Cambridge University

Ax:son Johnson Centre for the Study of Classical Architecture

Student Spotlight: Nina Bizziocchi’s research on the domestic architecture of Roman London

Roman_gallery_Museum of London

Student Spotlight

Nina Bizziocchi reflects on her doctoral thesis ‘Roman houses in London in their interprovincial context’:

My doctoral research focuses on Roman domestic architecture in the city of London. While tradition of studies on Roman housing is extensive and, especially in the last few decades, has highlighted the social and cultural aspects embedded within and shaping this architecture, focus has been often placed on Mediterranean sites. My research aims instead at bringing these new discourses on Roman domestic architecture away from the main centre of the Roman empire and into the provincial setting of Roman Britain with a focus on Londinium.

London provides an extensive dataset for this type of research, owing to the numerous archaeological excavations that have been undertaken in the city since the 1970s. These excavations have produced a wealth of published and unpublished reports, which provide the foundation of my project. Following a preliminary assessment of the data available, I focus on about 72 sites across the entire area of the Roman city, encompassing more than 230 domestic buildings.  This data has been recorded both in a relational database and in a GIS (Geographical Information System) software. The first allows for recording of the architectural details, layout, decoration and associated artefacts (fig.1), while the latter fosters an analysis of the patterns of distribution and the relationship between these buildings and the broader urban landscape.


Building F, Watling Court site. Late 1st-early 2nd century (base drawing after Perring D., Roskams S. 1991, 'Early development of Roman London west of the Walbrook', fig.30)

'While sites with exceptional state of preservation such as Pompeii or Ostia have dominated discourses on Roman housing, many ancient cities lie beneath the streets of their modern counterparts'

My research uses these new datasets to approach Roman domestic architecture through four main strands. The first stems from methodological considerations on how to deal with and analyse material that is far from perfect from a conservation point of view. While sites with exceptional state of preservation such as Pompeii or Ostia have dominated discourses on Roman housing, many ancient cities lie beneath the streets of their modern counterparts. The constraints imposed by urban archaeology at sites like London, with a long and ongoing continuity of life, result in fragmented archaeological remains that present a discontinuous picture. In the first part of my research, then, I focus on what a ‘house’ means and on how to establish the residential function of a building based on partial architectural remains, identifying those elements (such as architectural features, material culture and decoration) that can foster an interpretation in this sense. 

Second, my research aims at tracing the development of this architectural category within Londinium. The analysis of the distribution of domestic buildings across the various parts of the city and their chronological development highlights both their variety, encompassing different architectural typologies, and how housing reflects and adapts to the development of the city itself.

The third strand of my project explores how these buildings came into being and how local traditions and accidental factors integrated with a ‘Roman’ culture and mindset to create Romano-British houses. On the one hand, examples of (almost) complete plans foster an analysis of the articulation of space and decoration within these buildings, allowing investigation into the relationship between architecture, decoration, and various cultural and social habits (fig. 2). On the other hand, thematic chapters review even the more fragmented evidence through the analysis of the different factors that might have contributed to the construction and appearance of these buildings, such as topography, availability of space, cost, as well as tradition and emulation.

Reconstruction of the wall plaster found at 15-23 Southwark Street site (base drawing after Cowan C. 1992, 'A possible mansio in Roman Southwark: excavations at 15-23 Southwark Street, 1980-86', fig.51)

Finally, by comparing the evidence to domestic buildings of the North-Western provinces and to the Mediterranean sites, it is possible to assess how this architectural typology developed and adapted in this unique provincial setting, while still being firmly set within the broader imperial landscape of Roman domestic buildings. The extensive, though fragmented, archaeological dataset available for Londinium presents the ideal case study for analysing the role this major town has played within the province of Roman Britain and its administration, while providing, at the same time, a valuable lens for understanding the dynamics of Roman imperialism, urbanism processes, and the agencies involved. 

Nina Bizziocchi

3 June 2024