Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Roman Era in Britain

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.


[image ALT: link to next section]

 p72  Chapter IV


'Corridor' Houses and 'Basilical' Houses

It is hardly necessary to say that the remains of a large number of 'Roman villas,' as they are popularly designated, have been brought to light in this country. The term 'villa,' as thus used, 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 misconception arises from the circumstance that most of the houses of the period which have been described were of the larger and more sumptuous sort. The result is a widespread notion that Roman Britain was studded with magnificent 'villas,' residences of foreign officials, in the midst of a native population which lived in cottages and huts; hence that the former were an exotic element in the land. It is likely enough that some of these large houses were official residences; but the officials could never have been so numerous as to have required all of them, the known remains of which can only represent a small portion of the whole number. It is more likely that the officials lived, as a rule, in the towns, and that the rural mansions were the seats of the country squires — native gentlemen who had adopted Roman tastes, and whose wealth lay in their broad acres and their crops and herds.

 p73  The large country houses abounded in the fertile lowlands and vales of the southern half of England. Northwards their remains are found in Lancashire, and they practically cease with York and Aldborough. This distribution represents the portions of the island where the population was 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 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 moated mansions. 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 stronghold 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. While garrisons watched the northern frontier, and strong castella and fleets barred the estuaries against descents from the seas, the natives prospered and slept in peace. The Pax Romana was not an empty name.

Eliminating mere cottages and huts, the houses were of two types of planning, and may be distinguished as 'corridor' and 'basilical' houses. The former were the more numerous, were of all sizes and degrees of sumptuousness, and were alike in town and country. The latter appear to have been confined to the country and to have been large farm-houses.


One of the most valuable results of the systematic excavation of Silchester is the flood of light it has thrown on the houses of the era. The smaller and simpler Callevan houses consisted of a row of rooms with a corridor or veranda along one side which served as the normal means of communication between room and room. It was rare, however, that the corridor extended the full length of the block. The end room or group of rooms  p74 was usually wider than the rest, frequently overstepping the end of the corridor and forming a wing, as in Fig. 21. At this end of the house were the principal apartments, and in the larger houses of this simple planning, one of these was often heated by a hypocaust. The entrance was, at Silchester, usually at the opposite end of the corridor, but occasionally it was in its side, and this seems to have been the rule in the country houses. The corridor side of the block was its front, and it faced an open space which may have been a yard or a garden.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Fig. 21. — Plan of small House, Silchester. (40 ft. to 1 in.)

In the more complex plans, such a simple block usually forms the main body or nucleus of the house, the extensions taking the form of adjuncts or outshoots. The wing may be extended. The opposite end of the corridor may be expanded into an entrance lobby, and this may be altogether removed from the main block and be connected with it by a transverse corridor along the street side. If many of these Silchester plans are compared, it will soon become evident that these extensions were on the front of the house, giving it somewhat an E‑shaped plan, thus tending to enclose the open space in front. In some of the largest houses the fourth side was built upon, giving rise to what is known as the 'courtyard type' of house.

The upper structures of the houses can only be inferred from  p75 their plans and their fallen débris. The corridor was normally an external feature with a pentice roof, and the frequency of small stone columns from 3 to 4 ft. long on the sites of Roman houses had led to the general opinion that they were used in the construction, the outer side of the corridor consisting of a dwarf-wall surmounted with these columns.​2 The corridor would thus be a portico modified to suit a cold climate. The main shell of the houses seems to have been of more than a single storey, and at Silchester the explorers frequently noted passage-like rooms which in their opinion contained wooden staircases.​3 Timber was certainly a prominent feature in the upper construction, taking the form of post-and‑panel work with the panels filled in with 'wattle-and‑daub,' such as may still be seen in many an old cottage. On the site of one of the Silchester houses pieces of the clay-daubing had been impressed with a zigzag pattern from a wooden stamp. The roofs were usually of large red tiles or stone slabs, both differing in shape from those now used.​4 The windows were glazed, as the scatterings of broken glass on the sites prove. The walls of the rooms were plastered and painted in gay colours, but little can be gleaned as to the patterns of the decoration.​5 Of the treatment of the ceilings nothing is known, but the upper floors were probably of wood.

Fig. 22 is the original portion of a house which was more than doubled in size by additions. 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 alterations and additions. The street door opened into a square lobby. From this, a short corridor led to the main corridor of the house, and passing the doors of the various rooms along its side, a short return at the end communicated with the principal rooms at the extremity of a wing almost as long as the main fabric. Both the lobby and the corridors had mosaic pavements,​6 and the main corridor a large door to the courtyard. The rooms showed a progression from the menial to the sumptuous. The first two reached from the street had had floors of mortar  p76 or some other perishable material. The next had a plain mosaic floor, and served as the vestibule of a room behind with a simple cement floor, which probably contained the staircase. Then followed a large room and a narrower one divided into two by a cross-wall, all with plain mosaic floors, and the outer of the two small rooms had a fireplace. The last room of the range had a decorated mosaic floor, also a small fireplace. This has brought us to the wing, the first room of which had a pavement of similar character to the last. Between this and what may be termed the 'state apartments,' were two small rooms with plain mosaic floors, the one with a fireplace.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Fig. 22. — Plan of House, Silchester. (40 ft. to 1 in.)

The 'state apartments' were two, communicating with one another by a large opening flanked with detached columns or piers, the one having a large semicircular recess or alcove, and the other a hypocaust. Both had rich decorated pavements. Perhaps it would be better to describe these apartments as a double-room or hall. From its large size, nearly 40 ft. long and 20 ft. wide, it was probably loftier than the other rooms of the house, and of a single storey. With little effort of the imagination one can form an idea of the interior. The pilasters and  p77 columns with the architrave they supported must have produced a pleasing break in the length, while the curved alcove must have 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, of which unfortunately we know nothing. It is reasonable to think that the opening between the pilasters was provided with curtains, which when drawn would shut off one division, and when thrown back would add artistically to the general effect. These double-rooms were a frequent feature of the larger Romano-British houses. They usually consisted of two square divisions or rooms, the one rather smaller than the other, with a simple large opening in the intervening wall. The latter division often contained a hypocaust, and both almost invariably had good mosaic pavements.

In many of the larger Silchester houses, the rooms enclosed the courtyard on three sides, the remaining side usually having a wall with a gate. Only one house — the largest in the town — completely surrounded its courtyard, and its remains proved that its final form was the result of several extensions.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Fig. 23. — Plan of House at Caerwent. (40 ft. to 1 in.)

The houses of Caerwent resembled those at Silchester; but considering that Venta Silurum was a smaller town, and that only about two-thirds of its area have been explored, it is remarkable that four or five of the houses already discovered were of the 'courtyard' type, one of which is shown in Fig. 23. Another — if it is a private residence at all — was most unusual for this country, in having a peristyled courtyard (Fig. 24). The columns arose from the broad stone kerb of the ambulatory pavement, which was of red mosaic, and as they were about 10 ft. apart, the architrave must have been of timber. A stone gutter just within the kerb caught the rain-water from the peristyle roof of stone slabs, and drained the gravelled yard; but it was interrupted by a large stone water-trough in front of the middle intercolumniation of the east side, behind which was the entrance to the building. The peristyle was surrounded by rooms, many with doors opening upon it. There was a 'winter-room' on the south side, also a large projecting latrine. The  p78 floors were of mortar or fine brick concrete. Houses with peristyles were common in Italy, and were copied from the Greeks; but their open colonnades were ill-adapted for cold climates, and this doubtlessly accounts for their rarity in the northern provinces. There are reasons, however, for thinking that this Caerwent building was a hospitium or public guest-house. It resembles in several respects a larger Silchester building, which is regarded as a hospitium, especially in the tendency of its rooms to form sets, each with its own entrance, but it lacks the bath-buildings which are a notable feature there.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Fig. 24. — Plan of House at Caerwent. (40 ft. to 1 in.)

The country houses, with the exception of those of 'basilical' form which will be described presently, resembled the Callevan houses in their general planning. There were differences, but they were less pronounced than the differences between town and country houses to‑day. The houses at Silchester were essentially rural houses adapted to the limited plots on which they were built; but these plots were relatively larger than  p79 the building sites of our congested towns. House was not built against house, except in rare instances. Each had its garth in front; most, an open space all round. If the house came to the street side, it was by its back or end. If it fronted the street, it was set back to allow of the usual courtyard or garden. There is little doubt that Calleva was a veritable 'garden city.' Still, as the builders were limited as to space, their houses, extended and straggling as many of them were, were less so than most of the country houses. But the most important difference lay in the fact that these were the seats of landed proprietors whose wealth was derived from agriculture and their flocks and herds, hence the residence had associated with it farm-buildings, often on a large scale. The 'villa group' clustered around an open space much larger than the town courtyard. Not seldom there were two such spaces, an upper on which the residence looked, and a lower, usually the larger, appropriated to the farm-buildings. Moreover, most of the country houses had semi-detached or isolated baths; the Silchester houses, never, as the town was well supplied with public baths.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Fig. 26. — Barn at Spoonley Wood.
(40 ft. to 1 in.)
The remains of a house, excavated in Spoonley Wood, near  p80 Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, in 1890, supplied a singularly complete plan of a medium-sized country house (Fig. 25). 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 a large courtyard or garden, enclosed partly by the house and its wings,  p81 and completed by a wall. In the centre of the wall, facing the house, was a gate with a paved walk leading to its front door in the centre of the main corridor. The principal rooms were served by this corridor, and a notable feature was the large central 'double-room.' The kitchen was near the right end of the range, and contained a well. The baths occupied the lower end of the right wing, and the servants' quarters were probably in the left wing. Many of the rooms were warmed by hypocausts; and as usual, the chief rooms had decorated mosaic floors. Altogether this house is a good example of the corridored class, and was planned with a view to external symmetry. The main range, which was 190 ft. long, was probably of two storeys, and its staircase may have been in a narrow room on the left side of the spacious 'double-room.' Of farm-buildings one only, a barn probably (Fig. 26), was discovered, and its situation renders it probable that there was a lower or base-court. It was an oblong structure, 47 ft. long and 28 ft. wide, and was divided into a nave and aisles by two rows of timber posts of which the stone bases remained — a type of building familiar to us in the large barns of the Middle Ages.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Fig. 25. — Plan of House at Spoonley Wood. (40 ft. to 1 in.)

A grand example of a Romano-British house was excavated early in the last century at Bignor in Sussex, and it was of special interest, not only for its magnificent mosaic pavements, but because apparently the whole of its group of buildings was disclosed. The base-court was entered through a gate in its lower wall and a smaller on the left. On this side was a barn-like building, 128 ft. long and 56 ft. wide, and on the opposite side a smaller building with two others standing free in the court. These were evidently farm-buildings, and it is probable that there were also sheds of timber. The upper or house-court was 200 ft. long and 114 ft. wide, and was surrounded with a portico or corridor, the house and its adjuncts extending along three sides. The chief rooms were about the upper half of the  p82 right side of the court, and most of them had rich mosaic pavements. One of these rooms was a large double one, resembling that at Spoonley Wood. Each division had an elaborate mosaic pavement, the central feature of the smaller being the Rape of Ganymede in a medallion with enriched borders; that of the larger, a circle subdivided into six hexagonal compartments, each containing a dancing nymph. In the centre of this circle was an unusual feature — a hexagonal basin or piscina of white stone, 4 ft. in diameter. Near this room was another large one with an apse at one end. The mosaic floor was in a dilapidated condition, but enough remained to show that it had a central square of elaborate geometrical design flanked with two narrow panels containing amorini engaged in gladiatorial combats; while that of the apse had a delicate scrolly border enclosing a medallion with a female bust with festoons and birds in the spandrels — one of the most pleasing mosaic designs discovered in this country. The other pavements found in this part of the house were of equally ornate character; and at the extreme corner, and adjoining the room just described, was a small open court with an ambulatory, the roof of which apparently was supported by dwarf columns. The lower portion of this range of the house was probably the servants' quarters.

Several of the rooms at the head of the upper court had good mosaic floors, and two had fireplaces. These were typical of the few fireplaces of the time that have been discovered in this country. Each had a hearth placed against the wall, consisting of eight small tiles, with cheeks of tiles on edge, two tiles each in the one case and a single one in the other. In one or two instances elsewhere, the hearth was partly recessed in the wall. Braziers seem to have been in common use in Britain as in Pompeii, and the fireplaces may be regarded as fixed braziers. The baths were situated at the lower end of the left corridor, and were on a large scale for a private house. They contained four chief rooms, the first to be entered having a rich mosaic pavement, the second — the cooling-room — a handsome cold bath, the remaining two being hot rooms with plain mosaic floors. The ground covered by this extensive Bignor group of buildings was little short of 600 ft. in length and about 320 ft. in width.

 p83  The grandest known example of a Romano-British house was discovered at Woodchester in Gloucestershire, in 1793. Its excavation brought to light two courtyards, the lower about 150 ft. square, and the upper considerably smaller. The former was bounded on its lower side by a wall with a central gate-house, which, to judge from its remains, was an imposing structure with a large arch between two small ones. On each side of the space  p84 was a large isolated block, the one on the right being wholly, or in part, baths, and surrounding a small court, but the use of the other block, which also had an internal court, is uncertain. The residence entirely surrounded the upper courtyard. The chief feature of the range of its upper side or end was a central saloon, nearly 50 ft. square internally, with four columns so placed as to leave a large central space. The design of the mosaic floor — that is, the original one — was accommodated to the architectural features. The space between the four columns was occupied by a grand medallion having for its subject Orpheus with his lyre. Within an elaborate border were two concentric friezes, the outer containing beasts and the inner birds, while in the centre was an octagonal compartment containing fishes, representing the animal world which the music of Orpheus tamed. The space exterior to the columns was divided into a series of panels containing medallions and various geometrical designs. Many of the adjacent rooms had ornate mosaic pavements of which portions remained. The planning of this group of buildings differed from that of Bignor in its greater compactness and symmetrical arrangement; and the many pieces of carved stone and fragments of statues indicate that both the residence and the other two buildings were of considerable magnificence. As below the lower courtyard and on the left side there was a building of plain character, it is probable that there was a base-court with buildings on either side.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Fig. 27. — Plan of House at Woodchester. (80 ft. to 1 in.)

In many of the smaller country houses the residence and its various farm-buildings seem to have been grouped round a single large yard. A house at Brading in the Isle of Wight appears to have been of this type. Its large yard was about 180 ft. square, and was surrounded by a wall except where the buildings came to its side. The lower wall was not fully traced, but there was some evidence of a central gate. On the right side was a barn-like building, similar to, but larger than, the corresponding structure at Spoonley Wood; but considerable portions of its interior had been divided into rooms by inserted walls, those of the farther end evidently forming a house, while at the lower end were remains of small bath chambers. On the opposite side of the yard was a range of building and shedding. The  p85 compact and symmetrical house, with a short corridor or portico between two short wings, occupied the middle of the end of the yard. The right wing contained the smaller division of a large double room with a mosaic pavement, which, like several others in this house, was rich in mythological subjects. A few yards to the right of the house, and attached to the yard wall, was an oblong structure, about 11 ft. wide, containing a large cistern in an alcove, which with little doubt was supplied with water from a spring in the vicinity. This Brading house in its compactness and symmetrical planning represents a by‑no‑means uncommon variant of the corridor type, and one peculiarly adapted for mansions of medium size. A good example was uncovered near Mansfield Woodhouse, in Nottinghamshire, in the 18th century. It faced, as usual, a large yard, which had on its right side a barn-like building of about the size of the one at Brading, and with evidence that the rooms of its upper end had been inhabited, and that it contained baths at its lower end.


In the foregoing pages several structures have been referred to as barn-like buildings. The one at Spoonley Wood probably was a barn, but the last two examples seem to have been, partly at least, used for human habitation. Some other examples will be given which were undoubted houses, and houses of no mean order. Two buildings excavated at Ickleton in Essex, and at Castlefield near Andover, closely resembled that at Spoonley Wood. The first was associated with a house of the ordinary type, and the second contained the remains of furnaces and hearths. The fallen roof-tiles showed that both had been roofed, but neither yielded evidence of having been used for human habitation.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Fig. 28. — House at Clanville. (40 ft. to 1 in.)

Fig. 28 is the plan of one of these buildings at Clanville, Hampshire, and is specially interesting as its structural peculiarities were noted by the explorers, and the evidence that it was a house is beyond question. It had two rows of six pillar-bases each. The central space was regarded as an open court, and the pillars as the supports of two porticoes; but it was noted that the walls  p86 of the rooms not only surrounded but covered some of the pillar-bases. Most of the rooms had plain or decorated mosaic floors, and two had hypocausts, while amongst their débris was an abundance of painted plaster and window-glass. The entrance was in the side, where the foundation of a porch was noted. Fig. 29 is the much larger Brading example, which closely resembled that at Mansfield Woodhouse in size. A few of the pillar-bases remained, and the sites of others were indicated by foundations. Many of the internal walls were insertions and had been built over these foundations. The rooms of the west end had concrete floors, painted walls, and glazed windows, and one was heated by a hypocaust. The entrance was in the side, and the lower east corner yielded remains of baths. Baths occupied a similar position at Mansfield Woodhouse. A fine example of one of these buildings, containing some beautiful mosaic pavements, was uncovered at Carisbrook in 1859, and recently another at Petersfield.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Fig. 29. — House at Brading. (40 ft. to 1 in.)

These buildings obviously belonged to a different type from  p87 that of the corridor houses. In their main construction they resembled the medieval tithe and monastic barns which probably were a survival of the form. In some of them the rooms at one or both ends appear to have been parts of the original fabric, but many of those within the pillared space were certainly partitioned off subsequently. Our first three examples appear to have been barns, and this calls to mind the statement of Pytheas in the 4th century before our era, that the Britons for lack of sunshine collected their cornº and threshed it in large buildings. It is conceivable that the hearths in the Castlefield building were for fires to aid the drying of the corn. But it is equally clear that in our other examples a portion of the interior was used for human habitation, and these demand a little further attention.

The Brading and the Mansfield Woodhouse examples were associated with houses of the ordinary type, to which they appear to have held a subordinate relation­ship. Major Rooke, who described the latter, suggested that it was the villa rustica, where the villicus or bailiff lived, the house being the villa urbana, the residence of the proprietor. The Clanville and Petersfield examples, on the other hand, were the chief buildings of their respective groups. Each stood on the farther side of a large courtyard with a gateway in the wall of the nearer side, while on the two remaining sides were farm-buildings, and at Petersfield an unusually large bath-building. In these cases, the barn-like building would be the residence of the proprietor, who presumably was a well-to‑do farmer.

These basilical houses appear to belong to a primitive type of farmhouse which still survives in Germany, Holland, and elsewhere. Mr. S. O. Addy, in his Evolution of the English House, gives several examples, and notably one, a Saxon farmhouse from the German writer, Meitzen, which is singularly to the point. It is described as a large oblong structure (Fig. 30), divided into a nave and aisles, and entered by a large doorway at the lower end. The aisles are divided off into stalls (B) for the horses and cattle, which are foddered from the nave (A), while above in the roof are stored the corn and hay. At the end of the nave is the hearth (D), and on both sides are the cupboard-beds of the master  p88 and his family, the farm-hands sleeping on floors above the horses and cattle. To the right and left the hearth extends a sort of transept (E) ending with windows or glazed doors in the sides of the building, which thus forms two well-lighted wings or recesses for household purposes. Behind the hearth wall are two private rooms (F, H) and a store room (G); but these are of comparatively recent introduction in these farm-houses. The smoke of the hearth permeating the whole interior tends to keep insects away and to neutralize the stench from the cattle. This Saxon farmhouse is perhaps exceptional in its larger size and symmetrical proportions, but it is unquestionably representative of a widespread and ancient type of building which combined dwelling and farm-offices under a common roof, and the Yorkshire 'coits' may be regarded as a survival in this country.

[image ALT: missingALT]
Fig. 30. — Plan of Saxon Farmhouse (after Meitzen)

The resemblance of this Saxon farmhouse to the Romano-British buildings we have described is apparent at a glance. We have noticed that in some, the rooms at one end appear to be part of the original construction, and these may well have been the original household rooms, the hearth being in the nave in front. It is feasible enough, that with a higher standard of living there would be a desire to gain greater privacy by the addition of new rooms, and these could be easily obtained by partitioning off portions of the main interior. On the other hand, the proprietor and his family might live in an adjacent house, in which case the building, as at Spoonley Wood, would be used for farm purposes only — for the beasts in winter, and for the storage of their fodder, also for the storage of grain which could be threshed on the ample 'floor' of the nave.

 p89  The basilical type seems also to have been the source of the Romano-Italian houses. The parallels between the planning of the early Pompeian house before it was modified by Greek influence, and that of the Saxon farmhouse just described, are very close. The atrium of the former corresponds with the nave of the latter; the bedrooms with the stalls, and the alae with the transeptal extensions beyond the stalls. The tablinum, which originally contained the master's bed, and its lateral rooms, have their counterparts at the end of the Saxon house. As the Pompeian houses were built one against the other, the smoke-hole was enlarged into the compluvium, to compensate for the loss of side windows; and the hearth, which was early banished to a special room, the culina or kitchen, was represented by the impluvium.

The corridor-houses were of a different type of planning altogether, and seem to be the product of a higher stage of culture. A row of rooms opening upon a portico is an ill-adapted structure to shelter man and beast and farm-produce under a common roof. As a human dwelling-place it is consistent, and marks an advance in domestic requirements and comfort. It presupposes that beast and produce had been banished to separate and special buildings. It was certainly not derived from the old Italian type of house. Corridor-houses are found in Gaul and elsewhere on the Continent, but there is no evidence that the type was of Celtic or Germanic origin. It seems rather to be the product of a warm and sunny region, modified with us to suit our colder climate; and it is not unlikely that it was introduced into Gaul from the Orient by Greek colonists.7

The Author's Notes:

1 For detailed particulars, see Romano-British Buildings and Earthworks, chap. vi.

2 For a reconstruction of a corridor, see Rom.-Brit. Buildings, etc., Fig. 51.

3 Ib, chap. vi.

4 Ib, Figs. 76, 78.

5 Ib, chap. xi.

6 For mosaic floors, see Rom.-Brit. Buildings, etc., chap. xii.

7 For cottages and villages, see Rom.-Brit. Buildings, etc., chap. vi.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 14 Dec 20