Knox Box of Miscellany

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Roman Villa at Lullingstone, Kent

Roman Villa at Lullingstone, Kent

Model of Roman Villa, Lullingstone
Model of Roman Villa, Lullingstone

Still on the trail of Roman remains, my cousin, Dave, and I went on another jaunt, this time, with the rest of our jaunting crew – Mum, Jamie and Andrea. Our destination was the Roman villa at Lullingstone, Kent which was thought to have been built as early as 80CE although it was extended and modified to become a luxurious house in the mid-4th century CE.

Mosaics in the Dining Area
Mosaics in the Dining Area and Audience Chamber

Originally, there was a central accommodation block with two wings – the northern one, being built over a cellar which may have been used for storage although later, in the second century, it became the Cult Room in which, a well can still be seen. It was probably used to worship a water deity. External access to this Cult Room suggests people other than the family who lived in the villa were involved in worship there.

There was also evidence of a bath house although its layout was not as simple and sensible as the one Dave and I saw at Billingsgate, London (click here to read about that)

In the second half of the 2nd century, the house was enlarged, suggesting the owners had become more prosperous and two busts have been found which may indicate who owned the villa. One is of Publius Helvius Pertinax, the son of a freedman who became a Senator and Governor of Britannia in 185–6CE. Although he was forced to leave Britain, he went on to become Emperor, reigning for 87 days in 193CE, before being murdered by soldiers of the Praetorian Guard.

The second bust has been identified as his father, Publius Helvius Successus, and it is possible that Lullingstone was the country retreat of the provincial governor.

Remains of the villa
Remains of the villa

Around the middle of the 4th century some interesting changes took place that distinguish Lullingstone from many of the other villas known in Roman Britain.

The first was the addition of the dining room or triclinium with its attached audience chamber and their mosaics which can still be seen. In the triclinium, the table would have been arranged around the mosaics, so the diners could eat and admire their beauty. They illustrate the story of Europa being abducted by the god Jupiter disguised as a bull. The main mosaic panel in the audience chamber tells the story of Bellerophon, Prince of Corinth, on the winged-horse Pegasus, killing the Chimæra, a fire-breathing she-monster. The scene is surrounded by four roundels containing representations of the seasons.

Perhaps even more remarkable, however, were the changes above the Cult Room involving the creation of a house-church. The wall-paintings from this room set the villa apart, as they are the only known paintings in Roman Britain that contain clear Christian symbolism.

The material from the house-church was found collapsed into the Cult Room below it. The excavators found many thousands of fragments of painted wall plaster which, when painstakingly pieced together, revealed the images that once adorned the walls.

At some point in the 5th century there was a fire at Lullingstone, and the villa seems to have been abandoned.

As the roofs fell in, or perhaps as the tiles and possibly some walling were removed for use elsewhere, the building gradually decayed and collapsed. We noted in the stream which ran nearby, there were many red pieces of stone – possibly tiles – which might have come from the villa.

After 400CE, little is known about the site although some Anglo-Saxon artefacts have been found, perhaps dating from the 7th century.

The temple-mausoleum seems to have survived, at least as a ruin, to be incorporated into the chapel of St John the Baptist, probably in the 11th century when the area of the site was occupied by the hamlet of Lullingstane.

A description accompanying a drawing of the chapel made in 1769 refers to it being ‘built with flints and Roman bricks, the west end being chiefly of the latter’.

I was interested to know what the Romans might have called the place where the villa stood but I was told it had not been recorded and so, no one knew.

If you’d like to read more about the history of the Roman Villa at Lullingstone, check out the English Heritage website here

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