Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Flavian Palace at Fishbourne: Luxury Unparalleled in Europe North of the Alps

by Mark Patton

Close to the modern city of Chichester is a Roman palace that bears comparison with Nero's "Golden House" and the Palace of Domitian in Rome itself. Much of it is now hidden beneath modern housing but, in its heyday, it had a larger footprint than Buckingham Palace. Not only is it, by far, the most lavish Roman dwelling ever built in Britain, it is also one of the earliest, having been built within a few decades of the Roman invasion of 43 AD.

                          Imagined reconstruction of Fishbourne Roman Palace.

There are two main theories regarding the construction and ownership of the palace. The first, suggested by the original excavator, Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, is that it was built between 73 and 79 AD for Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, a native British king known for his loyalty to Rome. The second, suggested by Dr Miles Russell, of Bournemouth University, is that it was built in the AD 90s, possibly for the Roman Governor, Sallustius Lucullus. I have always found the first hypothesis to be the more compelling, but there is no conclusive proof either way.

What is clear is that it must have been erected by Roman builders and craftsmen brought to Britain especially for the purpose. Nothing remotely like this had ever been seen in Britain before. The palace has an entrance-hall; a formal audience chamber; residential suites with mosaics and under-floor heating; a bath complex; and accommodation for guests, and for servants or slaves. It also has an "aisled hall" (an unusual feature with a door onto the street, which may have been used in religious ceremonies, public addresses and/or entertainments) and an elaborate formal garden.

The earliest mosaics of the Flavian Palace are predominantly black and white, featuring geometric motifs.

It was not the first building on the site. Beneath the garden of the Flavian palace (the Flavian period, encompassing the reigns of Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian, lasted from 69 to 96 AD) were found the remains of an earlier palace, built in the 60s AD; two substantial timber buildings of the 50s AD; and military granaries built soon after the Roman invasion.

If Cogidubnus provided the Emperor Claudius with a safe harbour and a supply base for his legions, this might go some way towards explaining why his Claudius's eventual successor, Vespasian, rewarded him so generously.  Vespasian and Cogidubnus may have become friends in the months following the invasion: we know that the Second Legion, which Vespasian then commanded, campaigned in Hampshire and Dorset. Vespasian may have cultivated Cogidubnus as he would later cultivate the Jewish leader, Josephus.

Bust found at Fishbourne. Is this the face of Cogidubnus, or of one of his sons?

We do not know the name of the architect who designed the palace, but there are close parallels between Fishbourne and the Palace of Domitian in Rome, close enough to suggest that it may have been designed by the same man, and built with the assistance of some of the same craftsmen, or by their former apprentices.

                                  The Palace of Domitian in Rome.

"Awesome and vast is the edifice, distinguished not by a hundred columns but by as many as could shoulder the gods and the sky, if Atlas were let off. The Thunderer's palace next door gapes at it,
and the gods rejoice that you are lodged in a like abode...So great extends the structure and the sweep of the far-flung hall, more expansive than that of an open plain, embracing much enclosed sky and lesser only than its master..." Statius, Silvae, 4, describing the Palace of Domitian.

The Fishbourne palace remained in use until it was destroyed by fire in around 270 AD, and may have passed through several hands. Some of the more elaborately coloured mosaics date to the Second and Third Centuries AD.


Mark Patton's novel, An Accidental King, is published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and He will be giving a public reading at Fishbourne Roman Palace on 10th August 2013 (details available at

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Mark.It would appear that a lot was going on in different parts of Britannia during the period AD 74-79.


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