Fishbourne Roman Palace

Fishbourne Roman Palace

Mosaics at Fishbourne Roman Palace
Location within West Sussex
General information
Location Fishbourne, West Sussex
grid reference SU838047
Country United Kingdom
Coordinates 50°50′12″N 0°48′37″W / 50.8366°N 0.8103°W / 50.8366; -0.8103Coordinates: 50°50′12″N 0°48′37″W / 50.8366°N 0.8103°W / 50.8366; -0.8103
Completed 1st century
Demolished c. 270 AD

Fishbourne Roman Palace is in the village of Fishbourne, Chichester in West Sussex. The large palace was built in the 1st century AD, around thirty years after the Roman conquest of Britain, on the site of a Roman army supply base established at the Claudian invasion in 43 AD.

The rectangular palace surrounded formal gardens, the northern parts of which have been reconstructed. There were extensive alterations in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, with many of the original black and white mosaics being overlaid with more sophisticated coloured work, including the perfectly preserved dolphin mosaic in the north wing. More alterations were in progress when the palace burnt down in around 270, after which it was abandoned.

Discovery and excavation

Although local people had known of the existence of Roman remains in the area, it was not until 1960 that the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe first systematically excavated the site, which had been accidentally uncovered by Aubrey Barrett, an engineer working for Portsmouth Water Company who was laying a new water main across a field. The Roman villa excavated by Cunliffe's team 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. This is administered by the Sussex Archaeological Society.

In size, it is approximately equivalent to Nero's Golden House in Rome or to the Villa Romana del Casale near to Piazza Armerina in Sicily, and in plan it closely mirrors the basic organisation of the emperor Domitian's palace, the Domus Flavia, completed in AD 92 upon the Palatine Hill in Rome.[1] Fishbourne is by far the largest Roman residence known north of the Alps. At about 500 feet (150 m) square, it has a larger footprint than Buckingham Palace.[2]

A modern museum has been built by the Sussex Archaeological Society, incorporating most of the visible remains including one wing of the palace. The gardens have been re-planted using authentic plants from the Roman period. A team of volunteers and professional archaeologists are involved in a continuing research archaeological excavation on the site of nearby, possibly military, buildings. The last dig was in 2002.[3]


Museum model of how Fishbourne Roman Palace may have appeared
Museum building and garden
The Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic

The first buildings on the site were granaries, apparently a supply base for the Roman army, constructed in the early part of the conquest in 43 AD. Later, two timber-frame buildings were constructed, one with clay and mortar floors and plaster walls which appears to have been a dwelling house of some comfort.

These buildings were demolished in the AD 90s and replaced by a substantial stone-walled house, which included a courtyard garden with colonnades and a bath suite. It has been suggested [4] that the palace itself, incorporating the previous house in its south-east corner, was built in around c 73–75 AD. A reinterpretation of the ground plan and finds assemblage by Dr Miles Russell of Bournemouth University has suggested that, given the extremely close parallels with Domitian's imperial palace in Rome, its construction may more plausibly date to after AD 92.

As for who lived in the Fishbourne palace, the accepted theory, first proposed by Barry Cunliffe, is that the early phase of the palace was the residence of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus (or Togidubnus), a pro-Roman local chieftain who was installed as king of a number of territories following the first stage of the conquest. Cogidubnus / Togidubnus is known from a reference to his loyalty in Tacitus's Agricola,[5] and from an inscription commemorating a temple dedicated to Neptune and Minerva found in nearby Chichester.[6] Another theory is that it was built for another native, Sallustius Lucullus, a Roman governor of Britain of the late 1st century who may have been the son of the British prince Adminius.[7] Two inscriptions recording the presence of Lucullus have been found in nearby Chichester and the redating, by Miles Russell, of the palace to the early AD 90s, would fit far more securely with such an interpretation. If the palace were designed for Lucullus, then it may have only been in use for a few years, for the Roman historian Suetonius records that Lucullus was executed by the delusional emperor Domitian in or shortly after AD 93.[8]

Additional theories suggest that owner of the palace was either Verica, a British client king of the Roman Empire in the years preceding the Claudian invasion, or even one Tiberius Claudius Catuarus, whose gold signet ring was discovered[2] nearby in 1995 [9]

The palace outlasted the original owner and was extensively re-planned early in the 2nd century, being subdivided into a series of lesser apartments. Further redevelopment was begun in the late 3rd century, but these alterations were incomplete when the north wing was destroyed in a fire c. 270 AD. The damage was too great to repair, and the palace was abandoned and later dismantled. It is not known whether the fire was accidental, set by coastal raiders or part of a more widespread period of disruption caused by the revolt of the 'British' emperor Carausius in the 280s AD.[10]

The final phase palace comprised four large wings with colonnaded fronts, forming a square around a formal garden. The north and east wings each consisted of suites of rooms built around courtyards, with a monumental entrance in the middle of the east wing. In the north-east corner was an aisled assembly hall. The west wing contained state rooms, a large ceremonial reception room, and a gallery. The south wing contained the owner's private apartments. The palace also included as many as 50 mosaic floors, under-floor central heating and an integral bathhouse.


  1. Miles Russell, Roman Sussex, Tempus (2006) pp. 113-132; Miles Russell, Bloodline - the Celtic Kings of Roman Britain, Amberley (2010), pp. 172-77
  2. 1 2 Britain AD, Episode I
  3. John Manley, Facing the Palace, Sussex Archaeological Society (2004)
  4. Barry Cunliffe, Excavations at Fishbourne 1961-1969, Society of Antiquaries (1971)
  5. Tacitus, Agricola 14
  6. J. E. Bogaers (1979) "King Cogidubnus in Chichester: another reading of RIB 91", Britannia 10, pp. 243-254
  7. Norman Hammond, "Whose busts are they?", The Times, 31 July 2006, retrieved 31 August 2006; Miles Russell, Roman Sussex, Tempus (2006); Miles Russell, Bloodline - the Celtic Kings of Roman Britain, Amberley (2010)
  8. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: Domitian 10.3
  9. Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Boudica Britannia, p. 51
  10. Miles Russell, Roman Sussex, pp. 262–66 (2006)

Further reading

External links

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