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Villas were one aspect of traditional Roman life that was exported to Britain. They were comfortable countryside houses, often at the centre of an estate or farm. They were generally owned by well-off individuals or families, as they were expensive properties. Some contained mosaics, tessellated floors and hypocausts1 and some even had private bathhouses. Villas often changed and expanded a great deal over time as new owners added to and expanded them.
Lullingstone villa is about 0.6 miles2 south-west of the village of Eynsford in Kent and is on the banks of the River Darent3. This was a relatively easy journey from London, the capital and main town of Roman Britain. The site of the villa had several advantages. The villa was probably built as the centre of a large agricultural estate. The river valley is quite fertile and so would have made profitable farmland. There were a number of other villas in the area surrounding Lullingstone. The location was excellent because the river could be used as a source of water for cooking, drinking and washing, and potentially to power mills and for transport. There was a great view, good farmland and a large wooded area to provide timber for building and for fuel.
History and Development
Archaeological finds including coins and pottery indicate the presence of some Iron Age peoples in the Lullingstone area before the Roman invasion of AD43. On the hill near the villa, traces have been found of an Iron Age settlement. Kent was the landing site of at least some of the Roman invasion force and was soon quite peaceful and prosperous.
It is thought that the first villa on the site was a timber one, built near the end of the 1st Century AD. It had flint foundations and was small and symmetrical in its design, which was of the 'winged corridor' type (a corridor links a series of rooms, with more rooms in the wings on each side). Excavations show that because of the slope of the land, the villa was able to have a cellar, possibly used to store grain. In the centre of the villa was a dining room, which may have had a tessellated floor.
In about AD150, the villa was rebuilt with flint and tile and in about AD180, a bath suite was added at the south end and the cellar was altered. New rooms were built on each side of Lullingstone. From about AD200, it seems that the villa was neglected for some time, as there was no new building and some parts of the villa fell into disrepair. One possible reason for this is that the occupants of the villa may have supported Clodius Albinus, the Governor of Britain, who in AD195 led a revolt against Rome, and it is possible that Lullingstone was confiscated as a punishment for supporting Albinus. Two pits were dug at the rear of the villa, which seem to have been used for tanning leather. This also implies that the villa was not occupied as the tanning process produces a very putrid smell. The alterations to the cellar included decorating it with wall paintings including a painting of three water nymphs. It is thought that the cellar was used as a shrine and the nymphs may be those of the River Darent. A kitchen was also built behind the villa, with a concrete floor and a large oven.
The villa was refurbished at the end of the 3rd Century, which included building a hypocaust system for some of the rooms. A granary and a family mausoleum were also built. The mausoleum contains the bodies of a young man and a young woman, but it isn’t known if they died at the same time, or even who they were. The granary, as was usual, had a raised floor to keep the grain away from damp and pests. This is one of the largest villa granaries yet found in the UK, and it has been calculated that the villa might have had 235 hectares of farming land. The baths were also enlarged at this time.
The family who owned Lullingstone seem to have converted to Christianity in about AD360 as the rooms above the cellar were converted into a Christian chapel. Fragments of plaster found in the cellar show that these rooms were decorated with wall paintings, which show six figures, arms stretched out in a form of early Christian prayer. It is possible that the figures were supposed to be the family who owned the villa, who were obviously rich as wall painting was expensive. The chi-rho symbol, painted on one wall, is more evidence of the Christian use of the rooms. The name comes from the Greek name for the first two letters of 'Christ' in Greek, and so conclusively demonstrates Christian belief.
The mosaics of Lullingstone seem to have been laid in the mid-4th Century when a new apsed dining room was constructed. The villa was still occupied when the Romans left Britain and into the fifth century, though the baths were filled in. A fire destroyed some of the villa shortly afterwards, although many walls were left relatively undamaged. However, much of Lullingstone’s stone was removed in the Middle Ages to build the local church. At some time in the medieval period, part of the nearby hillside slipped and covered the villa, which is the reason for it being comparatively well preserved. It was only found again in 1939.
Economic and Social Function
Villa life flourished between AD150 and AD200 and again from the late 3rd to the early 4th Centuries, largely because many British towns were then large enough to provide markets to sell the estate produce of the villa owners. Villas were often the centre of farms or estates as well as being homes, but much of their produce was taken in tax. This is another reason why most villas were within ten miles of a town – to allow the sale of produce. For instance, the owners of Lullingstone would no doubt have sold the grain that they kept stored in their large granary; probably in London.
In fact, many villa owners were wealthy enough to have both a villa and a townhouse with staff at each, to look after the building whichever home they were currently at. The town house would have been used when taking care of business or serving in public office, such as the Ordo (town council). The villa would be used for relaxation and holidays.
Little is known about the economic and social impact of most villas but the villa owners at Lullingstone probably had several servants doing jobs around the house; such as cooking and cleaning and almost certainly, given the size of the land and the wealth of the owners, estate workers in addition, as well as other tradesmen and craftsmen whose expertise would be required from time to time. They may also have made use of slaves in some jobs and educated individuals to help with the running of the estate. Some villa owners let areas on their estates, sometimes with cottages, to tenants, which may have occurred here. If the owner also had a townhouse, probably in London, a short journey away, the villa would probably have been run by a bailiff and slaves in his absence. It is likely that many people relied on Lullingstone and the other surrounding villas for their livelihood.
Archaeologists have found the remains of a flint building with a tessellated floor on the hillside, which experts think may have been a shrine, though it is impossible to be sure. Other interesting features of the building include the chapel, which is unusual, the large granary, and the mausoleum. Many mysteries still surround these structures as we know little about them.
There are very few mosaics in Kent, but Lullingstone has some particularly fine examples, including one showing Bellerophon, Pegasus and the Chimera, a story from Roman myth, and another showing 'Europa and the Bull', also from Roman myth. It makes reference to events in Virgil's Aeneid, which suggests a well- cultured pagan owner when it was put in. Another factor suggesting the background of the owners are two busts from the villa, both in the Eastern Mediterranean style, which suggests a non-British owner. It has also been theorised that the busts were of members of the family.
Visiting Lullingstone Roman Villa
Lullingstone is run by English Heritage, and their website has comprehensive information for visitors.