The palace at Fishbourne was one of the most remarkable structures in Roman Britain, although the remains are now only a pale shadow of the buildings in their original glory. Only discovered in the 1960s, the site has now been extensively excavated, revealing that it was originally a military site. Lying close to the sea it was ideal as a depot to support Roman campaigns in the south west of the province.
Built on four sides around a central garden, the site covered about two hectares (the size of two football pitches). Huge amounts of soil were carried off in carts to level the ground and an army of skilled craftsmen drafted in from the continent. The building itself had about one hundred rooms, many with mosaics.
Visitors arriving by road from the nearby town of Chichester would have walked up steps to a pool decorated by fountains, before being welcomed in a huge entrance hall. Most rooms opened onto verandas with colonnades, letting light and air into the building. The owner is unknown: it may have belonged to a family of Celtic client kings, but it is equally possible that it may have belonged to some high-ranking Roman administrator.
Unfortunately now only parts of the north wing of the palace survive. The remains, and a remarkable collection of early Roman mosaics, are displayed inside a covered building. The best known mosaic is the 'Cupid on a Dolphin', made up of 360,000 tesserae. This was featured in the programme 'Coming of Age'.
Some of the red stones are made from pieces of red gloss pottery, imported from Gaul. The formal garden has been replanted to its original plan, and although no plant remains were found to show which actual plant varieties were grown in the garden, classical references have been used to suggest what might have been planted. In the kitchen garden you can see many herbs, commonly used today, that were introduced in Roman times - plants like onions, garlic and chives. They were for medicinal as well as culinary uses. Parsley, coriander, dill, and caraway were also introduced. Lavender was used as a bath additive, and Roman soldiers bathed in thyme water to give themselves strength.
Wormwood was planted by the side of the road, so that sprigs could be put in sandals to help prevent aching feet. Sage and vervain were both sacred plants and aniseed was used to make a special cake, eaten at the end of feasts, to aid digestion. Fennel was much prized as a medicinal herb. Warriors would eat it to keep in good health, and Roman ladies would eat it as a guard against obesity. They even gave us mustard, derived from the Latin word 'ardens' (for fiery) and because the seed was mixed with 'mustus' (new wine). We're all familiar with bay leaves as a symbol of wisdom and glory, but how many people know that the Romans were responsible for nettles? According to tradition, soldiers beat themselves with the plant, in order to keep warm in our cooler climate.
Fishbourne Roman Palace is located 1.25 miles west of Chichester on the A27 to Portsmouth.