Roman Vectis

The Romans arrived on the Isle of Wight about 2000 years ago and just like our many visitors today they decided it would be a very nice place to stay. Indeed they were so impressed that one of the best villas in the country was built here and at least seven more residences across the Island.

Most of these were built on the southern slopes of the central chalk downland where soils were light and easily ploughed for the growing of wheat and barley. Only two of these are open to the public: the large villa in Brading and a smaller villa in Newport, which boasts a large bath suite and hypocaust.

Other remains have been found on private premises, and one is beneath the Solent, near Gurnard. A villa was also uncovered at Robin Hill but it has subsequently been recovered to keep it intact, although you can see its footprint when you visit.

Vespasian the future emperor subdued the Island of Vectis, as the Romans called it, according to the Roman historian Suetonius. The conquest seems to have been a peaceful surrender to the inevitable by the local chiefs and during the occupation the Island remained a rural backwater, as there were no Roman towns or Roman roads.

It is now thought that it was the local native landowners, after adopting Roman culture, who built the villas - farmhouses in Roman style – although they were built using Roman methods. These villas were the centres of prosperous farm estates, which probably sold surplus grain and wool in mainland markets.

Brading Roman Villa

At the time the Romans arrived, in around 43AD, water filled the Eastern Yar river valley all the way to Brading where there was a natural port. So it was here that a rather sumptuous villa and farm complex was built in around 293AD that nestled beneath the downs. It is particularly noted for its fine mosaics.

Medusa’s head is the centrepiece of the floor in the ‘audience room’ of Brading Roman Villa where visiting guests would be ushered and she’s thought to be one of the finest examples of mosaic work in the world. Surrounding her are other mosaics representing the winds, the seasons, love, life, death and fertility with Medusa in the centre as protection for the house.

Many of the floors have beautifully preserved mosaic pictures. The first mosaic to be uncovered here was that of the cock-headed man, dressed as a gladiator trainer (Lanista) with two mythical griffins. In 1880 the landowner, Mr. William Munns and a retired army captain, John Thorp, discovered it by the light of a lantern. John Thorp had previously been shown fragments of pottery by local schoolchildren and had used them to find the location of the villa.

A public appeal raised £350 to excavate the villa and a building was erected over the site to keep it dry. By the end of the 20th century the existing visitor centre was ailing and was replaced in 2005 by a stunning £3.1m award winning timber framed building. Raised walkways guide visitors around the villa and there are lots of interactive opportunities for children and adults, with aids for those who have impaired eyesight and hearing.

Although it was dismissed as a barn when the Victorians excavated the site in the 1880s there is a much larger structure that was excavated recently and is thought to date from around 150 years earlier, but this has been covered until sufficient funds become available to explore it further.

Newport Roman Villa

The villa in Newport was found in 1926 when workmen, who were digging foundations, uncovered Roman tiles. These were part of the floor in one room of bath complex at the villa, which is believed to have been built in the late 270s AD.

By the summer of 1927 the complete plan of the villa house had been uncovered and it was decided that the site should be permanently preserved beneath a cover building.  One room has been reconstructed and furnished as the villa kitchen, with appropriate foods, furniture and kitchen equipment.

Another room with checkered mosaic floor has had one wall reconstructed and painted in Roman interior decorating style, based on evidence from Brading, Newport and Carisbrooke villas (the latter is in a private garden).

But it perhaps the bath house suite that is the most striking feature of this villa, with three rooms that reveal the underfloor system of hypocaust. Mosaic floors also feature here although they are not of the high quality found in Brading.

Newport Roman Villa has an Activities Room for families with various Roman-themed things to do and artifacts to see and some to handle.

Jo Macaulay

11 April 2016

By Jo Macaulay in Articles