Roman military at Fishbourne and how the story is still emerging

The story of Fishbourne Roman Palace is well known and often repeated. This enormous structure stood around a mile to the west of Roman Chichester and would have dominated the surrounding landscape.

Built in AD75, the Palace would likely have been an administrative centre from which the newly-conquered region would have been controlled. There can be no mistaking the scale and grandeur of this site. Visitors to the Palace never fail to be impressed by the stunning mosaic floors, ornate interior decoration, luxury goods and of course the impressive formal garden (the first in Britain) around which the Palace complex was arranged.

What is less obvious to the casual visitor is that the huge Palace that we all recognise in fact represents the end of a long period of evolution of the site and arguably the history of it is at least as interesting as the Palace itself.

The Roman invasion of AD43 obviously left an indelible mark on Britain but the impact on the Chichester area was perhaps more profound than might first be imagined. The excavation of the site in the 1960s produced compelling evidence that there was a military presence in the area before the Palace was constructed.

This fitting from a Roman gladius would have belonged to a soldier and dates to before the invasion of 43AD. Picture: Fishbourne Roman Palace

The remains of army-style grain stores dating to around the time of the invasion support this but also the discovery in the 1980s of what may be a principia (a Roman military headquarters) just to the east of the later Palace adds weight to this theory. The Roman army was definitely in the area and they were here very soon after the invasion.

But that is not all. In the 19th Century a Roman legionary’s helmet was found in Chichester Harbour and dated to before AD43. This find was dismissed as representing the loss of a then out-of-date item of army kit, at some point post-AD43. However, more recent finds have led us to question this.

In 2002 a fitting from a Roman army sword was recovered from an excavation and securely dated to around 25AD – about 20 years before the Roman invasion. Was there really a soldier, or more, in the area at this time? And if so, what was he doing there?

Recent analysis of finds from a nearby site has shown that metal-working was an important local activity, and a single fragment of a crucible has proved particularly intriguing. This crucible is pre-invasion in date but chemical tests have shown that it was being used to manufacture brass objects. Brass was a closely-guarded military secret at the time. Moulds from the site show that the items being cast were indeed cavalry harness fittings. Were local craftsmen making Roman military hardware even before the invasion?

Excavations to the east of Fishbourne Roman Palace. Picture: Fishbourne Roman Palace

The picture that emerges is that, even before Roman conquest, there was close contact between the local population and the Romans, and that this contact may have had a military element. Trade almost certainly took place and soldiers may have facilitated this, or overseen it. Maybe links were more personal and bonds of marriage led retired soldiers to settle in the area. What seems certain is that some of the local population at least were engaging with the continent, consuming their goods and dabbling in Roman culture.

Food remains found near the scabbard fitting in 2002 show that at this early date of AD25, people at the site were consuming Roman-style cuisine. These food remains were, however, being disposed of following very considered, pre-Roman rituals. This is compelling evidence for a gradual ‘Romanisation’ of indigenous populations in the area and may help explain why the army appears to have met very little resistance when it arrived.

So, perhaps the Roman Palace in Fishbourne is in fact the end of a long story of cultural exchange in the area. Of trade, co-operation and maybe even respect. The story is still emerging and work is ongoing, but, if nothing else, it reminds us to keep looking at the evidence and questioning the received wisdom.

Chichester Roman Week takes place every May half term in and around Chichester District. For a full programme please visit www.thenovium.org/romanweek