Brading Roman Villa offers an absorbing insight into one of the Roman Empire’s more unheralded conquests: the Isle of Wight. Set back to the southwest of Brading, the eponymous villa is beautifully laid out, remarkably intact and sheltered within a wonderful independent museum.
What you explore are the remains of the West Range, a high-status house that was complete by the early 4th century and occupied continuously for nearly 300 years. It’s the last and grandest of the buildings on the site. Two other ranges have been identified: one to the south, which was built around the time of the Roman invasion in 43 AD, and a more substantial north range dating to 200 AD. The unexposed foundations of both are marked in chalk outside the main building. In the 6th century, for reasons unknown – perhaps political unrest – it fell into disrepair and slipped out of local memory, forgotten for the best part of 1,300 years until it was discovered by a local farmer in 1880.
The museum walls are built around the outline of a substantial part of what was a winged corridor villa, with a private family wing and a separate space for entertaining guests. The eyecatchers are the substantial mosaics, along with pieces recovered from excavations, including a bronze door key lock. There’s a Medusa mosaic, here positioned to ward off evil-doers, as well as a depiction of a who’s who of Roman and Greek mythology – Achilles, Ceres and the constellations of Perseus and Andromeda. The centrepiece is a huge fractured Bacchus, the god of wine, and some other unusual mosaics – considered to be of exceptional quality – that include a domed house and a cockerel-headed creature, known as a Gallus.
Brading is a unique site: hundreds of Roman villas boasted a Medusa knocking around or a wine-quaffing Bacchus, but the cockerel-headed mosaic is the only one of its kind ever found and has long teased the finest antiquarians who have tried to unpick its true meaning.
What the Gallus does surely disclose is that this was the owner’s way of showing that he was a well-to-do, educated man. Other than that, however, we know nothing about the owner, though the discovery of evidence of ploughs, quern-stones and wagons indicates that barley and wheat were grown and processed here, pointing to him earning his wealth as a merchant or a farmer, rather than a soldier, as no evidence has been found of an army presence. It’s possible the Romans by then had been long accepted by local people, which also implies that benign trade had gone on well before the invasion.
The villa was perched close to Brading Haven, at that time a deepwater port that dispatched goods to the Continent or southeast England. There was a rationale for this, for the Romans also had an interesting geographical perspective. To the Roman eye, the Isle of Wight made little sense if looked at in the conventional north–south way that we do today (with Cowes at the top, Ventnor at the bottom). For them, it was far more practical to view the Island as if looking along its plane, from west to east; in this view along the spine of the Island, the ‘top’ – Brading, Sandown – points directly along the Channel to France and seamlessly on to the northern European coastline and the mouth of the Seine, Boulogne and estuaries of Germanic lands. From there, a right-hand turn down any major river would sweep the traveller towards Rome. It’s reckoned the return journey could have been done within two months.
Brading Roman Villa is extremely good for children, with opportunities to dress up and role play and for them to engage in their own self-assembly mosaics. The Forum Café is also excellent, offering big bowls of soup and excellent cake, with panoramic views across Sandown Bay. There’s also a gift shop featuring both Roman-themed items and Island-wide crafts.