When Earl Eldon, in 1864, discovered the remains of a Roman villa on his extensive lands, one of the first things he did was to build himself a hunting lodge in the middle of it. Of course, he didn’t do the work himself. He may have been too busy hunting, bathing, eating and drinking, a mirror image of the life of the villa in its heyday 1700 years ago, when it was the property of a wealthy Roman citizen. We can imagine this man out hunting with other villa owners of the area, with their horses and dogs (hunting dogs were one of Britain’s prime exports), not so different from the Cotswold hunts of today.
After a day’s hunting, our wealthy Roman would come home to luxuriate in one of his several bath suites. First he would relax in the warm room (Tepidarium), where he might be oiled and massaged by his favourite slave. Then he would put on wooden clogs to enter the hot room (Caldarium) to work up a sweat, which would be scraped off by a slave with a strigil (a bit like a butter knife). He would finally take a cold plunge and dress for dinner.
The dining room in the west range was the most sumptuous room. Paved with the most expensive mosaics from the top interior designers of Cirencester, who did all the best villas in the area (including the fabulous Woodchester pavement). The Chedworth dining room mosaics depict the four seasons around the perimeter (Winter wearing a ‘Birrus Britannicus’, forerunner of the ‘hoody’. I wonder if, in fact, it was us who civilized the Romans, getting them to drink beer, wear trousers and tops instead of draughty dresses.) In the middle Bacchus (the god of wine) leers drunkenly at his consort while satyrs and maenads shamelessly cavort. The mosaics and frescoed walls were well lit by large glazed windows and the guests were well fed and entertained.
Chedworth villa was first built in the 2nd century but was greatly developed over the next 200 years to become one of the pre-eminent villas of the most prosperous area of 4th century Britain (the Sandbanks of its day). The Cotswolds were a safe haven from Saxon raids along the east coast and Cirencester had grown to become the 2nd largest city in Britain.
The north range of the villa contains yet more bath suites and a huge reception room, measuring 18m by 6m, featuring another opulent mosaic themed around Orpheus the musician. One mosaic found in recent excavations on this range was dated to the 5th century, indicating that life carried on at Chedworth after the army left Britain and the economy began to collapse. Indeed some of the buildings at Chedworth were used for industrial purposes into the medieval period.
A piece of beautifully decorated glass found during recent excavations has proved to be part of a fish shaped perfume bottle. An extremely rare complete example of this bottle came from a Black Sea burial site. One can imagine our Roman gentleman of leisure, just like his Victorian counterpart, doing the grand tour around the Mediterranean, picking up some intricate little mementos along the way.
We have Dr. Nick Humphris to thank for this glimpse into the lifestyle of the Cotswold elite of 1700 years ago.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.