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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

Fishbourne Roman Palace

In the village of Fishbourne, near the cathedral city of Chichester (the Roman city of Noviomagus Reginorum) in Sussex, stands the largest residential Roman building ever discovered in Britain, which has an unusually early date of 75 AD, around thirty years after the Roman conquest of Britain.

A plan of Fishbourne Roman Palace

Photo: Roy Nicholls

Photograph of the original excavations at Fishbourne

Photo: Public photo

Although the remains had been first discovered in the 1930s, the site did not come to the attention of archaeologists for many years, until eventually in 1960 the site was systematically excavated by the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe and his team. The site was so large that it became known as Fishbourne Roman Palace, and a museum was erected to protect and preserve some of the remains in situ.

A recreation of one of the opulent rooms in the palace

Photo: Roy Nicholls

The main rooms of the palace are enclosed within the museum

Photo: Roy Nicholls

The Palace is approximately 500ft (150m) square (it has a larger footprint than Buckingham Palace) and in size is equivalent to Nero's Golden House (Domus Aurea), which stood near the Colosseum in Rome, or to the Villa Romana del Casale near to Piazza Armerina in Sicily.

A model of the place at its greatest extent. To the top right are the white, bath complex and a Roman trading ship, showing how close it was originally to the coast

Photo: Roy Nicholls

One of the most complex and complete mosaics at Fishbourne, showing Cupid riding a dolphin

Photo: Roy Nicholls

The first buildings on the site were associated with the Roman military, but around AD60 these buildings were demolished and were replaced with an elaborate and substantial stone-walled villa, or proto-palace, which included a courtyard garden with colonnades and a bath suite, together with two other buildings, and using material taken from the earlier buildings. It was decorated with wall paintings, stucco mouldings and opus sectile marble polychrome panels. The full-size palace with four residential wings surrounding a formal courtyard garden of 250 by 320 feet (75 by 100 metres) was built in around 75–80 AD and took around 5 years to complete, incorporating the proto-palace in its south-east corner. The gardens were surrounded by colonnades in the form of a peristyle.

A Greek Key mosaic with the head of Medusa at the centre

Photo: Roy Nicholls

The Palace was obviously built for a wealthy and important individual and several candidates have been suggested. Barry Cunliffe believed it was the residence of Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus (or Cogidubnus), a pro-Roman local chieftain who was installed as king of several territories following the first stage of the conquest. It may have been built for Sallustius Lucullus, a Roman governor of Britain in the late 1st century, or Verica, a British client king of the Roman Empire in the years preceding the Claudian invasion.

A hoard of Roman coins discovered in the ruins of the palace

Photo: Roy Nicholls

A later burial inserted in the floor of the palace rooms, probably during the Anglo-Saxon period

Photo: Roy Nicholls

Further alterations and additions were made in succeeding centuries but following a huge fire that took place around AD270, the Palace was finally abandoned and later dismantled.

The village of Fishbourne has its own railway station (there are plenty of services from London Waterloo via Chichester) and a visit to the palace can easily be incorporated with a visit to Chichester.

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