Fishbourne roman palace Museum

Roman Palace Museum

Cupid on a Dolphin Mosaic

Cupid on a Dolphin Mosaic

Fishbourne Roman Palace is in the village of Fishbourne, Chichester in West Sussex. The large palace was built in the 1st century AD, around thirty years after the Roman conquest of Britain, on the site of a Roman army supply base established at the Claudian invasion in 43 AD. Although local people had known of the existence of Roman remains in the area, it was not until 1960 that the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe first systematically excavated the site, which had been accidentally uncovered by Aubrey Barrett, an engineer working for Portsmouth Water Company who was laying a new water main across a field. The Roman villa excavated by Cunliffe's team was so large that it became known as Fishbourne Roman Palace, and a museum was erected to protect and preserve some of the remains in situ. In size, it is approximately equivalent to Nero's Golden House in Rome or to the Villa Romana del Casale near to Piazza Armerina in Sicily, and in plan it closely mirrors the basic organisation of the emperor Domitian's palace, the Domus Flavia, completed in AD 92 upon the Palatine Hill in Rome. Fishbourne is by far the largest Roman residence known north of the Alps. At about 500 feet (150 m) square, it has a larger footprint than Buckingham Palace.


The first buildings on the site were granaries, apparently a supply base for the Roman army, constructed in the early part of the conquest in 43 AD. Later, two timber-frame buildings were constructed, one with clay and mortar floors and plaster walls which appears to have been a dwelling house of some comfort. These buildings were demolished in the AD 90s and replaced by a substantial stone-walled house, which included a courtyard garden with colonnades and a bath suite. It has been suggested that the palace itself, incorporating the previous house in its south-east corner, was built in around c 73–75 AD. A reinterpretation of the ground plan and finds assemblage by Dr Miles Russell of Bournemouth University has suggested that, given the extremely close parallels with Domitian's imperial palace in Rome, its construction may more plausibly date to after AD 92.


As for who lived in the Fishbourne palace, the accepted theory, first proposed by Barry Cunliffe, is that the early phase of the palace was the residence of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus (or Togidubnus), a pro-Roman local chieftain who was installed as king of a number of territories following the first stage of the conquest. Cogidubnus / Togidubnus is known from a reference to his loyalty in Tacitus's Agricola, and from an inscription commemorating a temple dedicated to Neptune and Minerva found in nearby Chichester. Another theory is that it was built for another native, Sallustius Lucullus, a Roman governor of Britain of the late 1st century who may have been the son of the British prince Adminius. Two inscriptions recording the presence of Lucullus have been found in nearby Chichester and the redating, by Miles Russell, of the palace to the early AD 90s, would fit far more securely with such an interpretation. If the palace were designed for Lucullus, then it may have only been in use for a few years, for the Roman historian Suetonius records that Lucullus was executed by the delusional emperor Domitian in or shortly after AD 93.


Additional theories suggest that owner of the palace was either Verica, a British client king of the Roman Empire in the years preceding the Claudian invasion, or even one Tiberius Claudius Catuarus, whose gold signet ring was discovered nearby in 1995. The palace outlasted the original owner and was extensively re-planned early in the 2nd century, being subdivided into a series of lesser apartments. Further redevelopment was begun in the late 3rd century, but these alterations were incomplete when the north wing was destroyed in a fire c. 270 AD. The damage was too great to repair, and the palace was abandoned and later dismantled. It is not known whether the fire was accidental, set by coastal raiders or part of a more widespread period of disruption caused by the revolt of the 'British' emperor Carausius in the 280s AD. The final phase palace comprised four large wings with colonnaded fronts, forming a square around a formal garden. The north and east wings each consisted of suites of rooms built around courtyards, with a monumental entrance in the middle of the east wing. In the north-east corner was an aisled assembly hall. The west wing contained state rooms, a large ceremonial reception room, and a gallery. The south wing contained the owner's private apartments. The palace also included as many as 50 mosaic floors, under-floor central heating and an integral bathhouse. Click here for an audio guide of the Roman Palace

Reconstruction of the Roman Palace

Reconstruction of the Roman Palace


The site is generally level, with easy access to the museum, North Wing mosaic area, café and introductory film theatre and offers good physical access with wide doors and ramped walkways. The gardens have gravel pathways but the layout of the formal garden can be viewed from the colonnade which runs the length of the North Wing. Four dedicated parking spaces are offered to visitors displaying a Blue Badge. Assistance dogs are welcome and they offer 2 loan wheelchairs which may be reserved the day before a visit. The site has 3 wheelchair accessible toilets, one in the Museum foyer, one in the Collections Discovery Centre and one adjacent to the car park which is operated by a RADAR key. There is seating at intervals within the museum and grounds.


There is ample, free parking for cars and coaches on site. The Cafe at the Palace offers freshly prepared lunches, snacks and cakes as well as a selection of teas and coffees. It is possible to make reservations for groups by prior arrangement. For a copy of the menu and contact details click here. They also have picnic tables available in their grounds for your own Roman feast. The Roman Palace Shop offers a wide range of gift ideas including replica items, handmade jewellery and a selection of books and souvenirs.


Menu for a Roman Dinner Party GUSTATIO Conditum paradoxum spiced wine:1 bottle medium dry white wine, 3/4 cup honey, 1/2 tsp ground black pepper,1 bay leaf, Pinch of saffron,1 fresh date the stone roasted for 10 minutes and the flesh soaked in a little wine. Put 2/3 cup of the wine in a saucepan with the honey and bring it to the boil. Skim if necessary. Repeat and remove from the heat. Add the seasonings to the wine while it is hot. When it is cold, add the rest of the wine and allow to stand overnight. To serve, strain through a fine sieve or muslin. Chill well. Salad Cattabia:8 slices white bread, 2 cooked chicken breasts,1/2 cup grated smoked cheese,1 medium chopped onion, 4 Tbsps pinenuts lightly crushed, 1/2 cucumber, sliced. Line a pudding basin with the bread. Layer with the other ingredients in the order above twice, finishing with the cucumber. Dressing: 1/2 tsp finely diced ginger, 3 tbsps wine vinegar,1 large handful coriander leaf chopped, 2/3 cup red wine,1 tbsp raisins, 1 tbsp honey,1 tsp chopped mint, salt and pepper, 1 tsp pennyroyal, 1 tsp celery seeds, 3 Tbsp olive oil Grind ginger, coriander and raisins to a pulp. Add the remaining herbs and celery seeds and mix well, scoop the ingredients into another bowl and flush out the mortarium with the vinegar, Add the wine, honey, oil and seasons. Pour the dressing over the salad. Lay a piece of grease proof paper over the salad and using another bowl gently push down on salad. Leave a weighed plate on the salad and place in refrigerator over night. Honeyed mushrooms:1 tbsp olive oil, 2 tsp chopped lovage,1 tbsp fish sauce, 1/2 tsp black pepper, 1 tbsp honey, 2 cups mushrooms Slice the mushrooms. Grind pepper. Combine the oil, fish sauce, honey in a pan. Bring to the boil, and add lovage, pepper and mushrooms. Cook to reduce the liquid and serve. Epityrum or olive relish:1 cup green olives-pitted, 4 tbsp olive oil,1 cup black olivespitted, 4 tbsp wine vinegar, Fennel leaf,Rue, Mint Chop the olives roughly, put in a bowl, with the oil and vinegar, Grind the herbs to a past and add to the mixture, stir throughly and serve.


Fishbourne Roman Palace houses the largest collection of in-situ mosaic floors in Britain. Many of these were laid at the time of the construction of the Palace, around AD75-80, which makes them some of the oldest mosaics in the country. The original Palace had approximately one hundred rooms most of which had mosaic floors. Of these, just over a quarter survive to some degree, ranging from small, isolated patches to almost complete floors. Mosaic survival has been far better in the remains of the north wing of the Palace. Here over twenty mosaics and fragments of mosaics can be seen, inside the modern, cover building. In addition, substantial fragments of five mosaics were discovered in the west wing of the palace during the 1960s excavations, but as there was no plan to erect a cover building to protect them, they were re-buried for their own protection. Three further fragments were discovered in the southern half of the west wing during excavations in 1987-88. As they were beyond the boundary of the Roman Palace site and potentially at risk, they were lifted, conserved and put on display in the north wing cover building.


The earliest mosaics at Fishbourne tend to be black geometric patterns on a white background, something that was popular in Italy at the time. The designs may have arrived in pattern books and were adapted to suit local requirements. The mosaicists probably also came from Italy, as there would have been no one in Britain with the necessary expertise. The materials, however, were local. The white tesserae, or stone cubes, are of lower chalk and the dark grey of limestone. The designs vary in complexity, from a simple black and white chequer enclosed by black border lines, to the extremely complicated design on the mosaic in room N12. This, superficially, appears to be a perspective design but closer inspection reveals disruptive elements which add to its appeal. One of the most unusual mosaics is the Fortress mosaic, which was discovered beneath the Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic in 1980, when the latter was lifted for conservation. This has a central panel divided up into sixteen squares each containing a geometric design. The remains of nine different patterns survive. Around the central panel is a remarkable border representing a fortified town wall, with three courses of masonry, ‘T’ shaped castellations, square corner-towers and gateways, double to the north and single to the east and west. Such borders are not common and where they do occur they frequently surround a labyrinth and sometimes a Minotaur, a reference to the Theseus myth. This is the only example known where such a border surrounds geometric panels.


A few of the geometric mosaics contain small elements of colour, such as red and grey in the Fortress mosaic and red in the mosaic fragments beneath the later hypocaust. However one first century floor is totally polychrome, quite remarkable for such an early date. Although the central circular panel no longer survives, part of a surrounding band does. This contains alternating rosettes and leaves in red, yellow and white, outlined in black. Beyond this is another band bearing a multicoloured twisted guilloche, or ropework, design. In the corners of the floor are wine-vases flanked by either vine tendrils, dolphins or fish. In the early second century one of the existing geometric mosaics was directly overlain by a new polychrome, featuring the head of Medusa in a braided guilloche border. Beyond that are pairs of octagons containing knots, flowers and leaves, flanked by square panels of black and white chequer. All this is enclosed in a variety of borders and the whole mosaic panel is set in a surrounding of coarse red tesserae. Although this is a lively and colourful design, basic errors in planning and laying are evident and the tesserae used are not as regular as those used on the earlier floors. The implication is that the mosaic represents the attempt of local craftsmen who had not yet gained competence.


Competence was not lacking in the team who laid the ‘Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic’ in c.AD160. At the centre, cupid sits astride a dolphin with a trident in his hand. They are surrounded by a border of braided guilloche flanked by semi-circles containing sea horses and sea panthers, wine vases and scallop shells. This square panel is enclosed by a series of borders the outer of which is made up of spiral vine tendrils springing from the handles of wine vases. A small black bird sitting on one of these tendrils is probably the trademark of the mosaicist. The whole of this panel is surrounded by a black and white chequer design, interrupter to the south by a ‘doormat of more complex design. The dating of the floor’s construction was based on both the design and also the date of the squares of red, samian pottery that had been used as tesserae. Another second century mosaic comprises two large scallop shells in red, black, orange and white, flanking a rectangular panel containing fish or dolphins and lozenges. Unfortunately it has been partially destroyed by a later tree pit. In the early third century, a furnace room in the north wing was re-floored with a small panel of mosaic. This comprises a Solomon’s knot enclosed by a circular band of twisted guilloche surrounded by dolphins and wine vases and flanked at both ends by panels of lozenges. Fishbourne Roman Palace displays a remarkable sequence of mosaics that cannot be seen elsewhere in the country.


Location : Fishbourne Roman Palace, Roman Way, Fishbourne, West Sussex PO19 3QR

Transport : Fishbourne (National Rail) then 8 minutes. Bus Routes : 56 and 700 from Chichester stop 5 minutes away.

Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 17:00;   November, December, February until 16:00

Tickets : Adults £8.90;   Seniors/Students £8.20;   Children (5 - 16) £4.20

Tel. : 01243 785859