Villas symbolize the Roman period in the public mind. Some 1100 are known in Britain, ranging from farmhouses to palatial villas such as Chedworth and Woodchester that rivalled the grand houses of the 18th century in size and prestige. They were part of an evolving agricultural estate system and also an important display of status and wealth for the Romano-British aristocracy. Many had developed on the sites of Iron Age roundhouses and probably indicate a continuation of the power of pre-Roman ruling families.
According to Guy de la Bédoyère, the entire villa population in Britain is estimated at around 66,000 - a tiny percentage of the island's population. Their existence depended on the Roman trading system, itself linked to the army, tax-raising and imperial coinage. Removal of Roman administration and evacuation of the army led to a rapid collapse of the system in the fifth century. The estates could be self-sufficient in agriculture, timber and local products but income ceased to come in to pay for maintenance and traded items. The result was a gradual decline and collapse in their structure and use.
Intriguingly, London may also have been the location of villas. Sophie Unger (2009:107) summarises the decline of Roman London as an industrial port and centre of public administration and contrasts this with other activities:
'...the later Roman period saw the restoration of religious buildings such as the temple of Mithras. A Christian basilica may also have been constructed in this period. It seems that Londinium evolved into a city filled with villas, gardens and temples rather than official business or trading activities. Excavations in the capital suggest that there was a marked move from the widespread timber structures towards more private, masonry buildings and suburban villas with more luxury features such as hypocausts. This may indicate that later Roman London was a vibrant and religious urban centre rather than a city in decline.'
A free quarry
In his Plundering the Past: Roman Stonework in Medieval Britain Tim Eaton describes the extensive reuse of Roman period materials in early medieval buildings. While the inhabitants of most of southern Britain appeared to prefer living in houses made of wood and other organic materials the Church began to build prestigious ecclesiatical structures from the ruins they found around them.
The remains of Roman Britain became a vast quarry to be plundered for recycled building material - at the same time destroying vast amounts of archaeological evidence. Eaton contends that quarries were not reopened for fresh building material until the late 10th century whereas the first church constructions made of reused Roman materials occurred in the late 6th century. In effect, Roman Britain was deconstructed over four centuries - and the process did not stop there.
Eaton argues that the recycling was not simply due to expediency but involved a degree of symbolic gesture intended to evoke some of the 'kudos' or prestige of the Roman Empire. He uses evidence that the patrons of ecclesiastical structures did not necessarily go to the nearest and easiest sources for material.
As an example, according to Bede, St Wilfred founded the abbey church at Hexham in Northumberland c.674AD on land given to him by Queen Aethelryth, wife of the Northumbrian King Ecgfrith. Only the crypt remains of the original structure. Eaton observes that it was constructed of
Tim Eaton (2000) Plundering the Past: Roman Stonework in Medieval Britain, Tempus
Guy de la Bédoyère (2006) Roman Britain: A New History, Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Sophie Unger (2009) 'Red or yellow? The changing colour of Roman London's roof-line', London Archaeologist, Spring 2009, Vol 12, 4, pp. 107-113.
By Dr Miles RussellThe chapters in this volume, each written by a leading scholar of the period, analyse in turn the different nationalities and kingdoms that existed in the British Isles from the end of the Roman empire to the coming of the Vikings, the process of conversion to Christianity, the development of art and of a written culture, and the interaction between this written culture and the societies of the day. Available from: