If you know anything about Roman Britain which, if you’re on my website, I’m hoping you don’t know a lot, you will know that just outside Chichester, a place I looked at last time out, is a place called Fishbourne. Where’s Fishbourne? In the sea, dickhead!
Fishbourne is the site of one of the most remarkable Roman spectacles in the whole of the United Kingdom, a palatial villa that would have been vast in scale, dominating the local landscape and some of the ruins of which are still visible today.
I say ‘ruins’. I mean, a lot of the walls are gone, the plaster-work is in fragments, a few tiles from the roof survived, there’s not a lot of ‘building’ to it. But what did survive in some pretty major ways is the floor.
This palace would have had mosaic work rivalled only by those in governors’ palaces elsewhere in the Empire or Senators’ or wealthy Equestrians’ houses in Rome, Pompeii or other Italian areas. It really would have been a spectacular building shoved smack-bang in the middle of a community of what were mostly rural Iron Age peasants living in roundhouses – thatched mud-lined huts.
I can, do and will continue to make the argument that the societies of non-Romanised Europeans were a lot more complex, ritualised and developed than the evidence gives them credit for. The lack of written records of their doings leads us to only have material cultural clues to their lives and even those are rare – we know so very little.
But to deny that Romans would have brought with them skills and technologies that would have blown these iron-age people’s fucking minds is to be in denial. It’d be like if a military engineer moved in next to you and started doing up his house using all this fancy tech they know about. There’s you watering your garden with a limp hose, dribbling liquid like the morning-piss of a man with a bad prostate and they’ve got laser-guided cruise-missile water-bombs raining on the lawn! You still shut your windows by hand whereas their windows open and shut themselves dependent upon the climatic conditions being monitored by sensors both inside, and outside the property.
Last time out I talked about the metallurgy of Iron Age Britons and, no doubt there were some skilled artisans working metal in ways that would have made a Roman ashamed. But I know who could have used bricks and mortar to build the better kiln to do the metal working from and it’s the Romans!
From my Premier Inn, Fishbourne Roman Palace was a 5 minute drive so, if you’re planning on visiting Chichester I’d recommend that Premier Inn (Chichester South (Gate Leisure Park)). I am not being sponsored or paid by Premier Inn (although a few free nights for some more Roman Britain travels wouldn’t go amiss – wink wink) but I hate driving around towns I don’t know. There are byzantine lane-structures, unwritten rules and mini-roundabouts that confuse me and you don’t have time to think before people beep at you – being in a spot linked to all the main roads to get to where you want to go is brilliant and this hotel was perfectly placed.
So what’s the deal? Why this big palace? The suggestion is that this was a gift to the amenable kings of the Regnenses – a group of the Atrebates tribe (we talked about this complex naming stuff last time out in discussing Chichester). It is believed the original structure dates to around 75 CE, only 30 years-or-so after the invasion, but there is evidence of military buildings in the area, granaries and some evidence of timber-framed buildings from around 43-44 CE (i.e. the exact time of the Claudian invasion).
I mentioned in my article about Chichester it is debated whether or not the original landing occurred at Chichester (Noviomagus Reginorum) or Richborough (Rutupiae) because of these early dated building works. As I mentioned then we do know the casus belli, the reason for Rome taking the fight to Britain, was that their client King of the Atrebates, Verica, had been ousted by the King of the Catuvellauni tribe, Cunobelinus. Fishbourne was bang in the middle of Atrebate territory and taking it back would likely have been a military priority. We know, also, that it was the Legio II Augusta who were sent that way, whether there was a split after the initial landing at Rutupiae is, again, unknown. The Romans marched north and engaged in fights on the Medway near Rochester and the Thames, before heading up and establishing their capital at Camulodunum (modern Colchester).
So much of what occurred at this early invasion is not known. What is known is there was a military presence around Fishbourne in 43-44 CE, at the very start of the invasion. There is evidence these buildings were demolished by around 60 CE and a villa built in its stead.
A lot of the building style is very, very Roman – not the clumsy imitation Romano-British style. This would indicate the Romans used their own craftsmen (I’m not being sexist, Rome was, they were almost certainly men) for the building of this palace. This, then, was a great honour to have bestowed upon whoever this building was for.
Incredible painted plaster walls, decorated stucco, statues, mosaics, colonnades, hypocaust under-floor heating, a large garden – This was a building for someone important!
The commonly accepted theory, first put forward by archaeologist Barry Cunliffe, is that the palace was initially built for Cogidubnus, King of the Atrebates, son of the former King Verica who first appealed to Claudius for aid. It may also have been built for Verica himself, if he lived long enough. There are also theories it could have been built for a Roman Governor, Sallustius Lucullus. The commonly accepted theory is that this was Cogidubnus’ gaff.
What we do know is the building was pretty much wrapped up around 270 CE after a major fire. There is blackened and charred rubble, shattered glass and puddles of lead that would indicate a significant fire through the building around this time. The fire could have been an accident, Roman buildings often went up in flames, but the timing also coincides with the disruptive separatist Carausius, who basically tried to establish his own Kingdom in Gaul with Britain as a nice little part of it.
Carausius’ Britano-Gallic empire would be brought to a halt by Constantius Chlorus, who defeated Carausius in Gaul, and then went and beat up his successor, Allectus, in Britannia, thus retaking Britain for the Roman Empire. He would die in Eboracum (modern York) where his son, who was campaigning with him, Constantine I (or Constantine the Great – THAT Constantine) would be proclaimed Emperor. That’s all a story for another time, though.
I like to mention these things because often in Roman history Britannia is the hinterlands, the fringe, the outer wilds. Britain was a region to be ignored or exploited.
Yet Emperors visited, lived and died on these shores. The palace at Fishbourne is a testament to the importance of these relations with Britain. Gaius Julius Caesar’s incursion across the Channel was the beginning not of a subjugation of a swarm of savages, but politics and interrelation between Britain, Rome and the rest of the Roman world and the world beyond that interacted with Rome.
The Beachy Head Woman we talked about in our Eastbourne article – this sub-saharan African Romano-British woman shows us a history of Britain that is remarkably complex.
Caligula stood across the Channel and gazed at Britain longingly as the first Julio-Claudian since Caesar to do so, but his Uncle, Claudius, would cross that Channel and have an Imperial cult building to himself, the Divine Claudius, built in Camulodunum, modern Colchester.
Vespasian, a future emperor, commanded the Legio II Augusta who likely wintered at Fishbourne, helping lay the very foundations of what would become Romano-British towns. Vespasian’s son, Titus, another future emperor, likely served in Britannia as part of the reinforcements against the Boudican revolt.
A few emperors later, Hadrian would visit Britannia on his Grand Tour of the provinces, initiating a many great building works, not least of which was Hadrian’s Wall – the frontier wall in Scotland dividing Britannia from Caledonia. Closer to me I believe the Pharos, the lighthouse, at Dubris (Roman Dover) still visible within the grounds of Dover Castle were given a touch-up by Hadrian, though it was likely built much earlier.
Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s successor, would prioritise pushing forward the frontier lines in Britain, commissioning the Antonine Wall, although he never left Rome.
Pertinax, an emperor during the tumultuous ‘Year of the Five Emperors’ would be posted in Britannia as a tribune of the Legio VI Victrix.
Septimius Severus, the first African emperor of Rome, would die in Eboracum (York) whilst campaigning against the Caledonians with his sons Geta and Caracalla who would be proclaimed joint emperors on his death.
Not long after this, in 286 CE, Carausius would come along and try to make Britannia part of his separatist Gallic empire, he would be followed by Allectus – they were combated by Maximian and eventually defeated by Constantius Chlorus who we’ve already talked about.
I know it’s a long old succession of paragraphs, but it is so for a reason. Britannia was not the back-of-beyond we are often led to believe it was. For one thing, clearly trade with Britain was important enough that through various periods of instability it was worth defending and keeping as part of the empire but that northern frontier also offered something the Romans were running out of – an opportunity for glory. Antoninus Pius proclaimed himself Imperator, conqueror, of Caledonia after his incursion and yet the continued campaigns of Severus would indicate his was far from a total conquest. Part of the peace brokered by Caracalla involved moving the Roman frontier back from the Antonine wall to Hadrian’s wall!
Britain was a big enough deal that emperors like Constantine were inaugurated by their militaries in our towns and cities! Constantine the Great, who would destroy the tetrarchy and unite the empire under one ruler again. This man who would be the person most responsible for spreading irritating, doctrinal Christianity’s dominance besides, maybe, Paul the Apostle. This grand leader of the bulk of the Mediterranean basin was not given his Imperium, his power, on a throne in the capital of Rome, or even in his new found capital of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) but was, instead, hailed ruler in York of all places! No wonder they say Yorkshire is ‘God’s Own County’ – the fucker who’s basically responsible for modern Christianity was given his damn power there!
Fishbourne Roman Palace is a perfect example of how important Rome considered Britain and its relationships with Britain. This obnoxiously opulent villa that would have seemed positively fucking space-age to a lot of the inhabitants of nearby settlements is symbolic of that. Rome could be cruel, unforgiving, it forged itself in the red-fires of blood and built itself on a foundation of bodies and slavery. But it gave generously where generosity was due and Britain is abundant in Roman opulence, evident in so many places, with Fishbourne being one of them.
As for the palace museum itself it’s well worth a visit. The exhibits are all very well curated, it’s definitely an interesting walk, it does a great job of guiding you through the timeline of the place. I would recommend you visit The Novium in Chichester first, it gives a stronger sense of what life was like pre-invasion so you don’t just jump into the story of this Romanisation. If all you care about is this big old villa and what the Romans did for us then, by all means, jump in head first and you still won’t be disappointed.
The layout is easy to follow, and tells the story of the villa remarkably well before leading you around to the remains of what I believe is the North Wing and its various stunning mosaics.
For all of the Corinthian Column tops, cock-shaped amulets, incredible gem and glasswork, samianware up the wazoo and medieval dead bodies – you come for the mosaics.
This is, without a doubt, some of the finest mosaic work I’ve seen in or out of Italy! The magnum opus of the villa is naturally the Cupid-on-a-Dolphin mosaic, from around 160 CE, but many of the mosaics and their fragments are from much earlier, dating to the initial construction of the palace around 75 CE.
I was absolutely in my element. I’ve been mentioning in my ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ series how much I don’t really like military history and yet Rome was a military empire. Much of its history is tied up in tactics, bloodshed and conquest. What I love about places like Fishbourne is they let us explore lives. What would these people have been doing? How would they have lived? There is a remarkable reconstruction of a Roman room that, frankly, I’d have as my fucking décor today given the option. I love this kind of social history. I wish we could find more evidence of what the peasantry, what the poor people, what the slaves were thinking about, talking about or up to, but if all we have to go on is fancy jewelry, hairpins, tweezers, ear-spoons and mosaics – I’ll take it.
Their garden is also fantastic. Obviously recreating the original Roman garden is a near impossibility but Sussex Archaeological Society have done an amazing job putting together an idea of a Roman garden and, given I was there on a lovely, hot early June day it couldn’t have been a better time to wander around.
On to the sad bit – As a result of the impact of covid Sussex Archaeological Society have probably lost £1,000,000+ of income.
This ain’t National Trust or English Heritage, this is a relatively small organisation trying to run their game in the big leagues, this is a locally run archaeological society that, honestly, punches above its weight, so that income loss hits them hard.
If you’ve ever thought about visiting Fishbourne but haven’t gone yet, if you’re in the nearby area and take it for granted, if you’re just interested in preserving the Roman past of this country, Fishbourne is a site that needs support. There is still so much that can be discovered, more that can be done, bigger and better exhibits to bring the amazing history of this area even more to life than they have already done a remarkable job with so please, please, please support them.
Go to Fishbourne, pay your ticket, chuck an extra donation in the donations bucket, buy stuff from the gift shop, the café etc. (they sell some cracking local ice-cream), become a member! However you do it, it’s worth it for Fishbourne alone but Sussex Archaeological Society also runs and maintains various other sites such as Anne of Cleves House Museum, Lewes Castle, and the Long Man of Wilmington (a big bloke holding two sticks on a hill) and more.
In fact, I’ll level with you, it’s worth funding for the Roman Palace’s social media account alone. Go follow @romanpalace and you will not be disappointed, unless you expect polite, austere reverence because they’re flippant and hilarious.
The point is this is our history. There’s a lot going on in the world of archaeology and academic history right now. History is moving from being a wealthy gentleman’s pursuit to being a fully inclusive, genuinely critical study of our past.
There is natural resistance to this by the descendants of those wealthy gentlemen. The democratisation of history has put it at odds with a government that seems to consider further inspection of the finer details of history as ‘rewriting’, meanwhile they want to hold up people of questionable moral fibre as national heroes.
The critical study of history, and the findings of historians, are putting them at odds with the aims and missions of the University organisational structures themselves, innately there not to educate and further knowledge, but to make money. Departments that research heavily, reveal much, but do not make money are in danger. Budgets are being slashed, people are being made redundant for ideological reasons and the people who will lose out most are YOU!
Ordinary people will lose out most. Truth, in history, is impossible to find. The closest we can get is evidential uncertainty. The best we can do is to know a lot about what we don’t know. Archaeology is a means of doing this, it is literally clawing through mud, shit and sand to try to find the closest thing to the truth there is. Yet archaeology is in danger, it needs support and it needs funding.
Fishbourne may be an opulent palace but we must never neglect its origins. As much as it may not be for the poor, it is also not the product of some lunatic despot. Its origins are in having been defeated, and running away to ask for help. Fishbourne is the product not only of a Roman victory, but of a humiliating defeat for the Atrebates, but their inevitable resurgence not from some stoic, tribal pride, some sense of unified, isolated, identity they all hid behind, but from engaging with a wider international community, working together to build a more modern, united Britain. In appealing to Claudius and bringing Romans to our shores, Verica created a lasting argument in favour of supranationalism, international cooperation and relationships with near-neighbours.
Why do I, as a working-class lad, on benefits, living in a council house, with no degree, no letters before or after my name, little formal educational qualification at all, feel that classics, archaeology and the study of history is important?
Because as everyone from the ancient Babylonians, through the Greeks, through Alexander the Great, the Romans, Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Emperors, Machiavelli and the Renaissance artists, philosophers and scientists, enlightenment figures like Newton, Voltaire, and, as much as I hate him, Descartes – Basically anyone ‘smart’ from the first apes that transmitted stories of their past all the way up to modern day will tell you – You can learn a lot about the ‘now’ from the ‘then’.
Knowing the mistakes of the past, what led up to them, the complex miasma of social, political and economic conditions that cause historical problems allows us to avoid those same combinations in the present and future.
Of course then there’s just the fact that it’s bloody interesting.
Visit Fishbourne Roman Palace, it’s fucking great.
Want to read more about my recent adventures?
Learn about the Victorian seaside resort of Eastbourne and the Beachy Head Woman
Or Read about Noviomagus Reginorum, Roman Chichester, and The Novium Museum