History Reviews

Fishbourne Roman Palace

If you have a chance to visit Fishbone Roman Palace, make sure you do. A cheap train ride from London Victoria, it is one of the most spectacular Roman remains in Britain today and a site of great historical importance.

A short history of the palace

The palace dates from the Flavian period (more precisely 75 – 80 CE), although the site had been used previously by the Roman army. It lies next to a natural harbour which was developed by the Romans before the construction of the palace. Barry Cunliffe argues that the area may even have been a landing site used for the Claudian invasion. The wooden stalls of raised granary buildings, from this early period, are attested in the archeological record.

The palace was an important building. Rebuilt over a short period of time, with extensive materials and landscaping work, this building was a symbol of power. Only by visiting the site can you get a sense of the size of the original palace. Little remains of the entire building for visitors to see today. The museum building houses the mosaics of the North wing but you get a sense of the palace’s importance from clear signposting and good UX.

It can not be compared with other major upper class Britano-Roman villas, which Barry calls “little bungalows”.* In size and scale, it is to be compared with palaces in Rome such as Nero’s Domus Aurea. It is because of its size that the palace could be decorated so ostentatiously.

It is clear that the palace belonged to an important personage. Barry has argued that it belonged to Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, a Roman client king (according to Tacitus), who is independently attested as Great King of the Britons (R[EG] [MA]GNI BRIT) in an inscription found at Chichester.

Roman landing craft on a cast of Trajan’s column


Following the building’s foundation it experienced mixed treatment as sections were adjusted to meet changing needs. One room may even have become a smithy.

The palace was destroyed by Fire at some point between 270-296 during a tempestuous period of British history. Carausius, who rose to power on the back of defending the South British seashore against pirate raids usurped power, reigning as an independent emperor of Britain and Gaul until his murder in 293. In 296 Constantius Chlorus took back power. His son of course later usurped power at York and had a dynamic effect on history through his support of Christianity. Barry speculates on the destruction that “Some link between local and national events is not impossible”.* Salvage took place after the fire: no roof tiles (useful building material) survived in the ash layer.

Following this, the site was covered and became farm land. The scratchings of Saxon and Medieval ploughshares can be seen on some of the mosaics. Most excitingly of all graves have been found in the site dating from this later period. Rather dramatically a skeleton still lies in its grave cut through the middle of a mosaic. Replica or not, it’s a spooky sight and even influenced a modern day Roman whodunnit.

The Mosaics

The palace is famous for its mosaics and these are truly impressive.



The Cupid Mosaic (N7)


Geometric Mosaic

Reverse Mosaic (Wobbles due to ground water. Note square hole which are the remains of a granary post)
A hypocaust to keep the palace nice and warm for cold British winters.

Further Reading

*Barry Cunliffe Fishbourne Roman Palace

Lindsey Davis A Body in the Bath House 


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