On The Quality and Art of Roman Work in Britain

A writer on early antiquities, Mr. King, to whom we have several times referred, has a notion that the private dwellings of the Romans, especially in this island, were not remarkable for comfort or elegance, to say nothing of magnificence: “In most instances a Roman Quæstor, or Tribune, sitting here in his toga on his moveable sella, or wallowing on his triclinium, on one of those dull, dark, and at best ill-looking works of mosaic, did not after all appear with much more real splendour, as to any advantages from the refinements of civilized life, than an old Scotch laird in the Highlands, sitting in his plaid on a joint-stool or on a chair of not much better construction, in the corner of his rough, rude, castle tower.” This is a bold assertion, and one that indicates that the writer has no very clear perception of what constitutes the best evidence of the existence of the “refinements of civilized life.” The first dull, dark, ill-looking work of mosaic, which Mr. King describes, is a tessellated pavement, which he says “shows great design and masterly execution.” The remains of villas discovered in England have for the most part painted walls, even according to Mr. King—some proof of refinement, if all other proofs were absent. But the rooms with the painted walls had no fire-places with chimneys, and must have been warmed when needful, “merely by hot air from the adjoining hypocaust.” This is a curious example of the mutation of ideas in half a century. The Romans in Britain, according to Mr. King, could have had no comfort or refinement, because they had no open fires, and warmed their rooms with hot air. The science of our own day says that the open fire and chimney are relics of barbarism, and that comfort and refinement demand the hot air. The remains of a hypocaust at Lincoln (Fig. 141) alone indicate something beyond the conveniences possessed by the old Scotch laird sitting on his joint-stool. But, in truth, the bare inspection of the plan of any one of the Roman villas discovered in England will show that the colonizers brought here the same tasteful arrangements of their private dwellings as distinguished similar remains in the states wholly peopled by Romans. Vitruvius has given us the general plan of a Roman villa (Fig. 176), which we copy, that it may be compared with the plans of Roman villas discovered in England. The most important of these is that at Woodchester, near Stroud, in Gloucestershire, which was discovered by Mr. Lysons in 1795 (Fig. 177). The plan of this remarkable building, which Mr. Lysons has been able distinctly to trace, shows that there was a large open court, or atrium, marked b; an inner court, marked a; and a smaller court in the wing, marked c. Round these were grouped the various apartments and domestic offices, about sixty in number. Mr. King seems to think somewhat meanly of these apartments, as they seldom exceed twenty or twenty-five feet in length, with a proportionate breadth; and because “there is no reason from any remaining traces of any sort or kind to suppose there was ever a staircase in any part, or so much as one single room above the ground-floor.

Figure spread at pages 52 and 53:

Figure 189
189.—Arms and Costume of a Saxon Military Chief.
Figure 190
190.—Arms and Costume of an Anglo-Saxon King and Armour Bearer.
Figure 191
191.—Arms and costume of the Tribes on the Western Shores of the Baltic.
Figure 192
192.—Arms and Costume of Danish Warriors
Figure 193
193.—Costume of a Soldier. From Cotton MS. Tib. C. 6.
Figure 194
194.—Ringed Mail. Cotton MS. Claud. B, 4.

Another Roman villa, of which we have given the plan (Fig. 179), is described by the same indefatigable antiquary, Mr. Samuel Lysons, who, in consequence of the accidental discovery of a mosaic pavement at Bignor, in Sussex, in 1811, was enabled, during that year and the succeeding six years, to trace the plan of a building of great extent and magnificence, with rich pavements and painted walls. “Many of the ornaments and general style of the mosaic work bear a striking resemblance to those of the pavements discovered at Pompeii, which could not have been of a later date than the reign of Titus.” Sir Humphry Davy in some degree confirms this opinion in a letter to Mr. Lysons: “I have examined the colours found on the walls of the Roman house discovered at Bignor, in Sussex; and I find that they are similar in chemical composition to those employed in the baths of Titus at Rome, and in the houses and public buildings at Pompeii and Herculaneum.” We cannot have better evidence that the same arts of design, and the same scientific means of ornament, were employed in Britain as at Pompeii. Accomplished architects have been enabled, from what remains tolerably entire in that buried city, to form a general notion of the internal arrangements of a Roman house. We present such to our readers in the beautiful restorations of Mr. Poynter (Figs. 174, 175, 180, and 181). The villa discovered at Great Witcombe, in Gloucestershire, in 1818 (Fig. 178), exhibits the most complete example of the remains of the Roman baths in this country, several of the walls still existing, from four to five feet above the level of the floors, and most of the doorways being preserved.

The influence of the Roman taste and science upon the domestic architecture of the colonized Britons must no doubt have been considerable. “The use of mortar, plaster, and cement, of the various tools and implements for building, the art of making the flat tiles, and all things connected with masonry and bricklaying, as known and practised by the Romans, must of course, in the progress of their works, have been communicated to their new subjects; and it appears that, by the close of the third century, British builders had acquired considerable reputation. The panegyrist Eumenius tells us that when the emperor Constantius rebuilt the city of Autun, in Gaul, about the end of the third century, he brought the workmen chiefly from Britain, which very much abounded with the best artificers.” (‘Pictorial History of England,’ vol. i.) It would appear, however, that although there can be no doubt that many splendid buildings, such as Giraldus Cambrensis described as having seen in the twelfth century at Caerleon, were models for the successors of the Romans, no remains of a very high style of art have been discovered in Britain. Mr. Rickman says, “I think it is clear that nothing very good of Roman work ever existed in Britain; all the fragments of architecture which have been discovered, whether large or small, whether the tympanum of a temple, as found at Bath, or small altars, as found in many places. I believe they were all deficient either in composition or in execution, or in both, and none that I know of have been better, if so good, as the debased work of the emperor Diocletian in his palace at Spalatro. With these debased examples, we cannot expect that the inhabitants of Britain would (while harassed with continual intestine warfare) improve on the models left by the Romans.” (‘Archæologia,’ vol. xxv.)

It is easy to understand how the Roman architecture of Britain should not have been in the best taste. When the island was permanently settled under the Roman dominion, the arts had greatly declined in Rome itself. In architecture, especially, the introduction of incongruous members, in combination with the general forms derived from the Greeks, produced a corruption which was rapidly advancing in the third century, and which continued to spread till Roman architecture had lost nearly all its original distinctive characters. The models which the Romans left in Britain, to a people harassed with continual invasion and internal dissension, were no doubt chiefly of this debased character. Of the buildings erected for the Pagan worship of the Saxons we have no traces. The re-establishment of Christianity by the conversion of the Saxons was rapidly followed by the building of churches. What was the nature of the material of these churches, whether any of them still exist, whether portions even may yet be found in our ecclesiastical buildings, have been fruitful subjects of antiquarian discussion. There is somewhat of a fashion in such opinions. In the last century, all churches with heavy columns and semicircular arches were called Saxon. Some twenty years ago it was maintained that we had no Saxon buildings at all. The present state of opinion amongst unprejudiced inquirers is, we think, fairly represented in the following candid argument of Mr. Rickman:—“On that part of our architectural history which follows the departure of the Romans from Britain, and which precedes the Norman Conquest, there is of course great obscurity; but while in the days of Dr. Stukeley, Horace Walpole, &c., there appears to have been much too easy an admission of Saxon dates on the mere appearance of the semicircular arch, I think there has been of late perhaps too great a leaning the other way; and because we cannot directly prove that certain edifices are Saxon, by documentary evidence, we have been induced, too easily perhaps, to consider that no Saxon buildings did exist, and have not given ourselves the trouble sufficiently to examine our earlier Norman works to see if they were not some of them entitled to be considered as erected before the Conquest.” This is the subject which we shall be called upon to illustrate in our next chapter; but in the mean time we refer to some of the details of later Roman art, which we give at page 49 (Figs. 182—188). It is to these forms and arrangements that the architecture of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans is to be traced as to a common source.