Roman Villas – A House in the Country

What is a Villa?

The word villa is a Latin word that we have taken over and used without attempting to translate it into English. If we use the word, then of course we must try to use it in a familiar way to that in which the Romans themselves used it.

Roman law said simply that a villa was a building in the country. But it is clear from contemporary writers that not every rural building was regarded as a villa; there were others which they preferred to call huts, cottages or simply ‘buildings’. The villa seems to have been a more important and sophisti­cated building than any of these, although it too was usually, but not always the centre of a farm. In general, the term seems to have been applied to farmhouses which attempted to provide much the same accommodation and amenities as fashionable town-houses.

In practice this would mean that it would have many separate rooms, linked by corridors to kitchens and domestic quarters. Some of the living rooms and bedrooms would be heated by hypocaust, floored with mosaics or coloured mortar, and have tinted plaster on walls and ceilings. The roof would be of stone slates or clay tiles, and often there would be a bath suite or separate bath-house.

Fortunately these features all leave clearly recognisable remains for the archaeologist to find, so that in most cases at it is not difficult for us to decide whether or not an excavated building should be called a villa.

The Origins of the Romano-British Villa

The amenities provided in the villas imply that their owners were both reasonably wealthy and Romanised, and initially at least, this means that the villa owners were mainly drawn from the ranks of the old tribal aristocracy. It seems likely that these men held onto the estates they owned at the time of the conquest, and in south-east England there is now a large number of villas which have proved to overlie Belgic farmsteads. Some of the most recently excavated ones include Shakenoak Roman Farm (Oxon) , Latimer Roman Villa (Bucks) and Gorhambury Rural Villa(Herts).

At Park Street Villa (Herts), only two miles from St Albans, we can see the development of the farm from a timber hut built about twenty years before the invasion, through a further timber phase, to the first masonry villa erected perhaps about A.D.75. Although the first hut measured 26ft. x 11ft. it seems to have been but a single large room with a central hearth. The second hut, burnt down about A.D.60 (possibly by Boudicca’s rebels) was slightly smaller but had two or three separate rooms and a covered veranda. In this sense it anticipated the villa which succeeded it, for this building had five rooms and a veranda, as well as a cellar. The introduction of masonry foundations, tiled roofs, and mortar floors are clear indications of Roman influence, but whether the plans of these simple villas also reflect imported ideas is at present uncertain.

The Winged Corridor Villa

Although the simple villa with a block of four or five rooms is the earliest to appear in Britain, it was soon followed by the first winged corridor villas which were to become the most common villa design in the province. Late first century examples such as Alresford Roman Villa (Essex) and Boxmoor Roman Villa (Herts) already show the presence not only of projecting wing rooms at each end of the central block of rooms, and the connecting corridor which fronts them, but also of a second corridor at the rear.

Some villas in fact boast front and rear corridors, but no wing rooms, so that they are really enlarged versions of the earliest villa plans. A more common variety, however, sees the addition of wing rooms which project both frontwards and backwards, so that the villa looks something like a letter H in plan. The villa at High Wycombe Roman Villa (Bucks), built about A.D.150, is a good example of the type.

Whether or not the design of the winged corridor villa was imported from Gaul is still uncertain, although examples of it do appear there a little earlier than it first appears in Britain. Another variation of the type, mainly dated to about A.D.300 in Britain, certainly appears to be of Gallic inspiration. This is the winged corridor villa with a large gravelled yard at its centre – often containing an oven or two, a water tank, or a rubbish pit. These features can be seen in the villa at Chew Park Roman Villa (Avon).

Courtyard Villas

Villas which were first built as winged corridor buildings were often later developed by extending the wings to form an enclosed courtyard. Some of these villas, like Bignor in Sussex, became very large indeed and had an ornamental gardenin the courtyard area, surrounded by four colonnades. For the most part, such villas belong to the fourth century, and some; like Keynsham (Avon), were not elaborations of existing buildings but were planned on this lavish scale from the beginning.

Other corridor villas were developed in a different way, and instead of further sites of living rooms, baths, and guest rooms, buildings to house farm labourers and even animals were arranged to complete the enclosure of a central yard. Villas of this sort, of which Gadebridge Park Villa (Herts) is a good example, are in many ways like a small modern farmhouse fronted by its farmyard. What these differences of plan mean in terms of social class and social attitudes is uncertain, but some of the farmyard villas may have been occupied not by the villa owner but by- a bailiff who ran the farm for him.

Accommodation like that at Keynsham Villa, Chedworth Roman Villa and Bignor Roman Villa on the other hand can only have been provided for the use of a very wealthy owner with highly Romanised tastes. It is important to remember, however, that almost all of these villas – whatever their size and design – were the centres of agricultural estates.

Villa Mosaics

On present evidence perhaps only one villa in four possessed patterned mosaic floors, but many of the others had a simpler and coarser form of mosaic usually called a tessellated floor, as well as floors of mortar, Opus signinum (a sort of pink concrete), tiles and stone slabs.

Although we do not know how much a mosaic floor cost to lay, they were clearly expensive if only because laying them was a time-consuming job. It is not surprising therefore that the most numerous and intricate mosaics are found in the largest of the courtyard villas, Chedworth villa, for example, boasted fifteen mosaics, and Woodchester Roman Villa as many as twenty.

The majority of mosaics are geometric patterns, based on a number of basic shapes and motifs; diamonds, lozenges, circles, octagons, scrolls, intertwined ribbons, and others. These designs were often extremely attractive to look at.

The smaller number of figured floors are particularly interesting, however for on these we see various Roman deities and scenes from mythology, and just occasionally such things as chariot races, gladiatorial combat, and scenes from Latin literature. Perhaps the most famous is the mosaic from Low Ham Villa (Somerset) which shows scenes from Vergil’s Aeneid. Floors such as these suggest that the villas in which they are floors were the homes of men who had firmly embraced Roman culture and could also read and write Latin.

Furnishings in Roman Villas

Apart from mosaic floors there were other ways in which the furnishings of a villa matched those of a town house and revealed the Roman tastes of its owner. The principal rooms were often heated by hypocausts beneath the floor and lit by bronze candelabras, whilst other rooms depended on braziers and small hand-carried oil lamps.

The walls of the living rooms and bedrooms, and usually the corridors too, were plastered and painted. As with the mosaics, the commonest treatment of walls was with rectilinear designs, particularly panelling which was often painted to resemble marble slabs. More and more villas, however, are revealing traces of painted walls showing human figures, birds, animals and especially flowers, trees, and plants.

Moveable furnishings were provided by wooden and stone furniture and, much more rarely, stone sculptures. These were usually of Roman gods, such as the figures of Luna from Woodchester and Bacchus from Spoonley Wood Roman Villa.

The wooden furniture has long since rotted away, but apart from some attractive table legs carved from shale, there are sufficient pictures of cupboards, couches, stools, tables and chests on Roman tombstones to show us the sort of furniture to be found in both villas and town houses, by modern standards, however, the Roman home used little furniture.

Villa Baths

Although there are many villas where bathing accommo­dation has yet to be found, it is likely that the great majority of villas had their own bath. In some cases these were isolated buildings, erected at some distance from the villa itself both for reasons of safety and so that the baths could also be used by labourers. High Wycombe and Gadebridge Park villas both have separate bath-houses of this sort.
Other villas have bath-suites built into the main residential block, as is the case at Chedworth. In this situation, it is likely that a bath-house was built elsewhere on the estate for the farm-workers, and a number of apparently isolated bath-houses of this sort are known in Britain.

One particularly interesting bath-house, which shows another solution to the problem, is that at Park Street. A large bath-house was built here in the enclosed yard, with a full range of bathing accommodation. Later, a much smaller suite of bath-rooms was added at one corner, with the entrance facing away from the house. There is little doubt that the new baths were for the use of labourers, and the existing building for the occupants of the villa.

Where the baths were mainly or exclusively for the owner to use, then mosaic floors are often found, and wall plaster showing fish and other sea-creatures sometimes survive.

The Distribution of Villas

Although we have talked in general terms about the history and design of the villas in Britain it is important to realise that there are important regional differences both in the history and distribution of villas. There are recorded traces of about 1,200 villas in Britain, and all but about 50 of them are east of the River Severn and south of the River Humber. They are most thickly distributed south and east of a line drawn from the Wash to the mouth of the Severn, although there are notable gaps even in this area, in the Fens, the Weald and Salisbury Plain.

In general the villas of Kent, Sussex, Herts, and Bucks are the earliest to appear and develop, but the biggest and most richly appointed villas are mostly in the west country. In time there may prove to be regional variations in design, and already we can identify four regional schools of mosaicists serving towns and villas alike.

Local concentrations of villas are usually linked to the presence of a nearby town and to areas of good farming land. A study of about 250 west country villas showed that about three-quarters of them were within 16 kms (10 miles) of a town, and a similar number were within 4 kms of a main Roman road. These figures emphasise the close link between villas and towns.

Roman Sites to visit in South East England