I recently signed a contract with Crooked Cat Publications for my second novel, An Accidental King. Set in the 1st Century AD, it is the fictionalised autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, a native British King who sought rapprochement with the Romans. The book needs one final edit, which I am currently working on, and we will then set a publication date later in the year. In the meantime, I will be sharing some of my sources and research notes here.
So here is the starting point - a place, Fishbourne Roman Palace, near Chichester in West Sussex. I first visited it with my parents and my sister on our annual holidays when I was about ten years old. Already fascinated by archaeology and history, I had spent a great deal of time exploring the prehistoric archaeology of Jersey (where we lived), but there was little Roman archaeology there, so these visits were a rare treat for me, and set me wondering about who might have lived there, and what their lives might have involved.
Fishbourne is called a "palace," rather than a "villa," for good reasons. It is by far the largest, and most opulent, Roman residence ever found in the British Isles but, intriguingly, it is also one of the earliest.
It was built in several distinct phases (Cunliffe 1971 a, b):
1) A Roman military site with granaries, built shortly after 43 AD (the date of the Roman invasion of Britain).
2) Two impressive buildings, in the Roman style, each with 6-7 rooms, built in the late 40s or early 50s AD. At least one of these appears to have been a high-status residence. These buildings were probably of timber on stone foundations, with painted plaster on the walls and tiled roofs.
3) A substantial stone-walled residence (the "Neronian Palace"), with baths and a courtyard garden, built in the mid 60s AD.
4) A much larger and more lavish residence (the "Flavian Palace"), built in the early 70s AD.
The "Neronian Palace" is not entirely unique (similar buildings have been found at Angmering and Silchester - Fulford 2008), but its carved columns and mosaic floors are, in the British context, very early, and could hardly have been made by British craftsmen.
The "Flavian Palace," on the other hand, is utterly unique, not only in Britain, but in Europe north of the Alps. With a larger footprint than Buckingham Palace, a formal audience-chamber, and an aisled hall with a public as well as a private entrance, the only points of comparison are with a handful of palaces in Italy, prominent amongst them Nero's "Golden House," the building of which had scandalised Roman society.
What is such a palace doing in rural Sussex? Who lived there? What had they done to deserve the patronage that must have been involved in building it? We may never know the full answers to these questions. I will, of course, provide answers to them in the novel, but they are not answers which I could advance in an academic context, because there is no evidence to support them. I believe, however, that they are, at least, compatible with the facts as they are known.
Most but not all authorities consider it likely that the palace was the seat of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, a British king of the 1st Century AD, who is recorded as having been a loyal ally of Rome. I have followed this judgement, exploring, in particular, his relationship with the Emperor Vespasian, within whose reign the "Flavian Palace" was built.
B.W. Cunliffe 1971a Fishbourne: A Roman Palace and its Garden. London, Thames & Hudson.
B.W. Cunliffe 1972b Excavations at Fishbourne, 1961-67. Vol.1. The Site. Vol.2. The Finds. London, Society of Antiquaries.
M. Fulford 2008 "Nero and Britain: The palace of the client king at Calleva, and Imperial policy towards the province after Boudicca." Brittania, 39, 1-13.