The Romans in Britain: Towns and Villas

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Roman towns were a vast improvement on the small Celtic settlements. Those had simple wooden buildings and were not towns in either the Roman or the modern sense of the word. The Romans operated on a larger scale. Their towns were much larger than the Celtic settlements, with shops, houses and an array of public buildings. Apart from those listed below, these might include temples and public cemetaries.


Before the Romans, the population of Britain had lived in small farmsteads or hillforts such as the mighty Maiden Castle. These farmsteads were generally protected by a gate joined to an earth bank or palisade fence, with storage huts and living areas inside the defence of the modest fortifications. The hillforts, however, were much better defended (although this didn’t stop the disciplined Roman army capturing them). However, towns as we know them were a Roman idea. They develped existing Celtic settlements or just began new ones.

Main types of town buildings

Baths: Known in Latin as thermae, bath-houses were mainly based on military designs – civilian baths often resemble those found at military bases. They were a very important feature of Roman towns all over the Empire as a place for hygiene and also as a meeting place. They were used both for gossip and relaxation and for exercise. As they were so important, most towns had one, and some had several.

At a typical bath-house, bathers would enter through a portico with latrines and enter a courtyard for exercise. Beyond this would be an undressing room (with lockers), then a plunge pool, a tepid room, a hot room and a very hot room. The walls had to be thick in order to retain the heat, which came from hypocausts1 under the floor. Most bath-houses had vaulted stone roofs as timber would not last long in the wet atmosphere – this was probably then covered by a tiled roof.

Basilicas: These were built alongside forums and both were important features of the town. Only built in important or administrative towns, the basilica was like a modern town hall and magistrate’s court rolled into one – it was the meeting place for the council, the storing place of records and funds and also the location of judging cases of law-breaking.

The basilica was built in the form of a long, covered rectangular hall, with its size depending on the importance and size of the town. They had a nave and an apse at one or both ends and a roof supported by vaults or beams. As they were important civic buildings, they would almost certainly have been richly decorated with wall paintings, statues and similar. They were usually built in timber and then rebuilt in stone later. However, the only significant surviving pieces of any basilica are at Lincoln and Caerwent.

Forum: The forum acted as a public meeting place. It was a large courtyard in the shape of a square or rectangle with covered aisle on three sides and the basilica forming the fourth. The forum was used as a market place and as a gathering point for public announcements, which led to a sense of civic unity. They were decorated with statues of Gods and Emperors.

Theatres: These were almost always semicircular in construction and were used for plays and religious festivals and displays, including acting out religious myths and performing festivals and were found in major towns. Even some minor towns such as Brough-on-Humber had theatres, which shows how important and common they were. This and other small theatres were probably made of timber, which is why no architectural evidence of them remains.

The theatre was usually a semicircular auditorium facing a stage opposite and some activity even took place in the space between the audience sitting in the auditorium and the actors on stage in an area called the orchestra.

Amphitheatres: The most famous example is undoubtedly the Colosseum in Rome, but Britain had a few amphitheatres of her own! They were circular or oval in shape and in other countries were used mainly for gladiator fights (although there is no evidence of gladiator fights in Britain) and military displays and probably looked something like a Spanish bullfighting arena. In Britain they were usually built from earth embankments with timber seats. The amphitheatre in Dorchester was created by deepening the floor of a Neolithic monument (already 2000 years old in Roman times) and using this soil to raise banks for seating.

Amphitheatres often had two opposite entrances and two holes or niches in the walls where it is probable that religious statues would be placed, especially suitable deities such as Nemesis (Fate).


After the invasion, some rich people began to live in country villas, sometimes the centre of anagricultural estate. It is feasible that Roman villa owners let at least some of their land to tenants to farm. While many people seem to have the idea of everyone in Roman Britain living in large and luxurious villas, it has been calculated that only 1% of the population of Roman Britain actually did. Many people lived in original Iron Age settlements or Roman period settlements built in the same form as the earlier Celtic buildings.

Types of Villas

Cottage: Arguably the simplest sort of villa, these small, rectangular structures generally replaced the round Celtic huts in the early part of the Roman occupation of Britain, but were still being used and built at the end of it. Access was through one room to the next and many were added to later in life.

Aisled: Also known as the basilican type, these villas were rectangular with two rows of pillars separating the building lengthways into three sections – two aisles and a nave. There may have been further partitions within this. Normally, the entrance was in the centre of one side. This type of villa was very simple and may have been use as a smaller building beside the main villa, for example as servant’s quarters. They were generally built later in the Roman period in Britain.

Corridor: The corridor villa was an earlier version of the winged corridor form, except it obviously didn’t have the wings. It was a rectangular shaped house and was built with a corridor along one side with entrances into all the rooms for easier access (earlier villa types did not have this feature).

Winged Corridor: The winged corridor was simply an expansion of the corridor type. Owners wanted more space, so they built projecting wings onto each side of the house. This was the standard villa type of small country houses and estates by about 100 AD.

Courtyard: This form was reserved for the largest and most expensive villas. They consisted of an enclosed rectangular courtyard, accessed by a gate at the front. North Leigh villa in Oxfordshire is a good example – it has a courtyard of approximately 160 by 200 feet, which is surrounded by the wings of the house. The famous villa at Chedworth is another example. It is a fourth century villa which is very rich and large.

1Under-floor heating systems, fuelled by furnaces.

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