The Romans in Sussex

A talk by Brian Braby

In January we had a very lively and entertaining talk from Brian Braby a teacher, historian and geologist.  The talk was given in the Uplands Sixth Form Centre as the Commemoration Hall had a rival booking.  The change in venue meant that we had a somewhat smaller audience than usual, which was disappointing for those of our members who missed this talk.

The Roman Emperor Claudius is thought to have landed his army at Richborough in Kent in AD 43, close to the Isle of Thanet.  Richborough was once an important natural harbour

The main reason the Romans came into Sussex, in AD 43 was to obtain the iron which had been exported by the Celts to Europe until the Roman invasion. Two dozen pre Roman Iron Working sites have been found, mostly in East Sussex including one at Bardown just north of Stonegate.

The largest Roman Settlement discovered is at Fishbourne close to Chichester and neighbouring Chichester Harbour.  We were shown some excellent drawings not only of the present museum but the probable original palace bath house and surrounding gardens which would have had a footprint larger than Buckingham Palace.

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.  Fishbourne is by far the largest Roman residence known north of the Alps.  A museum has been built by the Sussex Archaeological Society, incorporating most of the visible remains including one wing of the palace. The first buildings at Fishbourne appear to have been a supply base for the Roman army constructed in the early part of the conquest in 43 AD.

The location of Fishbourne in proximity to Chichester (Noviomagus Reginorum) -is often looked to when discussing the opulent wealth represented at Fishbourne. The city of Chichester was in the heart of the dominant Atrebates tribe, but their early introduction to Roman imperialism created a pseudo-friendly relationship between the Romans and the Atrebates; the tribal people in this area were later called the Regnii having been ruled by Roman client kings for so long.

We were told about a further discovery, the Roman Villa dating from circa 200 AD North East of Chichester at Bignor, where the discovered mosaics are said to be as good as any in Europe.  The portrayed features in the mosaics being particularly remarkable.   Bignor is close to Stane Street, the amazingly straight Roman Road built from Chichester to London, negotiating a route through the South Downs and other hazards with a series of “elbows”.   Two Roman mansios, the equivalent of today’s service stations, have been discovered on Stane Street about 12 miles apart; they were built for rest and refreshment for important travellers on Stane Strret.

The Romans left Sussex in Circa AD 410, and research work continues to uncover evidence of the Roman occupation of the County.

Martin Turner

Supplementary note:  Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 and 54 BC, but was never in Sussex