Download file in PDF format: TRAC 1993: Architectural and Social Change During the Roman Period (pp. 111–121)
Architectural and social change during the Roman period
Recent examinations of the progress of acculturation within
Roman-period Britain have become much more sophisticated in their
views of information flow and cultural response. Firstly it has been noted
that the adoption of Roman material culture does not imply a corresponding acceptance of Mediterranean-style social organisation. Of particular importance has been J. T. Smith’s 1978 paper, which claimed to
have identified positive evidence for continued Celtic family organisation
within the villa architecture of Britain and Gaul. Since then most writers
have worked from the assumption that the social structure of the British
countryside remained basically that of the Late Iron Age, except where
solid evidence existed to the contrary. Secondly it is now widely recognised that society was not monolithic, and that acculturation would
proceed at different rates for different social groups. It is only a small extension of such logic to accept that the pace of change would vary for
different aspects of an individual’s life, particularly between public and
private life. Here I wish to consider the implications of the adoption of
Roman architecture in the private sphere both in the major urban centre 112 S. CLARKE
of Cirencester and its rural hinterland
WHO OWNED VILLAS?
The clear spatial distribution of villas around Roman towns was first
noted by Rivet (1955). The explanation for this phenomenon has remained a matter for debate. Economic explanations have concentrated on
the demand for produce to support the urban population, which is seen
as having stimulated a cash-crop economy in the countryside. Such
models saw villas as the residences of entrepreneurs who had invested
their profits in a Roman-style house (e.g. Rivet 1969). Socio-political explanations of the distribution have interpreted villas as the country
homes of an elite participating in urban-based political activity (Branigan
1977). Recognising that not all urban centres saw the same development
of villas in their hinterlands, Hodder and Millett (1980) developed two
statistical indices to measure· the decline in villa density with distance
from the town. In simple terms the tests appear to show that in most
cases the character of villa distribution around towns reflects not the size
of the economic market, but the town’s political attributes. For the
province as a whole this suggests that villa location was governed by
access to the political rather than economic aspects of the city. However,
the statistics for villa density around Cirencester suggest it was completely atypical of public cities. The qualitative reasons for this result are
not difficult to identify. Hodder and Millett’s tests assumed that villas
were centred on towns and were intended to find out why. But the distribution of villas in the region of Gloucester and Cirencester was not at
its most dense in area of the towns, but rather between them, clustering
around two Iron-Age oppida, Bagendon and Minchinhampton. It therefore seems highly probable that most villas not only represent a political
elite, but also that this elite was descended from that of the late preRoman period.
MULTIPLE PROPRITORSmp AS PROPOSED BY J. T. SMITH
If the residents of villas were indeed natives of Britain,]. T. Smith argued
that their social and economic arrangements should still be manifest as
deviations from the classical architectural ideal (Smith 1978). In particular
Smith felt that the Celtic practices of partible inheritance and the holding
of property in conunon by several nuclear families would lead to what he
called multiple proprietorship. According to Smith the presence within a ARCHITEC1URAL AND SOCIAL CHANGE DURING 1HE ROMAN PERIOD 113
single villa of two or more family groups was evidenced by such features
as the duplication of bath facilities or entranceways and recurring patterns of rooms or even their symmetry about the central axis of the
building. The arrangement of courtyards in irregular configurations, in
Smith’s view, indicated that the residents of each wing were expressing
their independence by their failure to arrange themselves at right angles
to the end block (see fig. 1).
THE EXTENDED FANULY
In an earlier paper (1990) I was happy to reject most of these minor deviations from classical architectural as evidence for multiple proprietorship
(Clarke 1990, 342). However, where specialist functions such as bath
suites were duplicated, as at Chedworth, I could only argue that the phenomenon was numerically insignificant and therefore unsuitable as
evidence for the social structure of villa society as a whole (Clarke 1990,
341). But let us accept that such features do indicate the presence of distinct family groups within a single house. Would this represent a major
deviation from social practice in the core region of the Roman empire?
The Roman term familia did not have the same meaning as that of the
modem family. In a general sense it could mean a loose kinship relationship but in strict legal sense it meant the estate and included everything
and everyone under the control of the household head. It included not
only biologically-related kin, but also adopted children, servants, and
even slaves. The core of the household was the stem-family, to the exclusion of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins etc. However this
should not be misunderstood. A son was not freed from obligation to the
family when he came of age or even at the time of his marriage, except by
the express will of the family head (Gardner and Wiedemann 1991, 3).
Ringley in his consideration of the Roman household, carefully avoided
the term extended family, which he characterised as the typical Celtic
family type (Hingley 1989, 7). Sjoberg (1960, 157), however, leaves us in
no doubt. He noted that the structure of the ideal extended family shows
a remarkable uniformity throughout the non-industrial urbanised world.
It should include a man and his wife or wives, their unmarried children,
married sons, the wives and children of the latter and perhaps other
relatives such as widowed daughters or sisters of the family head, as well
as numerous servants. While in Sjoberg’s view the realisation of such an
ideal was a luxury of the rich it was also an essential ingredient of their
success. It prevented the dissipation of their power in the break up of 114
N … <:c—-t—
m – Mosaic
at Non-Right Angles
Shrine Placed on • Soolal
Boundary Between Two Unlll
Figure 1. Multiple proprietorship at Chedworth villa after Smith.
property and ensured a ready supply of family members to fill key political, educational, and religious posts within society (Sjoberg 1960, 157). If
we accept that this is a realistic view of the Roman elite family, then the ARcmn:cTIJRAL AND SOCIAL CHANGE DURING 1HE ROMAN PERIOD 115
adoption of Roman architecture by the Celtic elite would have caused
neither major social change nor the need to modify the Roman model to
fit the existing social structure.
ARCHITECTURE AS A REFLECTION OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN
CULTURE AND NATURE
Rippengal (1993) has also rejected Smith’s model. He criticised it as being
an over simplistic equation of the arrangement of space with social
structure. He did feel however that the character of the dwelling had a
more fundamental relevance, reflecting mankind’s relationship not only
with society but with the whole of nature. In his view architecture was a
reflection of its two functions: as hus, the Germanic word for shelter, and
as the Latin domus, man’s domain, a symbol of conquest over nature.
Rippengal felt that classical and native architectural styles betrayed a
fundamentally different view of their position within the cosmos. The
native round house was in his view an acceptance of nature, its circular
form being in some way more organic than the straight lines and right
angles of classical design. He also considered the materials used to be
more natural, with timbers being used in their raw state, unsquared and
without even their bark and sap wood removed. A winged-corridor viUa
in contrast represented a declaration of conquest over nature, being far
more permanent and using what Rippengal describes as less natural
methods and materials: fired-clay tiles, squared masonry and timbers,
etc. He also detected a desire on the part of the residents to distance
themselves from what little elements of nature remained: stone and wood
was concealed behind a layer of painted plaster, while even elemental
fire was hidden from sight by means of the hypocaust (Rippengal 1993,
93-97). In my view Rippengal is guilty of presenting an even more
stereotyped image of Roman and native than Smith. There is nothing
natural about Iron-Age construction techniques. The circle is no less an
accurate geometric form than the rectangle, and the orientation of doorways towards the south-east at many sites is clearly not casual. Some of
the timber used in building round houses was obtained not from wild
wood but from coppice, where they were grown specially for the job. Nor
were beaten-earth floors and daub-covered walls intrinsically more natural than concrete and plaster. The adoption of the villa form represented
not dominion over nature but a desire to express solidarity with the elite
of the rest of the Roman empire. 116 S. CLARKE
VILLAS AS A TOOL OF SOCIAL CONTROL
Even if the villa does not imply a fundamental change in the relationship
with life, the universe, and everything, most would feel it likely that such
a radical change in architecture held serious implications for human relationships within the household. Eleanor Scott (1990, 160) has noted that
the marshalling of rooms behind a corridor greatly enhanced the ability
of a family head to control contacts with the outside world. In contrast,
any visitor to a round house would have had irrunediate access to everyone present However, to concentrate on a single building is to take a
very restricted view of architecture. A more holistic approach is offered
by Rapoport, who has noted that the house was only part of a build environment, which consisted of both indoor and outdoor activity settings
and routes between them In theory there is no boundary to the area that
should be taken into consideration (Rapoport 1990, 1). The isolation of a
single building has encouraged us to compare villas with many rooms
with simple round houses and conclude that there was a fundamental
revision of the use of space. In fact, round houses were mostly small;
those at Danebury were mainly six or seven metres across (Cunliffe 1983,
104), those at Claydon Pike eight metres across (Miles and Palmer 1983).
The upper end of the size range is represented by the largest round house
at Crickley Hill, with a fifteen metre diameter (Dixon 1988). If we use a
twelve metre wide round house as our model for a typical Iron-Age
building a great villa like Woodchester should be compared with not one,
but forty such structures. A modest villa such as that at Hucclecote had
the floor area of about three round houses (see fig. 2). Cunliffe noted that
the households at Danebury were probably made up of groups of huts,
those with hearths serving the cooking requirements of those without
(Cunliffe 1983, lOS). If we compare a villa with an Iron-Age settlement set
within an enclosure and accessible via a single entrance, the difference
between the use of space in the two settlement types begins to look more
significant in technological rather than sociological terms.
DEVELOPMENTS OVER TIME
If the adoption of the Roman-style house by the British elite had little
significance to the structure of the family or its relationship to the world
beyond, what significance did it have? Luxury houses certainly represented massive expenditure. Unless the elite class was greatly increasing
its income, villas and town houses must have Signified a change in the ARcm1ECTURAL AND SOCIAL CHANGE DURING THE ROMAN PERIOD
Ciren081hr In.ul. xII
o Largo.t Crlokloy Hill Round Hou ••
o Typloal Claydon Pike Round Houle
o Typloal Danebury Round Houle
Figure 2. Roman houses and Iron-Age huts: a comparison of scale.
pattern of spending. It is therefore worth quickly reviewing the sequence
of villa developments.
The first villas appeared in Britain rapidly after its entry into the 118 S.CLARKE
Roman empire. The so-called proto-palace at Fishboume was built in the
late 50s or early 60s (Cunliffe 1971). The first indications of villas in the
Dobunni region are neither as impressive nor as well documented, but
nevertheless indicated the adoption of a highly Romanised architectural
style very soon after Ditches villa, in the parish of North
Cerney, had certainly been built by the end of the third quarter of the first
century. Although without mosaics or elaborate under-floor heating, this
half-timbered building possessed a well-developed ground plan and
plenty of indications of lUXUry in the form of opus signinum floors,
painted plaster, and a rich collection of imported goods (Trow and James
1988,83). More luxurious, but not quite as early, was Woodchester villa,
originating in the late first or early second century. Even at this early
stage it possessed an impressive array of rooms, provided with such luxuries as imported maIble veneers (Clarke 1982, 217). Such sites, however,
were exceptional. Few sites in the Cotswolds merit the title villa before
the late second century, even though a fair proportion were occupied
from the earlier roman period and a few show signs of continuous occupation from the Iron Age. The number of villas that can be shown to have
been occupied reached a peak in the early fourth century, about the same
period as most villas, including Woodchester, entered their most luxurious phase.
The construction and development of the largest and most elaborately
decorated houses at Cirencester itself seems to follow a similar pattern
with relatively modest private buildings being the norm until the end of
the third and early fourth century. There certainly were earlier lUXUry
houses, for example building 2 in insula XI, which dated to the late first or
early second century and was equipped with a mosaic and painted plaster walls (McWhirr 1986, 247). Yet in terms of scale and sheer numbers,
these early examples were eclipsed by buildings that were demonstrably
occupied in the fourth century, for example the villa-like complex in
insula XII (McWhirr 1986,21-70).
Closer examination of both Cirencester and surrounding villa sites
using modem excavation techniques would certainly reveal more examples of early luxury dwellings. Giles Clarke’s re-examination of Woodchester, a site originally excavated in the late eighteenth century by
Lysons, is a case in point (Clarke 1982). Similarly, the failure to penetrate
the lower stratigraphy of Cirencester, due to the great depth of remains
and the reluctance of excavators to destroy mosaics and monumental
architecture, which might have concealed earlier remains, has certainly
left the later period over-represented. However, I believe, for this region ARCIDlECTIJRAL AND SOCIAL CHANGE DURING TIlE ROMAN PERIOD 119
at least, that the luxury house was a phenomenon that did not develop
fully until the late Roman period.
In contrast, the other great architectural development of the Roman
period, public buildings, in particular the forum-basilica complexes, were
primarily a feature of the early Roman period Unlike at Silchester, where
the forum-basilica complex is given over to industrial purposes in the late
Roman period (Fulford 1985), or Wroxeter, where it is burnt down and
not replaced (Wacher 1974, 383). But it saw only relatively minor changes
to its fabric, so that major capital outlay was confined to the early Roman
period, often linking it with a failure of towns and the flight of capital to
the countryside (Reece 1980). In fact, late Roman Cirencester saw a great
deal of investment, but in the construction of private residences not public buildings. We need not talk in terms of the failure of the Roman institution of urbanism In one sense the provision of public amenities by the
great and the good was a continuation of the Iron-Age tradition of the
disposal of surplus wealth in acts of public generosity. The movement of
expenditure towards the private sphere could be interpreted as the
triumph of the concept of private property, with the elite feeling fully
justified in spending the wealth they had extracted from the community
at large solely on themselves.
Many of the changes that Britain saw during the Roman period continue
to be interpreted in the light of a stereotyped image of both Celtic and
Roman. I believe that the power base and family structure of the elite in
both lowland Britain and the core region of the Roman empire were
broadly compatible. Romanisation of building style need not imply major
social change. The provision of public amenities such as fora could be
interpreted as an extension of Iron-Age patterns of wealth disposal. Similarly the widespread adoption of villas or their counterparts in towns
need not represent major changes in the structure of the elite family
structure. However, what we have though of as one process, the adoption of Roman material culture by the elite, was something that developed and changed considerably over time. Public works were primarily a
feature of the early Roman period, well before villas reached their peak.
This represents a major shift in the balance between public and private
spheres of life and a change in the attitude of the elite to their wealth. 120 S.CLARI<E
Barker, P. A. 1979. The last occupation on the site of the baths basilica at
Wroxeter. In P. J. Casey 1979 (ed.), The End of Roman Britain. Oxford:
British Archaeological Reports (British Series 71).
Branigan, Keith 1977. The Roman Villa in South-West England. Bradford-onAvon: Moonraker.
Casey, P. J. (ed.) 1979. The End of Roman Britain. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (British Series 71).
Clarke, G. 1982. The Roman villa at Woodchester. Britannia 13, 197-228.
Clarke, Simon 1990. The social significance of villa architecture in Celtic
north west Europe. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 9 (3),337-353.
Cunliffe, B. 1971. Excavations at Fishbourne 1961 to 1969. London: Society of
Antiquaries of London.
Cunliffe, B. 1983. Danebury: Anatomy of an Iron Age Hillfort. London: Batsford.
Dixon, P. 1988. Crickley Hill 1969-1987. Current Archaeology 11, 730-78.
Fulford, M. G. 1985. Excavations on the site of the amphitheatre and forum
basilica at Silchester, Hampshire: an interim report The Antiquaries
Gardner, F. J. and T. Wiedemann 1991. The Roman Household: a Sourcebook.
Ringley, Richard 1989. Rural Settlement in Roman Bn·tain. London: Seaby.
Hodder, I. and M. Millett 1980. Romano-British villas and towns, a systematic analysis. World Archaeology 12, 69-76.
McWhirr, A. (ed.) 1986. The Houses of Roman Cirencester. Cirencester: Cirencester Excavation Committee, Corinium Museum.
Miles, D. and S. Palmer 1983. Claydon Pike. Current Archaeology 8, 88-91.
Rapoport, A. 1990. Systems of activity and systems of settings. In S. Kent
(ed.), Domestic Architecture and the Use of Space, 9-20. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Reece, R. 1980. Town and country: the end of Roman Britain. World Archaeology 12, 77-92.
Rippengal, R. 1993. Villas as the key to social structure: some comments on
recent approaches to the Romano-British villa and some suggestions
towards an alternative. In E. Scott (ed), Theoretical Roman Archaeology:
First Conference Proceedings, 79-101. Aldershot Avebury.
Rivet, A. L. F. 1955. The distribution of villas in Roman Britain. Archaeology
Newsletter 6, 29-34.
Rivet, A. L. F. (ed.) 1969. The Roman Villa in Britain. London: Routledge.
Scott, Eleanor 1990. Romano-British villas and the social construction of ARcmn:cTIJRAL AND SOCIAL CHANGE DURING 1HE ROMAN PERIOD
space. In Ross Samson (ed.l, The Social Archaeology of Houses, 149-172.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Sjoberg, G. 1990. The Pre-Industrial City. New York.
Smith, J. T. 1978. Villas as a key to social structure. In Malcolm Todd (ed.),
Studies in the Romano-British Villa, 149-156. Leicester: Leicester University Press.
Trow, S. and S. James 1988. Ditches villa, North Cerney: an example of
locational conservattism in the early Roman Cotswolds. In Keith
Branigan and David Miles (edsl, Villa Economies: Aspects of RomanoBritish Villas, 83-87. Sheffield: John Collis.
Wacher, J. 1974. The Towns of Roman Britain. London: Batsford.