowledge of classical art and literature. Further down the social class, the less well-off villa owners commissioned just one or two mosaics from less accomplished craftsmen.
super-rich installed grandiose bath-suites or dining rooms. Lufton
Central heating (hypocaust) systems, based on circulating hot air under floors and through walls, weren’t universal. They were installed in bath suites, and sometimes reception rooms. But most rooms had hard floors, and were heated by braziers.
owners never left their gold and silver plate behind if they could help it, so
it almost never turns up in villas. Very occasional finds are made within a
villa building, like the huge hoard of silver coins found in the villa at Shapwick (
The straight answer is that we don’t know because not a single one survives intact or even partly intact. Appearance of course is partly dictated by the ground plan, but that’s only a component of the story. As explained above, It’s almost impossible to say whether a villa had an upper storey because even thick walls can just be an indication of over-building.
The picture of Littlecote
in the preceding section is completely hypothetical but some of the ideas that
were used come from mosaics in
In antiquity building was not based on tight financial calculations, or precise knowledge of the properties of materials; instead builders were inclined to make mistakes by overlooking filled-in ditches, but often structures were more substantial than they might have needed to be. In very rare instances collapsed walls give a good idea of a villa’s possible appearance. The picture on the left shows the villa at Redlands Farm, Stanwick (Northants). The façade of a wing was found where it fell, preserving the use of stone and even an idea of the pitch of the roof.
Another, very different, building
was found at Meonstoke (Hants), pictured here on the
left. Here part of the gable end of an aisled villa was found showing that
brick and tile had been used to create a decorative blocked window effect. The
section is preserved in the
When it comes to modern
reconstructions of Roman villas all sorts of problems come into play, not least
of which is planning reconstructions. The drawing below left shows a
restoration of the gable end of the aisled house at Meonstoke.
I used this and what I knew about Roman techniques and other buildings to
produce the drawing below of what the villa at Sparsholt
(Hants) might have looked like (below). It has an upper storey but I have no
idea if there was one. The Discovery replication of this building (see Rebuilding the Past)
resulted in a very different structure because planning restrictions outlawed
the clerestory, while other factors meant the wings (shown here as the left and
right gable ends), and various other decorative and functional components, were
omitted or set aside. I included decorative features from Meonstoke
because this villa is from the same region. But you can compare this with the
Left: Meonstoke façade restored. Above: reconstruction of what Sparsholt might have looked like in its final form
What about verandahs and corridors? Were they open to the elements. Depending on who you listen to, you’d be forgiven for thinking some people knew for certain. I’ve put an outline of the problem at Verandah.
Villas weren’t evenly distributed in
So, let’s be clear: villas represent a tiny proportion of the population in terms of accommodation. We know of around 1100 ‘villas’ but these range from farms to palatial establishments. Suppose on average an extended family of 15 live there and they have three times as many household slaves – 60 x 1100 = 66,000 people but that is probably an exaggeration. Seeing as Roman Britain probably had 3-5 million people (based on medieval comparisons) that means just 1.3-2.2 percent of the population lived in villas. Even taking towns and the army into account by far and away the majority lived on the land in nameless and unnoticed farmsteads, roundhouses and villages though many of these people might have worked the land on villa estates. We pay villas a lot of attention because of their visibility (to us).
so, we don’t have the name of a single Roman villa owner in
we know the Romans ruled by delegation. They used local chiefs and ruling
families to rule for them, by installing them in positions of responsibility.
The descendants of tribal leaders that had fought against
But like so many wealthy people at different times, getting out of town became fashionable in the late third century. They retreated to the privacy of rural estates and spent their money there, where they could parcel up local economies and politics in peace. They’d also started to model themselves on the Romans of old. Their mosaics had classical myths depicted on them, and some of the most pretentious had Latin verse laid out on the floors.
This (left) is the main mosaic at Lullingstone. It depicts Europa being carried off by Jupiter in disguise as a bull. This mythical event is mentioned in the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid. The floor has a metrical couplet on it:
INVIDA SI TAVRI VIDISSET IVNO NATATVS
IVSTIVS AEOLIAS ISSET ADVS QVE DOMOS
It means ‘If jealous Juno had seen the swimming of the bull, she would with more justice have gone all the way to the halls of Aeolus’.
The allusions of all this are too dense to go into here, but the style of the composition recalls the work of Ovid in the way each line ends. So, at fourth-century Lullingstone, the owner was showing off his knowledge of the work of Virgil and Ovid, poets who had been dead by then for more than 350 years. It was rather like one of us imitating Shakespeare to show off today and it says a lot about how the educated villa owners of Roman Britain wanted to see themselves and pose to their visitors.
Forget the idea that the Romans ‘left’.
What happened was that the Roman government stopped administering
Since villa economies depended on urban markets, communications and other support industries, they couldn’t carry on. Some, like Frocester (Glos) lasted well into the fifth century. But there was neither the money nor the services to maintain the houses. One by one they fell into ruin. The reason was not that they had been built by incompetents, but simply that any building requires maintenance to stay in one piece. The same applies today, and has throughout history. A few villas did collapse prematurely, like Meonstoke, but these are the exception.
the roof is damaged by the weather, or a fire starts, the timbers rot or
collapse. Without the compression force of the roof, the walls start to lose
stability and disintegrate. Wall-plaster fell off in lumps. Rabbits undermined
mosaic floors, collapsing into central heating voids below. Abandoned buildings
attract stone and tile robbers, and the voids they left further compromised the
structures. The huge villa at Dinnington (
be honest, it is still a mystery why people let go a more comfortable way of
life. But they did. For the wealthiest families, who lived in places like Chedworth and Bignor, the answer
might lie in
As centuries passed the houses disappeared from view and were entirely forgotten about until chance discoveries exposed them once more. But only with the classical revival of the eighteenth century did those discoveries lead to excavation, which in those days could lead to veneration or destruction or both. Little has changed!
Plaxtol (Kent). The winged-corridor villa, featured in a reconstruction drawing above,
yet the villa had remained undiscovered until a modern drain was laid.
Villa ruins (or indeed any Roman ruin) were the equivalent of a free supply depot. Medieval church builders helped themselves to stone and tile. Carved columns and other decorative features were taken away too. By the time archaeologists started to take an interest there was scarcely a villa visible above ground.
Dai Morgan Evans, Rebuilding the Past. A Roman Villa, Discovery/Methuen 2003.
- recounts the troubled saga of erecting
a replica villa at Butser Ancient Farm between 2002-3 and transmitted as a series for Discovery Europe
which I had the misfortune to present. The transmission in 2011 on Channel 4 of
a similar series about building a replica Roman house at Wroxeter
(also involving Dai Morgan Evans) seems to have revived memories of this show,
and it would be as well to make a few things clear. I was contracted to
participate as presenter-expert in filming for a limited number of days in the second half of 2002, expiring
Instead a film was being made about a disaster and incompetence and I had no wish to remain involved once my contract expired. The one professional builder involved had constantly flagged up the problems and was sacked for his forthrightness. In December 2002 I told the production company I would not be renewing my contract, which was my prerogative. By then, only a third of what was subsequently transmitted had been shot. I would never have agreed to commit myself to a shooting schedule that lasted more than six months. My fee was due in full by the end of 2002, but in fact I only claimed one-third of it, and wrote off the remaining two-thirds. Although the ‘villa’ was subsequently completed, it was only at a very considerable price in terms of money, sweat and accuracy.
If nothing else, the experience showed how little we know in detail about Roman domestic building techniques (or lack of), and the problems incurred in trying to erect a Roman-type building with an inexperienced team, hamstrung by modern building regulations and the restrictions imposed by time and financial constraints. The book was assembled hastily and it shows in some of the illustrations. It was quite clear that the Wroxeter project was vastly better funded, no doubt because some of the production team had registered how much more expensive and complex this sort of project it, and because English Heritage are not in the business of making television programmes about fiascos.
David S Neal and Stephen R Cosh, The Roman Mosaics of
- this wonderful book is far from cheap (£160) but it’s an investment. Compared to the Perring title (below) it’s the bargain of the century. Neal and Cosh have painted every mosaic known in the country and now the first of four volumes in a limited print-run has appeared. All four volumes are now available.
John Percival, The
Roman Villa, Batsford,
- a rather dense text but it has a much broader canvas, and looks at villas in a broader European context. Widely available as a book club reprint of 1981.
The Roman House in
- this is a highly detailed discussion of house plans and building techniques and well worth a read because it’s an outstanding book, but at £60 it’s insanely expensive for a slim and small book. At this price it has been sentenced to being virtually ignored, which is a tragedy. Compared to the Neal and Cosh title this book’s price is an outrage beyond redemption – blame the publishers.
ALF Rivet, The
Roman Villa in
- out-of-date but still a useful collection of discussions, plans and illustrations
JT Smith, Roman Villas: A Study in
Social Structure, Routledge,
- if you believe that Roman villa plans provide the clue to almost everything about a villa then this expensive and self-important book is for you
Guy de la Bédoyère, Roman Villas and the Countryside, Batsford and English Heritage 1993. Out of print now, but you can access the text on the author’s web-site at http://www.romanbritain.freeserve.co.uk/
Guy de la Bédoyère, The Buildings of Roman Britain (second edition) Tempus 2001 – packed with reconstruction drawings of – I would be the first to admit – variable quality. £17-99
Guy de la Bédoyère, The Architecture of Roman Britain, Shire Publications Ltd 2002. £5-99
Guy de la Bédoyère, The Golden Age of Roman Britain, Tempus 1999. £25. This book discusses the heyday of the villa-owning élite in fourth-century Britain. For a totally different viewpoint, try Neil Faulkner’s The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain, Tempus 2000. £25
Roman Villa, Helmsley (
OS Ref: 100/SE 634842
Open: any reasonable time
Features: winged-corridor villa walls, hypocaust
Bignor Roman Villa. Pulborough, West Sussex RH20 1PH
OS Ref: 197/SU 987147
Telephone: 01798 869259
Open: daily May-October, Tuesdays to Sundays (and Bank Holidays) March and April, closed rest of year
Features: villa rooms, a magnificent series of mosaic floors, and museum)
Brading Roman Villa, Morton Old Road, Brading, Isle of Wight PO36 0EN
OS Ref: 196/SZ 5899863
Telephone: 01983 406223
Open: daily from April to October
Features: villa building, mosaics (the villa is currently under threat as its cover buildings are in desperate need of replacement - £500,000 has to be raised as soon as possible)
Telephone: 202 7323 8299
Features: villa mosaics and finds from Woodchester and Spoonley Wood, and the Meonstoke façade
Telephone: 01243 785859
Open: daily 1 February to 15 December, weekends 16 December to 31 January
Features: first-century palace rooms and finds
Great Witcombe Roman Villa, Gloucestershire, off access road from A417 (English Heritage)
OS Ref: 163/SO 899144
Open any reasonable time
Features: hillside villa with wings and elaborate baths
Telephone: 01482 613902
Open: daily except Sunday mornings
Features: Rudston and Brantingham villa mosaics
Littlecote Roman Villa, Littlecote Historic House Hotel, Hungerford, Berks RG17 0SS
Telephone (hotel): 01488 682509
OS Ref: 174/SU 297708
Open: any reasonable time
Features: villa building, and apsidal hall with restored Orpheus mosaic
Telephone: 01322 863467
OS Ref: 196/SZ 319898
Features: baths, villa rooms, mosaic floor – all under cover
North Leigh Roman Villa, nr North Leigh (English Heritage)
OS ref 164/SP 397154
Open: any reasonable time
Features: walls and wings, mosaic
Nene Park Ferry Meadows, Orton Longueville,
nr Peterborough. Access from A605,
OS Ref: 142/TL 149977
Open: any reasonable time
Features: foundations of aisled villa marked out in modern materials
Features: villa buildings with mosaics and hypocausts, and museum
Somerset County Museum, Taunton Castle, Castle Green, Taunton TA1 4AA
Telephone: 01823 320200
Open: daily Tuesday to Sunday, and Bank Holidays
Features: villa mosaics (Low Ham), Shapwick villa silver coin hoard
Welwyn Roman Baths Museum, Welwyn bypass, Welwyn AL6 9NX
OS Ref: 166/TL 230150
Open: afternoons only - weekends, daily in Easter and summer school holidays
Telephone: 01707 271362
Features: baths from a Roman villa