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Chapter 5
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Romano-British Buildings and Earthworks

by John Ward

published by Methuen & Co. Ltd.
36 Essex Street W. C., London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.


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Chapter 7

 p138  Chapter VI


During the last two centuries, the remains of many Romano-British houses have been fully or partially laid bare, and have been described with greater or less detail; but our chief source of information is the exploration of Silchester. In this country their remains disclose little more than the plans, for the walls rarely stand to a greater height than 3 ft. above the old ground-level. The mosaic and other floors often remain, but the superstructures are represented by fallen materials. From these we may learn many things — how the houses were roofed, how the walls were decorated; but, speaking generally, the inferences are too vague and uncertain to admit of satisfactory reconstruction. Hence our excavators have not the good fortune of those of Pompeii, where the walls are often intact to the level of the first floors. This is due, of course, to the circumstance that that city was suddenly overwhelmed with some 15 ft. or more of volcanic ash, and thus the buildings were preserved to approximately that height; whereas in this country there was nothing to stay the work of decay and spoliation, until the level of the fallen débris was reached.

It may seem that the best procedure would be to elucidate the less-known Romano-British by the better-known Pompeian houses, since both belong to the same age and civilization. The student, however, who tries this promising method, will soon find that the one set of houses is about as unlike the other set, in that most important point, the planning or arrangement, as both are unlike the houses of the moderns. Yet the houses of Britain did resemble those of Pompeii in many particulars, notably in constructive methods, treatment of floor and wall-surfaces, and decoration. The room in Britain might lack the elegance and  p139 refinement of that in Pompeii, but both would appeal to the visitor as the products of the same age. From these remarks the reader will perceive why any attempt to interpret the plan of a Romano-British house by reference to that of a Pompeian house is not likely to lead to satisfactory results. Our subject is one which must be unlocked by its own key, that is, by its own study. Still, several paragraphs upon the Pompeian type will be a useful introduction.

The Pompeian Houses

In the early Pompeian house, the central feature was a lofty hall, around which the smaller rooms were grouped, into which they opened, and from which they took, in great measure, their light and air, for in the roof was a large central opening that admitted both. This hall was the atrium; the square opening in the roof was the compluvium; and answering to this, in the floor below, was a shallow pool or impluvium, into which the rain-water fell, the slope of the roof being towards the opening. Behind all was usually a garden.

The front door was frequently set back in a vestibulum, and through it was entered the fauces or passage between the two front rooms, which opened into the atrium. This spacious apartment reached, its shaded coolness would be at once appreciated after the hot and dazzling streets. Its lofty sides screened off the sun and moderated the light. The coolness was enhanced by the water of the impluvium, and to this delight was frequently added the ripple and spray of a fountain. As the eyes grew accustomed to the subdued light, the glowing colours of the painted walls and the doors and openings into the various rooms would reveal themselves. Behind, on either side of the opening into the fauces, was a door into each of the front rooms. On the right and left hands were those (two or three on either side) of the bedrooms, usually lofty, with gratings or other openings above to admit light from the compluvium. Beyond these were the wings or alae of the atrium, two recesses or rooms opening into the main space by their full width. Facing the visitor was the large curtained opening of an important room which looked upon the garden in the rear. This was the tablinum, the summer-room of the house. There, in the hottest  p140 weather, the family dined; and even during the colder months, this room would have some degree of warmth when the curtains were drawn and the garden doors were closed. But it is more likely that one of the rooms flanking the tablinum was used for this purpose in winter, the corresponding room on the other side being perhaps the kitchen.

Such was the Pompeian house, reduced to its more essential features and unmodified by Greek influence. Prof. Mau​1 in an interesting manner traces its pedigree. The atrium was the primitive living-room. The impluvium marked the site of the family hearth. The compluvium represented the hole in the roof through which the smoke escaped; and from the smoke-blackened timbers arose the name of the apartment, from ater, black. But long after the hearth was banished to its special room, the kitchen in the city house, the atrium retained its original uses in the farmhouses.

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Fig. 40. — Typical Plan of Pompeian House. (After Mau.)

From the second century, B.C., onwards, the Greek peristyle became an integral part of the more sumptuous houses. The garden was now surrounded by a colonnade, and upon this opened the more secluded rooms to which the family life tended to gravitate. The Greek names of these rooms were retained — triclinium, oecus, exedra, etc., and bespoke their origin. The atrium became little else than a grand entrance hall, and the tablinum the reception-room for those visitors who were not admitted into the privacy of the home.

 p141  Between these Italian and the modern houses there is this striking difference: the former took their light and air from within; the latter take it from without. In other words, in the one the front may be said to look inwards; in the other, outwards. The almost windowless exteriors at Pompeii, of low and irregular elevation, placed their architects at a disadvantage when compared with their modern successors; for such exteriors were ill-adapted for architectural treatment. Hence the difficulty was usually met by the profitable procedure of letting the outer rooms, which abutted on the streets, as shops; consequently, the only evidence of the presence of private residences would be their ample front doors, showing here and there between the shops.

The Callevan Houses

There are several reasons why the Silchester houses should first have our attention. The site of the ancient city has yielded the remains of nearly one hundred buildings that have been identified as houses. The systematic method of the excavation is an assurance that the small, equally with the large, have been brought to light. Each has been described in a careful and detailed manner, and planned to the same scale. The Reports thus afford both abundance of material and facility for comparative study — matters of supreme importance, for the remains of Romano-British houses are invariably too slight to afford complete ground-plans. Another advantage may be noted. As most of the Silchester houses, unlike those of Pompeii, were separated by intervening gardens and yards, their builders were rarely under the disability of having to conform their work to the shapes of the sites.

The plan of Silchester is strewn with buildings, but with a little patience the dwelling-houses can be distinguished. These, however, differ considerably in shape, size, and complexity. The smaller houses consist of a row of rooms, and in the larger these are arranged along three or even four sides of a courtyard. The remaining houses represent every transition between these extremes. We might fancy that the Silchester houses had grown according to a definite law, and that most of them had been arrested at some stage of their growth, only a few reaching maturity.

 p142  This growth must have been determined by something that was regarded as essential, and the central courtyard, which is so prominent a feature in the more elaborate houses, supplies the clue. This space, as we have already noticed, with sometimes quite surrounded by the house; more often it was only partly so. But in these cases, the circuit was now and again completed by a wall, or the side or back of a neighbouring house helped to define its form and extent. Where walls in these positions have not been found, wooden fences may have been used, as the use of timber was much resorted to at Silchester. Courtyards were equally characteristic of the large country houses of the time, and some examples will be given later. The evidence in the case of the smaller and simpler houses is not so clear; but it is significant that their plans invariably show the ground about their fronts as free from buildings of any sort. Whether these plots were fenced in, it is impossible to say, but the analogy of the more elaborate houses favours the view that they were.

There is good reason, therefore, for thinking that it was a prevailing custom in Roman Britain for the front of the house to look upon an open space. We can well imagine that if the owner of a small house, that occupied only one side of such a space, wished to enlarge it, he would erect his new extension along one of the contiguous sides of that space, and that further enlargements would follow the same rule until it was wholly enclosed by his buildings.

The plans of the smaller (but not always the smallest) Silchester houses present a row of rooms bordered with a corridor or verandah on one side, which may or may not extend the whole length of the building. If it does not extend the whole length, the shortage is almost invariably at one end, and is made good by the enlargement of one or more rooms at that end; or the enlarged end or 'head' may overstep the corridor to form a wing. The normal position of the entrance is in the end of the corridor opposite the 'head.' These three forms are diagrammatically shown in Fig. 41, A, B, C, the body of the house being shaded with diagonal lines, and the corridor left white, while the garth is indicated by broken lines.


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Fig. 41. — Diagrammatic Plans
to illustrate the development of the Romano-British House.
Thayer's Note: the doorless rooms appear to be generally accounted for further below.

In the more complex plans, such a simple block, whether oblong or L‑shaped, usually forms the main body or nucleus of the house, the extensions taking the form of adjuncts or outshoots.  p144 Certain large rooms may be added to the end of the wing. The opposite end of the corridor may be developed into an entrance-lobby wider than itself; or this lobby may be altogether removed from the main block, and be connected with it by a corridor, lobby, and entrance-corridor forming a minor wing and more or less closing in the side of the garth opposite the chief wing. The main corridor, again, may have a corresponding return at its farther end to serve that wing. D illustrates these developments, the added rooms being indicated by vertical-line shading. Lastly, further extensions and rebuildings, as indicated by horizontal-line shading in E, may complete the closing-in of the courtyard.

A further addition may often be noticed. It consists of a corridor-like strip along the back of the house, usually wider than the corridor proper; and as it is sometimes divided by cross-walls, its use apparently was to provide additional rooms, the divisions probably being of wood as a rule. So far, we have little difficulty in distinguishing the main block from the extensions; but in the largest and most elaborate houses this is not always easy. In these cases, however, the difficulty is usually caused by the presence of two such blocks.

While many of the more complex Silchester houses unquestionably grew somewhat in the manner just described, the remains of others convinced the explorers that they had been planned and built outright. Like the higher animals which embody in their own anatomy reminiscences, so to speak, of the simpler ancestral forms from which they were derived, these houses bear witness to a change in the social conditions — to a passage from simpler to more luxurious modes of life during the Roman era. The modifications above described illustrate the evolution of the type, not necessarily that of the individual house.

We must now study the Callevan houses more minutely, and first the 'house-block,' whether constituting a complete house in itself, or forming the nucleus of a larger house. It consists, as has been observed, of a row of rooms bordered by a corridor, with or without a 'head.' The corridor was the chief means of communication between the rooms, but not invariably so, as occasionally a room was entered from an adjoining one, instead of from the corridor. The general construction of these blocks is somewhat problematic, as we have little more than foundations  p145 to guide us. There is little doubt that the corridor was normally an external feature, for its outer wall is often noticeably slighter than the shell of the suite of rooms. This, in its turn, suggests that the shell was of more than a single storey; and here again favourable indications have been observed. Probably we shall not be far wrong if we picture the 'house-block' as of two storeys, with a pentice corridor running along one side to the height of, or slightly above, the first floor. We may further picture the corridor of a more elaborate house as passing round a central court or garth, as in the Caerwent house, B, Fig. 44. This recalls the familiar cloister square of a medieval monastery, surrounded by its covered ambulatory, into which the doors of the claustral buildings open. Excluding the corridor as a lean-to accessory, the Silchester 'house-blocks' varied in external width from 16 to 24 ft. or even more, the majority ranging from 19 to 22 ft.; while in length they varied much more, the shortest being 54 ft., and the longest about double that length. The average width of the corridors was 9 ft. They also varied in the number and size of the rooms they contained — we refer, of course, to the ground-floors: we can only guess how far the rooms above corresponded. The plans given in the reports are those of the remains, and must not be taken as fully representing the original ground-plans. Doorways, which must have existed, may not be shown, the walls which contained them having been reduced to below the levels of their thresholds. The partitions which are shown are only those which were of stone or were upon stone foundations; others there may have been which were constructed of timber only, and which have disappeared by the process of natural decay. It is wise, therefore, to keep these contingencies in mind, and to draw our conclusions from a large number of plans, rather than from a selected few on account of their apparent completeness.


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Fig. 44. — Plans of Houses 1, viii, Silchester. (After Hope); and 7, Caerwent (after Drake and Pizey).
(40 ft. to 1 in.)

If these buildings were of more than one storey, as they certainly appear to have been, their upper storeys must have been reached by staircases. No remains of staircases, however, have been observed so far as the writer is aware, and this is not surprising, if, as probably was the case, they were of wood. They could scarcely have been placed in the corridors, for these were probably little higher than the first floors, and their victims have furnished no indications of the sites of staircases.  p146 Had they been external structures, they surely must have rested upon stone foundations, but nothing answering to these has been observed. The alternative is that the staircases were within the main buildings. In some of the Silchester houses narrow apartments that were certainly not passages have been observed, and probably these contained staircases; equally feasible is it that in some of the cross-divided rooms the inner room contained a staircase and the outer was its lobby. Such a divided space in House 2, XXIV​2 is especially noteworthy. This house was set back from the street, and its front corridor, A, Fig. 42, was connected with the street by another corridor, C. The latter faced the lobby, D, which had doors into the rooms on its right and left, and into that behind. This back chamber, in its turn, had a door into the room on the left and another into the back corridor, B, but this, it will be noted, was not centrally placed. The lobby and the chamber behind it thus afforded direct communication between the street and the back corridor. But if this was their chief end, it is hard to understand why the builder should have marred an otherwise symmetrical vista by placing the back door on one side. If, on the other hand, we suppose that the chamber contained a staircase, the difficulty vanishes. It was large enough (14 by 11½ ft.) to accommodate one 3 ft. wide, which, attached to the right, left, and back walls, and rising by three flights of six or seven steps, would reach a height of from 10 to 13 ft., and leave space for landings, 3 ft. square,  p147 in the corners, as shown on the next plan. Such a staircase explains the position of the back door, as under the second landing there would be ample headroom, which would not be the case midway under the second flight. It also explains the absence of a door into the room on the right corresponding with that on the opposite side, as a door in such a position would be blocked by the lower flight. A similar arrangement of anteroom and chamber behind it, occupies a similar position in House 1, XXVII.​3 The former opened into the corridor and faced a large door into the courtyard. The latter had no back door, perhaps because the house was built along the back; but it had a door on the right hand in the far corner, into the adjoining room, and this suggests a staircase winding to the right, instead of the left, as in the above example. Other Silchester examples could be instanced, but the arrangement of their doors is less conclusive for the staircase hypothesis.

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Fig. 42. — Portion of House 2, xxiv, Silchester, showing probable site of staircase.

A few pages back, the successive stages between the simpler and the more elaborate Silchester houses were illustrated by a series of diagrammatical plans, and it was pointed out that the successive enlargements were mostly of the nature of outshoots from a nucleus or 'house-block.' A few actual examples will now be given.

A, Fig. 43, is the plan of House 3, XVIII​4 — a compact little house with a 'head' so slightly wider than the rest of the block, that its interference with the general oblong outline is scarcely noticeable. Unfortunately, the remains were too slight to allow of the position of more than one internal door being given, and nothing could be said of the floors, except that the corridor was paved with red mosaic. Whether this corridor had a door at its lower end is uncertain, but its upper end opened into a yard which reached the street; and it is likely that access to the house was through this yard. Facing the entrance to the corridor was a passage-like room which the explorers regarded as the site of a staircase. Six circular masses of rubble were found in the yard, and as they probably supported as many millstones, we may infer that the house was that of a miller or baker.


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Fig. 43. — Plans of Houses, 3, xviii 2, xvi; 2, ii; and 1, xxvii, Silchester. (After Hope.)
(40 ft. to 1 in.)

B (House 2, XVI)​5 is an example of a house of the simplest corridor type, subsequently modified and added to. The room at the lower end is an addition. It is probable that the corridor  p148 originally overlapped the large room at the opposite end, but was pulled down upon the introduction of the hypocaust into that room, to allow of a yard, stoke-hole, and several outbuildings, one probably for the storage of wood for the hypocaust. No doorways remained, but there were indications of a back door in the outer of the second pair of small rooms. Most of the floors were of plain mosaic; but the inner of the pair of small rooms just referred to had traces of an earlier one of simple ornamentation.

C (House 2, II) is the plan of another modified and extended house. The sill of only one door remained, but the positions of several others could be inferred. Unlike both the previous examples, which lay back from the street side, this stood at a corner, its back to the one street, and lower end to the other. The street door was, with little doubt, in the lower end of the corridor, and had on one side a little chamber — certainly an addition to the original plan — for a porter or to serve as a cloak-room. The greater thickness of the walls of the oblong 'head' suggests that this was not coeval with the corridored portion of the house; but we can hardly agree with the surmise of the explorers that it represented the original house. It is more in accordance with the general analogies of the Silchester houses to regard it also as an addition. The room at the farther end of the corridor was the largest in the house, and it opened into the winter room, an external adjunct. These two rooms were certainly the most important in the house, the former having a rich mosaic floor, and the latter being heated by a hypocaust, which was stoked from a small chamber at its angle. The other rooms had plain mosaic and cement floors. The large room at the opposite end of the building appeared to have a wide opening to the street, and for this reason was regarded as a shop by the explorers.

D is a decided advance on the last. It represents the older portion of a large house (House 1, XXVII)​6 in its original condition. It is a singularly perfect plan, almost every possible door on the ground floor being shown; and it has all the appearance of being a single design and not the outcome of modifications and extensions. The plan tells its own story almost at a glance. You enter the lobby from the street and traverse the corridor,  p150 passing, in so doing, the doors of the rooms of the main portion of the house and its wing, and finally reach what may be appropriately termed the state apartments. These communicated with one another by a large bay flanked with columns or piers, the one terminating in a semicircular recess or apse, and the other heated by a hypocaust. The rooms of this house show a progression from the menial to the sumptuous. The first two, reached from the street, seem to have had floors of mortar or other perishable material, as they had disappeared. The next, a narrow apartment, which we have already regarded as the vestibule of a staircase, had a plain mosaic floor, and the room behind, one of cement. The next room had also a plain mosaic floor, and in addition a bold quarter-round skirting. The two small rooms beyond this had also plain mosaics, and the outer, a recessed fireplace. The last room of the range had an ornate mosaic floor, also a fireplace. This brings us to the wing containing the most sumptuous rooms of the house, and it should be noted that the outer of its pair of little rooms, like the one mentioned above, had a fireplace.

The next example, A, Fig. 44 (House 1, VIII),​7 closely resembles the last. The street door was flanked by two projecting blocks, evidently the bases of pilasters which carried an entablature or pediment — a frequent feature in the larger Silchester houses. Near the middle of the main corridor was a square room with wide entrance and rich mosaic floor, which projected into the courtyard. Rooms in similar positions may be seen on other Silchester plans, but whether they had a special use is uncertain. The far return of the corridor was longer than the corresponding return in the last house, and it abutted against and probably opened into an enclosed yard. The 'state apartments' were entered from its side, and they closely resembled those of that house. The fire of the hypocaust was stoked from the yard, and hard by was a small building which was probably the wood-house.

The floors of this house show a similar progression to those of the last, only not so marked. In both, the nearest large room to the street was regarded as the kitchen by the explorers. These houses, therefore, present a reverse order from what generally obtains to‑day — our custom being to associate the chief rooms  p152 with the chief entrance, and to place them in the front of the house, the kitchen and other menial rooms being at the back. The regular progression observed in these two houses was not frequent at Silchester; but it was a general rule that the chief rooms were the furthest removed from the 'front' door.

Another feature of the house we are considering should be noticed. The 'state rooms' constituted a distinct block, connected with the main body of the house only by the corridor. From their large size, it is probable that they were loftier than the other rooms, and as there is no provision for a staircase, it is reasonable to think thatº they were of a single storey. Reasoning from analogy, we may infer that the corresponding rooms in our previous example, although attached to the wing of the house, were also of a single storey. Many rooms heated by hypocausts occur as external adjuncts on Silchester plans, which could not well have been of more than a single storey each. If we are right in these conjectures, we may picture these two houses as consisting each of a main portion of two storeys — L‑shaped in the one case, and a simple oblong in the other — with various adjuncts, each of a single storey, in the form of corridors, entrance lobby, state apartments, etc. It will also be noticed that in the present example the garth was wholly enclosed, the neighbouring house closing it in on one side, and a wall with a gateway completing the circuit along the street.

In our next example, Fig. 45 (House 1, XIV),​8 the garth is entirely surrounded by the house — one of the largest and most elaborate in Silchester. The remains proved, as indeed the plan indicates, that this house only attained its final form after many alterations and additions. Along each side of the garth was a corridor, but that on the right-hand side was extended, front and back, through the house, dividing it into two unequal portions. The block to which this corridor properly belonged contained a series of large rooms with a lateral one at the end on the outer any, the rest of that side being bordered by another corridor, which, passing round the lower end, joined the inner corridor. The rooms of this range were the most sumptuous in the house, most of them having rich mosaic floors, while that at the far end, with its lateral neighbour, and a small room attached to the outer corridor, had hypocausts.

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Fig. 45. — Plan of House 1, xiv, Silchester. (After Hope).
(40 ft. to 1 in.)

 p153  The larger portion of the house passed round the remaining sides of the courtyard, and abutted against the inner corridor of the range just described. Like that range, it consisted of a row of rooms between two corridors, the outer of which was here and there divided into small chambers, and next the street there was a double line so divided. The rooms had floors of plain mosaic or other material, and one was heated by a hypocaust. The lower wing contained an entrance lobby and passage which afforded communication between the street and the courtyard corridors. In the courtyard was a small square building, probably a lararium or shrine for the household gods.

 p154  The plan is too complicated to admit of a satisfactory reconstruction of the house. It is reasonable to think that the range of rooms on the right formed a block of more than a single storey, which was connected with the main and probably older portion of the house by the width of its inner corridor only. Equally reasonable is it to think that the narrower range on the opposite side of the courtyard formed a lofty block, but it is less certain whether its returns or wings were of the same height.

The examples given above illustrate the chief characteristics of the Callevan houses and the usual lines on which their type developed. The reader who would pursue the subject further, should study the following plans in the order given:—

House 3, Insula XXXII
" 4, " VII
" 1, " III
" 3, " XVIII
" —, " XIII
" 3, " V
" 3, " VII
" 2, " XVI
" 2, " II
" 2, " XXXIII
" 1, " XXI
" 3, " IX
" 1, " XXII
" 2, " VI
" 1, " XXIV
" 2, " XXI
" 4, " VIII
" 1, " XXVII
" 1, " VIII
" 2, " I
" 3, " XXI
" —, " XIX
" 2, " XXIII
" —, " XXIV
" 2, " XIV
" 2, " XXVI
" 1, " XXIII
" 1, " VI
" 1, " XIV

These represent the majority of the Silchester corridor houses, of which the remains were sufficient to admit of reasonably complete plans; and the reader will observe that in their progressive development from the simple oblong house to the elaborate courtyard house with which the list concludes, they corroborate the above conclusions. There are exceptions, it is true, but they are few. In most instances the irregularities are caused by additions which owe their eccentricities to the situations of the original structures to which they were appended. In the simpler houses, the determination of the aspect is easy enough, as only that side which had the corridor and faced the garth can be regarded as the front. In the more complex houses there were two, three, or even four sides which faced the garth, and all may be regarded as fronts. But there is rarely any difficulty in distinguishing the main block from its wings and offshoots,  p155 and it is only reasonable to regard its front as the principal one, and its outlook as the aspect of the house. Many of the plans are too imperfect to allow of the aspect being determined with any certainty; but out of 59 which admit of no doubt in this respect, 28 face the south; 23, the east; 5, the south-east, and only 3, the west. That 56 of these faced cardinal points is due to the streets running north and south, and west and east; but this does not explain the preponderance of south and east aspects. The circumstance that 28 faced the south and not one the north supplies the clue — the Callevans preferred a sunny aspect. This was only natural, for, as the rooms opened upon the corridor, it was desirable that during the colder months at least, this part of the house should be as warm as possible and should be screened from the north. The preference for an eastern over a western aspect is probably to be explained by the fact that the corridor would receive the morning's sun, and the heat thus stored would warm it for the rest of the day. Of the 3 houses which faced the west (House 3, XXXII, and the single houses in XIII and XXIX), the first was too near the town wall to allow of a garth on its east or south sides, and the other two were built against the east sides of their streets, the owners apparently preferring to have their garths secluded from the thoroughfares.

The positions of the Silchester houses must now have our attention. Of the 94 with plans sufficiently complete to show that they were of the corridor type, 66 were street-side houses, and the rest were set back within the insulae, but many of these were connected with the streets by wings or outshoots. It is noticeable that most of the street-side houses which did not occupy corner positions, came up to the street 'end on,' and in every case where it can be determined this was the inferior end. The few that came to the street by their length turned their back upon it. The corner houses followed the same rule, each, with only one doubtful exception, presenting its back to the one street, and its end — always the lower end where determinable — to the other.

The houses which lay back from the thoroughfares may be roughly divided into two classes — those which ranged with the street-system, and those which apparently disregarded it. The former consist of houses which faced their adjacent streets, and were sufficiently set back to allow of the intervention of the usual  p156 garth. Houses 1 and 2, XXIV; 3, XXI; 2, XIV; and the house in XIX, are good examples of these, and may with propriety be regarded as street-side houses. The latter are conspicuous on the plan, not only because their orientation is out of gear with the streets, but because they are scattered about the insulae in an irregular fashion. These have already been referred to in page 42. Some of them subsequent to their erection were connected with the streets with corridors and other buildings; such a corridor from House 3, XXVI, had the extraordinary length of 90 ft.

The Country Houses

The term 'villa,' as popularly applied to these houses, is inaccurate. The villa was the Roman counterpart of the medieval manor — the estate of a landed proprietor. It comprised not only his residence, but those of his villicus, or bailiff, and of his servile and semi-servile dependents, his farm-buildings and granaries. The estate was the villa; the residence of the dominus was the villa-house. Another popular misconception arises from the circumstance that the majority of these houses that have attracted attention and have been excavated, are the larger and more sumptuous. Hence Roman Britain is commonly regarded as a land studded with palatial mansions, the residence of foreign officials, sharply contrasting with the huts of the natives. Some of the country residences were on an almost palatial scale, but this was exceptional. The majority of those which have been excavated would be better described as commodious and comfortable. The exploration of Silchester has proved the existence of smaller houses, yet very far removed from cottages and still more so from huts; but perhaps these smaller houses were more characteristic of the towns and their suburbs. The officials could never have been so numerous as to have required the vast number of large country houses that must have existed, and it is almost certain that most of them dwelt in the towns. The population was substantially one of Romanized natives, and these rural mansions are better regarded as the seats of the country squires — native gentlemen who had adopted Roman tastes, and whose wealth lay in their broad acres, and in their crops and herds.

 p157  These houses abounded in the fertile lowlands of the southern half of England. Northwards, their remains are found in Lincolnshire, but they practically cease with York and Aldborough. This distribution represents the portions of the island where the population was the most Romanized and wealthy, and where the conditions of life were best and the land most cultivated. These houses were not fortified, nor were their sites selected for  p158 defensive purposes. The Romano-British proprietor, unlike his medieval successor, had little need to defend himself and his property. Roman Britain was not a land of castles and strongly moated halls. The houses were planned and designed for domesticity, with large rooms and wide corridors, contrasting in this respect with the cramped rooms and narrow passages of the feudal strongholds of a later age, in which comfort was subordinated to safety. Their sites were selected for convenience, agreeable surroundings, and pleasant prospects. These conditions bear witness to the general order and safety which the land enjoyed under the imperial rule during its best period.

The country houses resembled those of Silchester in their general planning, but they differed in several respects. They were usually less compact, the builders not being limited as to space; and to meet the requirements of rural conditions they had associated with them farm-buildings, often on a large scale. The 'villa-group' clustered round an open space larger than the town courtyard. The largest houses generally had two such spaces, a house-court round which the residence was built, and a lower or base-court, usually larger, appropriated to the farm-buildings. Occasionally there were two base-courts. Again, the country houses had semi-attached or isolated baths; the Silchester houses never, as the town was well supplied with public baths.

The excavation, about twenty years ago, of a 'villa' at Spoonley Wood, near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire,​a a county rich in these remains, supplied a singularly complete plan of a medium-sized country mansions, which is here reproduced (Fig. 46) in simplified form, from one which accompanies Prof. Middleton's concise description.​9 Like many of the country mansions of the period, it was beautifully situated at the foot of a hill, from which issued a plentiful supply of pure water. It consisted of a main range with two wings, with its back to the hill and its front to the north-east. The wings extended along two-thirds of the sides of an enclosed garden or courtyard, the circuit of which was completed by a wall, the whole occupying a rectangular space about 190 by 170 ft. The pentice corridor ran along the three fronts, and ended with projecting rooms in the wings. The approach to the house was through a gateway in  p159 the front wall of the courtyard, and along a paved walk which led to a door in the main corridor. This door faced a large double room, the chief room of the house.

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Fig. 46. — Plan of House at Spoonley Wood. (After Roy.)
(40 ft. to 1 in.)

If the plan is carefully studied, it will be found that the rooms fell into several groups. In the lower portion of the right wing were the baths, entered by a special passage from the courtyard, and heated from their own furnace. Then followed a suite of three rooms heated by hypocausts, which were fed from another stoke-hole. The rooms of the main block appear to have been the living apartments. The first large room of the range contained a well and a stone table, and with little doubt was the kitchen, conveniently placed with regard to both wing and main block. The two small apartments at this corner of the house were probably store-rooms. On the left was a small room raised above the general level, and entered by a flight of steps, which had a rich mosaic floor, and below it a hypocaust fed from a stoke-hole immediately outside the house. A flue from this hypocaust traversed the next four apartments, and supplied heat to that of another small inner room, warming in less degree the intervening floors. The range terminated on the left in a large unheated hall. The left wing, like the baths, had no internal communication with the rest of the house, and Prof. Middleton's conjecture that it contained the apartments of the household slaves has much to commend it. It can hardly be questioned that at least the main block was of more than one storey, and that the narrow chamber on the left of the spacious central apartment contained the chief staircase. Of the farm buildings only a barn or granary was brought to light in such a situation as to suggest that it stood on the left side of a base-court. It will be described in the next chapter.

At Chedworth, near Cheltenham, were discovered the remains of a house of similar size in 1864.​10 There was a base-court, but only the buildings along its right or north side were excavated. Between it and the inner or house-court, which lay to the west, stretched a wall with a pentice or corridor along its inner side, and near the middle was a square gate structure, which faced, as at Spoonley Wood, an entrance in the corridor of the main range of the house. This range contained the principal living rooms, with the baths at its northern end, each set of apartments being  p160 entered from the corridor by a separate door reached by a flight of steps, the range being on a higher level. The south end of the range was not fully explored, but the first excavated room was the principal one of the mansions. It was large and was divided by a wide bay into two unequal divisions, which were emphasized by a difference in the decoration of the mosaic floor. This room was heated by a hypocaust, fed from a stoke-hole at its south end; from which circumstances it is probable that the partially excavated space to the south was an enclosed yard with provision for the storage of wood. The double room was entered from a narrow lobby on its north side, and as hereabouts were found fragments of two small statues, it may have contained the domestic shrine. Between this and the baths were several rooms of uncertain use. The south range was not fully excavated, and probably it projected into the base-court. The rooms were of a plain description, and one may have been the kitchen.

The north range was wholly detached. It was irregular in plan, and of two periods of construction. Beginning at the western end, there were two small rooms with apsidal recesses containing tanks heated from an external furnace room or shed; then a large oblong room or court with a square tank between two smaller semicircular ones at its north end. Then followed in succession another large room with a semicircular end; two small square rooms; and another large one with a semi-octagonal end and heated by a hypocaust. Instead of a corridor of the usual type, these apartments were entered from a portico supported on columns next the courtyard, of which two remain in situ. This portico widened eastwards into a fine hall-like space. From this remarkable block extended the long corridored range of rooms, several heated by hypocausts, already referred to as on the north side of the base-court. Prebendary Scarth regarded this range as the servants' quarters, and the curious porticoed block as their baths. If so, the proprietor must have had unusually liberal views of their requirements, for both the rooms and the supposed baths were on a larger scale than his own. Mr. G. E. Fox argued that as the house was already provided for in these respects, in the west and south ranges, this range was devoted to some industry, which he suggests was fulling and dyeing.

 p161  Away to the north-west are the remains of a circular building which has been regarded as a temple, but was more probably a tomb-house; and nearer is a small apsidal structure with a tank which supplied the buildings with water. As it contained an altar it was probably a nymphaeum, and will be described in Chapter X.

The grandest known example of a Romano-British house  p162 was discovered at Woodchester, also in Gloucestershire, in 1793,​11 but its full extent was not ascertained (Plan, Fig. 47). It had a spacious base-court apparently about 300 ft. in width, and on its left side were the remains of a large oblong building, probably a barn, and above this, in the corner, a smaller building, shown on the plan. Between this and the second court stretched a wall with a central gateway, which, to judge from the foundations and the fragments of columns and other ornamental details had the form of a triumphal arch, with a central and two lateral smaller passages, the whole structure being about 43 ft. wide. Passing through this, the visitor entered the spacious paved outer court, about 160 ft. in width. On each side was a large isolated block, each entered by a central portal. That to the right was evidently a bath-house on an unusually liberal scale for a mansion. It had a portico or corridor in front, and enclosed a small court, round the remaining three sides of which were the apartments, the hot rooms being to the north. The opposite block seems to have also enclosed a small court, but its use is uncertain. Within the entrance was found part of a sculptured group, Cupid and Psyche. Across the upper end of this second courtyard was a range of spacious rooms, through which a passage led to the third or house courtyard. The room on the left of the passage was 38 by 46 ft., and the one beyond was somewhat longer; both appeared to have had mosaic pavements, and the floor of the latter room was raised on dwarf walls, perhaps in order to keep it dry. The walls were decorated with fresco, and fragments of marble linings and of statuary indicate their importance.

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Fig. 47. — Plan of Roman House at Woodchester. After Lysons.
(80 ft. to 1 in.)

The inner court was about 100 by 90 ft., and was completely enclosed by the house buildings. Along three sides ran a portico or corridor, into which the rooms opened. Those of the far end formed a symmetrical range with a grand saloon, 50 ft. square, in the centre, the chief feature of the vista. This apartment had one of the most elaborate mosaic pavements found in this country, and will be described in Chapter XII. It was warmed by a hypocaust, and its roof was supported by four columns. The chief rooms of the house were in this and the left ranges; most of them contained decorated mosaic pavements, and many hypocausts. Beyond the former  p164 range were found the cement floors of rooms which were not explored.

The remains of another grand example of a Romano-British residence were discovered at Bignor in Sussex, early in the 19th century.​12 It had a general resemblance to that of Woodchester, but it lacked its symmetrical arrangement. Its courtyards, of which there were two, were even larger. The inner was completely surrounded with a corridor, and the house extended along three sides; and, as at Spoonley Wood, the baths formed a part of the range. At the far end was a room projecting into the courtyard as at Lydney, but the chief rooms appear to have been on the right or north-east side, one of which, a large double room, had a piscina and magnificent pavement, which will be described in Chapter XII, and so faced the south-west.

At North Leigh, Oxfordshire, the remains of a still larger house were discovered in 1816.​13 The buildings extended along three sides of a trapeziform courtyard, and the baths formed part of the range. It is probable that this house, like the preceding two, had a lower courtyard, but this part of the site was not excavated. The plan, as far as we know it, closely resembles that of Bignor; but it is not conceivable that either of these two houses had the grand and imposing architectural effect of that of Woodchester.

We now give two examples of smaller rural houses of the era, each with a single courtyard. The one was excavated at Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, in the 18th century,​14 and the other near Brading, in the Isle of Wight, about a century later.​15 Plans of the houses alone are shown in Fig. 48 A and B. Both, it will be noticed, are singularly compact and symmetrical. The former shows a main structure consisting of a simple row of rooms with a corridor or portico recessed between two wings, and a large semi-detached room on the left, connected by a short corridor. This room, with its connecting corridor, was probably an addition of later date than the main building, and, to judge from the thinness of its walls, was of less elevation.


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Fig. 48. — Plans of Houses at Mansfield Woodhouse, Chedworth and Ickleton.
(40 ft. to 1 in.)

 p165  Unfortunately the remains of this house were too scanty to allow of the position of the doors being determined. The Brading house was of similar size and planning. Upon comparing the two plans, it will be observed that the chief difference consists in the presence of a back range of narrow rooms with a central projecting one at Brading. It will also be observed that the large double room (which had a rich mosaic floor) of the latter is represented by two rooms at Manfield Woodhouse; but it is likely that the intervening masonry there was only a sleeper-wall which did not rise above the level of the floor. Again, the relative widths of the corridors appear to be different; but an examination of the Brading plan supplies some inferential proof that the external wall between the wings, which, it will be noticed, is flush with their fronts and not recessed as at Mansfield Woodhouse, did not carry the front of the corridor. The remains of the mosaic flooring of this corridor did not extend to the front wall, and its central ornate 'mat' (indicated by broken lines on our plan) was somewhat set back; so also was a curious subway, which was probably connected with the hypocaust of the large double room. It is not unreasonable to think that the external wall was the revetment of a terrace, and that the actual corridor lay back several feet. If the corridor roof was supported by  p166 wooden posts or pillars (in which case the corridor would be better described as a portico), the indication of these might easily escape detection unless specially looked for.

These differences apart, the plans of these two houses are remarkably alike; and the similarity does not end here. Each house had an eastern aspect, and faced a courtyard wider than itself, which had a large building of barn-like planning with baths at one end, and will be described in the next chapter. C is the plan of a similar but larger house of the type found at Ickleton, in Essex, in 1845.16

One of the houses brought to light at Caerwent (House 3)​17 had a general resemblance to one at Lydney, but it differed from all the foregoing examples in its peristyled courtyard. This courtyard had a marginal half-round gutter hewn in a line of large sandstone blocks, outside which was the massive stone sleeper of the ten stone columns of the peristyle. These columns, of which several large pieces remained, were of Roman Doric type, about 1 ft. 5 ins. in diameter at the base, and 1 ft. 3 ins. below the capitals. As they were 11 ft. apart from centre to centre, the architrave would be of timber, and the ambulatory roof (covered with stone slabs) would overhang it sufficiently for its rain-water to drip into the gutter below. About the middle of the east side the gutter was discontinued for 8 ft., and in the interval were the remains of a large stone trough. The presence of mortice-holes in the stone sleeper and in the columns showed that the intercolumniations had been screened or fenced off from the courtyard with timber; but probably these were late insertions.

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Fig. 49. — Plan of House 3 (Hospitium?), Caerwent.
(40 ft. to 1 in.)

The building was entered from a corridor along the east side, through an unusually wide door. This opened into a large room or hall, on the north side of which was the masonry foundation of a bench, and on the west another wide door gave access to the peristyle in front of the trough. Six doors of ordinary size, mostly opening into passage-like lobbies which may have contained staircases, gave access to the surrounding rooms from the peristyle. These had concrete or mortar floors, and only one, on the south side, had a hypocaust. On that side was also a projecting latrine, 12 by 10 ft., with a substantial flagged pavement, in which was cut a half-round gutter, which, beginning at the north-east, skirted it on the east, south and west, and  p167 emptied into a trough-like channel along the west side of the chamber. This channel was paved with large tiles, and its bottom sloped to the south, at which end there was an outlet into a drain or cesspit, of which, however, no remains were found. At the north end a drain conveyed water from the courtyard gutter for  p168 flushing it. A regular supply of water was probably derived from the overflow of the trough above‑mentioned; and this was certainly fed from a tree-pipe which crossed the entrance-hall and turned to the north up the adjacent passage, the course being indicated by the iron collars or joints and a length of curved lead piping. The plan and section in Fig. 50 will make the details of the latrine clear.

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Fig. 50. — Plan and Section of Latrine, House 3, Caerwent.
(6 ft. to 1 in.)

Houses with peristyled courtyards, although frequent in Pompeii and in Italy generally, were most unusual in Britain; in fact, this Caerwent example is the only known one. It is doubtful whether it was a private house at all. In many of its features, especially in the tendency of its rooms to form sets each with its own entrance, it resembles a large building near the south gate at Silchester,​18 which with little doubt was a hospitium or public guest-house. This Silchester building was on a much larger scale, with a courtyard 148 by 115 ft., and extensive bath-buildings. Messrs. Fox and Hope suggest that the large house at Lydney was a hospitium for the accommodation of the visitors to the shrine of Nodens, and they instance a Gallic parallel.


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Fig. 51. — Section and Elevation of external Corridor of House. Modified from Middleton's restoration.
(About 5 ft. to 1 in.)

The examples given above, with the exception of the last, are fairly representative of the Romano-British houses generally. There were other houses of quite a different type of planning, and they will be described in the next chapter. Our method has been essentially a comparative study of plans, but in the process the reader will have gleaned and inferred much about the buildings themselves. Their construction was good and designed to last. The rooms were, as a rule, large and well-proportioned, and those of the ground storeys, at least, had well-laid mosaic, cement, and other durable floors, and plastered walls gaily painted. Unlike the houses of warmer climates, ours had nearly always one or more rooms heated by hypocausts. Glazed windows they had, for broken window-glass is almost invariably found amongst the débris. Upper storeys are a matter of inference rather than direct proof, but everything points to the general use of timber-construction in the upper work; and the roofs, we know, were of substantial tiles or stone slabs. These various structural elements will be discussed in Chapter XI. Meanwhile, it will be best to consider the construction of the  p170 corridors and the forms of what we have termed the 'state apartments' here.

There is little doubt that the corridor was normally an external feature with a pentice roof, and thus resembled the classical portico and the cloister of the medieval monastery. It differed from the former, however, in its external side having a wall; but whether this wall was continued to the roof and had windows, as in the latter, is uncertain. Prof. J. H. Middleton suggested in his description of the Spoonley Wood remains,​19 and Mr. Fox inclined to the same view in the Victoria History for Hampshire,​20 that the small stone columns of 3, 4 or more feet in length, frequently found upon the sites of the larger Romano-British houses, were a structural element of the corridor front, being placed on a dwarf wall, and supporting the architrave on which the roof rafters rested. Fig. 57 is taken from Prof. Middleton's restoration of the Spoonley Wood corridor, but the height of the wall is increased, as he certainly shows it too low, with the result that his architrave is only about 6 ft. from the ground. The structure thus treated was essentially a classical portico modified to suit a cold climate, as the wall would materially shut out the wind without seriously reducing the light. It may explain the timber screens at Caerwent. The occupants of the building, we can well imagine, found that a peristyle suitable for sunny Italy was unbearably chilly in a British winter. The monastery builders gained the same end by a different method. In the south of Europe the cloisters retained the form of the classical peristyle, from which they were derived; but in the north, and when glass came into general use, the open arches became glazed windows, almost invariably large so as to admit an abundant light. We thus have two lines of development, and both may have operated in Roman Britain. But the balance of probabilities is in favour of a restriction of the intercolumnar openings, as indicated by Prof. Middleton; for this would more readily suggest itself to the builders as a means of mitigating the access of cold air, as there is reason to think that the Romano-British windows were small, like the Pompeiian, and so would be unsuitable for a corridor where light and some degree of airiness were a first consideration. The presence of dwarf stone columns, however, is by no means as general on the sites of the houses, but this does  p171 not militate against the theory considered above, as timber posts may have been frequently used.

We have so far assumed that the corridors were of a single storey, and this, of course, must have been so if the houses were of a single storey; but it is now generally accepted that there were upper rooms, this suggests the interesting question whether these were not reached from upper corridors. Peristyles of two tiers or storeys were not unknown in Italy. But more to the point is the well-known arrangement of the medieval inns, of which several notable examples exist or have existed within the past century, as the 'Tabard,' the 'Bull and Mouth,' and the 'Talbot' in London, and the 'New Inn' at Gloucester. In their planning, these inns are singularly reminiscent of the Romano-British houses. Surrounding, or partly so, a courtyard, was the main building of the inn, each storey with an open gallery upon which the doors of the rooms opened. These galleries were of timber construction, supported along the front on timber posts, or on stone columns below and timber posts above, and covered with a pentice roof or a continuation of the main roof of the building. Both the inns and the Romano-British houses seem to have been derived from the same source — the peristyled house of the Orient; but there is no evidence that the second had the galleries. Indeed, slender dwarf columns,​21 as in Prof. Middleton's restoration, were hardly strong enough to carry a gallery in addition to a roof, unless they were augmented at intervals by pier-like breadths of the wall. On the other hand, the columns of the Caerwent peristyle were large enough to carry more than one gallery, in which case we have a Romano-British hospitium closely resembling a medieval inn.

In the Roman houses of this country, the chief rooms were generally contiguous to one another, and in many of the larger establishments they occupied a wing or a range. It is impossible to identify the uses of these rooms; but there was usually at least one with a hypocaust, and it is customary to speak of these as 'winter rooms' — a very doubtful term, as the presence of a hypocaust would not render them less useful for summer use. But in many of these mansions there was one large room of  p172 peculiar form, which from its position, size, and usually elaborately decorated pavement must have been the principal apartment. We have already referred to several as 'state apartments,' for want of a better term. They were, so to speak, double rooms, communicating with one another by a wide opening between a passion of piers or pilasters; and it is noticeable that the pavements of the two divisions, which were always of unequal size, were often of different design.

A simple example, consisting of a long oblong room divided by a pair of pilasters, was found at Chedworth; and rooms of this form may be seen on the plans of Houses 2, XIV and 1, VI, at Silchester. In House 2, N. at Caerwent, the smaller division was semi-octagonal, and in another, at Caerwent and at Bignor, it was semicircular. But it was more usual for the larger division to be wider than the smaller one, as those at Spoonley Wood, Caerwent, and Brading already noticed. At Lydney and in House 2, S., at Caerwent, the corridor passed between the two divisions, the whole thus taking the form of two rooms, one on either side of the corridor, with their wide openings facing one another, the smaller room projecting into the courtyard. Two more elaborate examples in Houses 1, VIII, and 1, XXVII, at Silchester, were referred to on page 150. In both, the one division had a large apse entered between two pilasters, and the other was over a hypocaust; but in the second example the opening between the two main divisions was flanked with columns, one on each side about 2 ft. from its contiguous pilaster.

These double rooms have been described as tablina, as triclinia, or dining-rooms, and if without a hypocaust, as summer dining-rooms; but whatever their use, it was certainly an important one, and perhaps every house had a room that served the purpose, but not necessarily divided by a wide bay. Still, these double rooms may have been frequent, as it would be in accordance to Roman construction for the foundation of the pilasters to cross the room as a sleeper-wall, which in the absence of traces of the pilasters might easily be mistaken for the bottom of an ordinary partition. That the openings between the pilasters were provided with curtains is highly probable. They would not only be useful for shutting off part of the apartment when the whole was not required for use, but when thrown back would add artistically to the general effect. One can with little effort  p173 of the imagination form an idea of the Silchester double room last referred to. It was nearly 40 ft. long and 20 ft. broad, and the pilasters and columns, with the architrave they supported, must have produced a pleasing break in the length; while the curved alcove equally agreeably contrasted with the straight lines of the main structure. Add to these architectural features the strong patterns and quiet colours of the pavement, and the lighter and brighter tones of the walls, and little of importance is left to complete the picture except the windows; but unfortunately we know nothing of these.

The Author's Notes:

1 Mau, Pompeii, 239‑73.

2 Archaeologia, LVII, p238.

3 Ib. lviii, p18.

4 Ib. lvi, p112.

5 Ib. lv, p418.

6 Archaeologia, LVIII, p18.

7 Archaeologia, LIV, p212.

8 ArchaeologiaLV, p220.

9 ArchaeologiaLII, p652.

10 Brit. Arch. Assoc., xxiv, p130; xxv, p219. Arch. Jour., xliv, p322.

11 Lysons, Woodchester, 1797.

12 ArchaeologiaXVIII; XIX. Sussex Archaeo. Collect., VIII, XI, XVIII.

13 Hakewell, North Leigh, 1836.

14 ArchaeologiaVII, p367.

15 Price, Remains of Roman Buildings near Brading. Nicholson, Roman Villa near Brading.

16 Brit. Arch. Assoc. iv, p356.

17 ArchaeologiaLVII, p301.

18 ArchaeologiaLIV, p222.

19 ArchaeologiaLII, p652.

20 Vol. I.

21 Since the above was written, the fragments of several dwarf columns have been found in the corridor of House VII N at Caerwent, apparently where they fell, which goes far to confirm Prof. Middleton's theory. Archaeologia, LX, 456.

Thayer's Note:

a Spoonley (or Spoonly) Wood: for the 1882 finds there, see this section of Witts' Handbook of Gloucestershire, and my further note there.

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