We’re all going on a…Villa holiday

Former Classics Ambassador and University of Leeds student Ronnais Lloyd takes a trip to north Africa and the Roman baths – all in twenty four hours!

Whenever I head south, I resolve to visit Romano-British sites, despite the fact that they are normally nowhere near where we are staying and there are lots of traffic jams! This year, the need to stay within the UK made me appreciate the amazing range of fascinating sites and Roman remains there are in Britain and in the current climate I felt very lucky to be able to go on holiday to West Sussex.

Travelling on the hottest day of the year (36 degrees in the UK!!), we needed a long rest and since I was driving, I decided to take a slight detour to visit the ruins from Leptis Magna at Virginia Water – if Dad had been driving, we would have been visiting Wentworth Golf Club instead! Leptis Magna was a major Roman city, situated near Tripoli, in modern day Libya. Founded in the 7th century BC, before Roman occupation it was controlled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Numidians after the Second Punic War. Emperor Septimius Severus was born in Leptis and later embellished the city with patronage; the city was hugely important and rivalled Alexandria until its decline in AD 4th century.

These ruins were transported from Libya to England in the early nineteenth century after Colonel Hanmer Warrington (the general in Tripoli) persuaded the local governor to gift them to the Prince Regent, who later became George IV. Twenty-two granite columns, fifteen marble columns, ten capitals, twenty-five pedestals, seven loose slabs, ten fragments of cornice, five inscribed slabs and various fragments of sculptures were shipped to England. Once the ruins arrived in England the experts were scornful and unmoved; the ruins were kept in the forecourt in the British Museum for eight years – clearly they were not deemed as precious as the Elgin Marbles. In 1826 Jeffry Wyatville, George IV’s architect, aesthetically arranged the ruins in Virginia Water along with ruins from Carlton House.  The ruins were transported from London on gun carriages in twelve loads, which doesn’t sound very safe at all but they have survived impressively well.

On the Saturday, once we arrived in Sussex, we decided to go to Chichester harbour and Bignor Roman Villa. Bignor Roman Villa is situated about a day’s walk away from Stane Street, the Roman road built in the first century AD that linked Noviomagnus Regnensium (Chichester) to Londinium. Crucially, the position of the Villa allowed direct access to the market town of Chichester which, along with the fertile soil, helped them prosper agriculturally. Opulence is apparent as soon as you see the remains and it is thought to have been one of the largest villas in Britain, covering nearly two hectares. The most incredible feature is the mosaics which date mainly from the 4th century AD – the North Corridor boasts the largest mosaic in the UK at 24 metres long.

A lucky farmer named George Tupper, on 18th July 1811, struck a large stone (which was probably the piscina in Room 5) whilst ploughing, which led to the discovery of the villa. Excavations were put in the hands of John Hawkins and he invited Samuel Lysons, who was a leading antiquarian, to supervise the work and many discoveries were found. In order to preserve the ruins, Georgian thatched buildings were built directly on top of the Roman foundations. This certainly would not be the protocol now but it is very valuable and unique because you can get a scale of the size and shape of the Roman rooms. As the Georgian buildings are actually very rare they are historical in their own right and are Grade II listed. 

One of the first rooms you walk into is the summer triclinium (dining room). My favourite mosaic which depicts Ganymede is housed there. The mosaic illustrates the abduction of the youthful Ganymede, wearing a red Phrygian hat, by Jupiter disguised as an eagle. The London School of Mosaics have actually recreated this mosaic wonderfully which is on view in the North Corridor. In the centre of this room is the piscina (water basin) surrounded by six frenzied Maenads which almost has a voyeuristic function.

Room 7, interpreted as a winter dining room due to underfloor heating, displays the Venus and Gladiator mosaic. The portrait of Venus is very familiar to me as it has recently been printed on Royal Mail stamps with a collection of other Romano-British sites. Venus is the most eye catching at first glance, flanked by long-tailed birds and ferns which are inlaid with green glass. Identification of the birds causes a problem as they do not have distinct features relating to a goddess which could possibly suggest that it’s not the head of a goddess but a mortal.  

Underneath are winged Cupids dressed as gladiators showing different stages in combat. I like the connection between Venus and the Cupids dressed as gladiators because Bettany Hughes in Venus & Aphrodite: History of a Goddess reminds us that she was not just the goddess of fornicating but of fighting too; it appears almost that Cupid could be teasing her to intervene in the fighting. Below these scenes the mosaic continues but a lot has been destroyed when the hypocaust below collapsed.

In room 8, there is a great example of a personal touch to the decoration. A mosaic depicting a dolphin has the signature of the artist (TR) who was probably called Terentius. He may well have designed other mosaics in the Villa too.

At end of my visit I went to the bath complex. It certainly didn’t disappoint because there was a reconstructed frigidarium (cold plunge) in front of the very famous Medusa mosaic.

As a child, I had a Roman coin collection with this mosaic on the front which I vividly remember thinking was very pretty. Seeing this mosaic really made me smile because looking back now, I would never in a million years have thought that I would ever enjoy looking at ‘old stuff’ – how times have changed!