You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
The view from the Roman Villa of Brading; (inset) the coastline in Roman time
The Isle of Wight is nearly in the shape of a lozenge or rather a turbot as it has been likened to. (..) The length of this island from east to west (..) is near twenty three miles; the breadth about thirteen. (..) Brading Haven opens with a narrow mouth into the sea. It contains between eight and nine hundred acres of marshy land overflown by the water at every tide. My adventurous and noble countryman Sir Hugh Middleton in the time of James I (..) employed a number of Dutchmen to recover it from the sea by embankments; seven thousand pounds were expended in the work, but partly by the badness of the soil which proved a barren sand, partly by the choking of the drains for the fresh water by the weeds and mud brought by the sea, but chiefly by a furious tide which made a breach in the bank they were obliged to desist and put a stop to their expensive project. (..) The church and village of Brading stand near the bottom of the haven. The church is the most ancient in the island and it is said that the first converts to Christianity by Bishop Wilfred were there baptized.
Thomas Pennant - A Journey from London to the Isle of Wight - 1801.
Eventually the area of the harbour was reclaimed and today Brading is at a distance from the sea. The traditional account which stated that its church was the oldest one of the island was confirmed to some extent in 1879 by the discovery of the remains of a Roman villa.
Roman Villa of Brading: Exhibition and Visitor Centre
The discovery was met with great enthusiasm by historians and archaeologists (but not by the Members of Parliament): Nothing could be further from the facts now patent than the opinions held by
the early historians of the Isle of Wight, regarding the traces of the first
inhabitants and immigrants in the island. These topographers could find only
very few vestiges of antiquity, and no Roman remains! Englefield (Sir Henry Charles Englefield - A Description of the principal picturesque beauties, antiquities and geological phenomena of the Isle of Wight - 1816) dogmatically
asserts, "Of the Romans there is not a vestige in this island". What is now
revealed, however, completely reverses that judgment. The island is replete
with archaeological interest; peppered, it may be said, with antiquarian relics. (..) The first and minor portion of this villa was revealed by Captain Thorp and Mr. W. Munns, of Brading, in April, 1880; the major portion has been excavated
under the superintendence of Mr. J. E. Price, and Mr. F. G. H. Price. They
and I conjointly formed ourselves into a committee to solicit subscriptions,
and try to preserve the remains. The public responded liberally, and the
expenditure is pretty well covered up to the close of the first campaign. But the
villa and its appendages exceed, in extent and importance, anything we could
have anticipated. So that the provisional committee gives place to a larger body of
antiquaries and architects, under the patronage of the Society of Antiquaries, and
the British Architects, on a basis more commensurate with what now assumes the
character of a national undertaking. The daily Press has already hailed it as
a national object, and if ever the wisdom of Parliament can be persuaded to
legalise Sir John Lubbock's Bill for the Preservation of our Ancient Monuments,
this villa should be included in its scheduled treasures (the Bill was passed in 1882, but it did not include the villa at Brading). The iconoclastic peers,
with a 'noble' indifference to the science of archaeology, have twice rejected
that bill, and left the preservation or destruction of historical monuments to private
caprice. Even a Bourbon despot, or one of the Popes, whilst the temporalities
remained with him, would have come to the rescue of a monument like this; but
the Parliament of the United Kingdom, ruling dominions on which the sun never
sets, cares for none of these things.
Cornelius Nicholson, Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London - A Descriptive Account of the Roman Villa near Brading - 1881
In 1994 a Charity Trust was established to ensure the protection of the Roman villa and in 2004 a new Exhibition and Visitor Centre was inaugurated to allow visitors to properly admire its floor mosaics.
Plan of the remaining part of the villa: 1) Mosaic of Bacchus; 2) Mosaic of Orpheus; 3) Mosaic of Medusa; 4) Mosaic of the Four Seasons
Vespasian is supposed to have occupied the Isle of Wight in the year a.d. 43,
when the first colony in Britain (Camulodunum) was founded under the Emperor
Claudius. (..) The Brading Villa is situated on the lower slope of a chalk hill, which runs
from E, to W., having a southern sunny aspect, overlooking an arm or inlet
of the Solent, called "Brading Harbour," where the Roman galleys could ride
and anchor in perfect safety. (..) Only the principal apartments are yet brought to light. (..) A dozen entertaining-rooms are disclosed in one suite of the
buildings. One of these - it may have been a corridor, or colonnade - is sixty feet
long. The grand double room, with most highly decorated floor, is forty feet
long by eighteen wide. (..) The striking distinction of this villa, next to its ample dimensions, consists in the number and elegance of its mosaic pavements. Nicholson
A contemporary description of newly discovered archaeological sites is always helpful in identifying excesses of restoration/reconstruction.
Interior of the Exhibition and Visitor Centre
The intelligent visitor, inspecting the remains of this magnificent villa, will ask himself. Who in all probability designed and constructed for his abode such a luxurious residence? That he was a person of more than ordinary rank and importance is certain, and that is about all that is quite certain. Whether he held military rank, and was in command of the legionaries; or civil rank holding the scales of justice, can only be a matter of conjecture. Against the supposition of his being in military command here, is the neutral fact that there is not a vestige of garrison works, neither vallum nor fosse, in the neighbourhood. (..) There is no external trace, so far, and no place-name which tells the tale of any military engagement. Hence it may be assumed that the Romans, in taking possession, found little resistance from the aboriginal inhabitants; but quietly settled themselves down, and tranquilly abode for nearly four hundred years. (..) The Brading Villa, then, in such circumstances, may have been the villa rustica of some noble, a pro-consul, or it might be the pro-praetor of the province himself. In addition to his rank and riches - evidenced by the style and decorations of his villa - he was also a person of great intelligence, acquainted with classical story and the sciences, and obviously a lover of the arts. He has left the impress of these attributes behind him at Brading, however long or short may have been his stay here. Without further inquiring into his history, we may feel intensely interested in his foot-prints. Nicholson
Mosaic of Bacchus
We (start the description of) the suite of entertaining-rooms to notice the groups
and figures in a square apartment, being the first that was discovered. Originally
there were nine medallions on this floor, but four of these have perished-destroyed, one may believe they were, by the immigrants who succeeded the
Roman occupation, for fires had been wantonly kindled on this and another
adjacent floor. The central figure here displays the head and face of a
Bacchante, the face encircled with flowing curls that hang down to the neck. Nicholson
Today the central figure is thought to portray Bacchus himself, rather than one of his female followers.
Mosaic of Bacchus - the puzzling scene
An oblong medallion exhibits (..) what we must call the
enigmatical group. This consists of a composite creature, part man and part
cock. It has a man's body, draped in a tunic, man's arms, hands and legs, with
the crested head of a cock, and cock's claws armed with two long straight spurs. A
building (house or temple?) is placed near, with a scala or movable staircase
leading up to it. On the right of these are two winged griffins (vigilans), in
juxtaposition. Who can rightly decipher this incongruous man-cock and its surroundings?
It has given rise to many conjectures, and is calculated to create many differences
of opinion. Nicholson
The meaning of the scene is still debated. There are half a dozen hypotheses; among them one sees the cockerel as a personification of Mercury and another one as a caricature of an emperor of the IIIrd century having "Gallus" (cock in Latin) in his name, i.e. Trebonianus Gallus or Gallienus.
In the centre of the long sixty-feet room, which may have been a corridor or
colonnade, is a circular medallion four feet in diameter, representing Orpheus
seated with his golden lyre, having by fascination brought to his side a monkey,
a fox, a peacock and a chough." Nicholson
Orpheus was a very popular subject because his depiction was accompanied by that of many animals thus giving the mosaic-maker the opportunity to show his talent. A better mosaic portraying Orpheus was found at Corinium (Cirencester). An even better one can be seen at Philippopolis in Syria; a monkey is depicted also in another mosaic of Orpheus at Volubilis.
Mosaics of the Double Hall: (above) Mosaic of Medusa; (below) Mosaic of the Four Seasons;
What we will, at present, call the State apartment, forty feet long by eighteen feet wide, presents, from end to end, the features of a horizontal picture-gallery, a tessellated Pinacotheca. It is a double room, divided by an inlet of solid masonry, constructed apparently for the support of an architrave from which a curtain or screen depended. Broken pieces of stucco, painted in imitation of veined marble, show that dadoes of fresco ran round this and other chambers. Nicholson
The eastern portion of the State apartment aforementioned - the Medusa end
- contains a square of striking groups of figures. In the centre is a circular medallion, representing a fine head of Medusa, with her usual nimbus of snakes.
Radiating from this centre are four medallions, containing two figures each, a
male and female. (..) Placed opposite to
each other, in this square, are four heads of Mercury, each with his winged cap.
Two of these are blowing a buccina or conch, and two are blowing straight
The image used as background for this page shows Medusa's head which can be seen also in the baths of the Roman Villa of Bignor. A more spectacular depiction of Medusa is at the Archaeological Museum of Sousse.
Details of the mosaics in the Double Hall: (above-left) Arethusa and Alpheus; (above-centre) Ceres and Triptolemus; (above-right) the figure between the two halls; (below) Tritons and Nereids (see a beautiful mosaic at Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily)
These are supposed to be Arethusa and the river god Alpheus. She
is in the act of fleeing from the god in terror, with her garments torn
almost entirely from her back. (..) A medallion depicts Ceres, the goddess of harvests, offering to Triptolemus,
(the inventor of the plough) some seeds or corns of wheat. He receives the
seeds with one hand, and with the other he holds a primitive single-shared
plough.(..) Intermediately between the two quadrangles, east and west, seated all
alone on an oblong panel, is the figure of a bearded astronomer, evidently meant
for Hipparchus, "the father of astronomy and trigonometry." He has placed
by his side the instruments of astronomy which constitute the foundation of
his fame, namely a sun-dial raised on a tall pillar; a terrestrial sphere, to which he is pointing with a wand in his right hand, as if triumphing
over the determination of the latitudes and longitudes of the earth. A basin-shaped instrument is shown on the left, with a staff, pike, or finger in the middle supposed to be a planisphere, gnomon, or horologium. It will be noted that
this historical personage is exceptionally placed among mythic subjects. Nicholson
The interpretation of the subjects of the mosaics by Nicholson is still among the most likely ones, although the heads of Mercury could represent winds, the couple Arethusa/Alpheus a similar Greek myth (e.g. Apollo and Daphne) and the figure between the two halls could be another astronomer.
Details of the Mosaic of the Four Seasons in the larger hall: (left) Winter (see it at Bignor); (right-above) Summer; (right-below) Perseus and Andromeda (see the same subject in a mosaic from Zeugma, on the River Euphrates, at the other end of the Empire)
The pictorial square of the western half of this State apartment is less perfect than the eastern portion, but the hand and skill of the same artist are here, both in design and execution. Four heads are placed at the four angles of this square, appropriately adorned, representing the seasons of the year; and what is noticeable as showing the nice observation of the designer, is the fact that winter is placed (as near as may be) on the north; summer to the south; spring to the east; and autumn to the west. Here, also, is a group of two figures, male and female, Perseus and Andromeda. Perseus holding at arm's length his trophy of the head of Medusa; and Andromeda by his side, chained to the rock. Nicholson
Small museum at the Roman Villa of Brading: fragments of a painted wall; (inset) coin of Allectus
Some pottery, a few coins, and one or two domestic utensils,
articles of the toilet and antique glass have turned up in the excavations, but these are fewer and of less importance than might have been expected. Nicholson
The coins which were found at the villa indicate that it was inhabited until the end of the IVth century, although during the last 120 years of its history it was at risk of being raided by Saxon pirates (read a page on Portus Adurni, a fortress the Romans built on the mainland opposite Vectis to stop these raids).
Roman Villa of Newport: baths with evidence of their "hypocaust" (heating system); (inset) assumed aspect of the villa; the baths were in the right wing and the furnace for heating them was outside the building
Vectis did not house Roman towns, but several countryside villas have been identified and in some instances excavated. In 1926 the baths and a room of a Roman villa were unearthed at Newport, the principal town of the Isle of Wight.
Roman Villa of Newport: the only remaining hall
Plan of this section:
Aquae Sulis (Bath Spa)
Isca Augusta (Caerleon)
Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester) and nearby Fishbourne Palace
Portus Adurni (Portchester)
Venta Belgarum (Winchester)
Verulamium (St. Albans)
Roman Villas on Vectis (Isle of Wight)
Roman Villa of Lullingstone
Roman Villa of Bignor
Roman Villas in Dorset/Somerset