Roman Britain is still throwing up secrets – and confounding our expectations | Charlotte Higgins

Many people walked the local landscape during last year's lockdowns in Britain. Jim Irvine found a Roman mosaic while on the family farm. He contacted the archaeologists. That led to the discovery of a villa from the third to fourth century. The mosaic is 11m by 7m.

The subject of this mosaic is special. In three cartoon-strip-like panels, scenes from the Trojan war are shown. It narrates episodes from the end of Homer's Iliad. The first scene has the Greek champion and theTrojan prince fighting. The naked corpse of a man is dragged behind a chariot. King Priam watches as an attendant prepares a ransom for his son's body, the corpse placed on one side of a scales.

That is where it gets interesting, since no such weighing occurs in the Iliad. The fifth-century BC playwright Aeschylus dramatised such a detail in his play. Some might call it crude, but I claim that this mosaic is characterful and shows an Aeschylean take on a famous Homeric scene.

In around 410, the emperor Honorius cut the province loose to look at its own defences, ending Roman rule in Britain. Some of Britain's towns declined by that time. In parts of Britain in the fourth century, there was a successful rural economy centered around large villas. Some of Britain's most spectacular mosaics come from such buildings. The Corinium Museum has mosaics showing Orpheus singing to animals and trees. The Hull and East Riding Museum has a depiction of a great chariot race. This picture of rural wealth was taken late in Britain's Roman period.


A Roman mosaic was found in a field.

Archaeology is examining theroman-villa-discovered-beneath-rutland-farmers-field.

It is one of a few pieces of evidence that shows a sophisticated literary culture in Roman Britain, at least as enjoyed by the wealthy. The Romans in Britain are as miserable as the Mediterranean soldiers they are guarding. southern Britain had been under Roman rule for about 300 years before the mosaic was made. There is evidence that the Aeneid is being studied in Hampshire, and there is evidence that there are Virgilian poems being read near Hadrian's wall. It looks to my eyes to have a strong relationship to another mosaic in the museum.

The mosaic was found in a villa near the village of Low Ham, at the other end of the Fosse Way, which was a Roman road that connected the east and west of the country. It is a narration of the love story between Dido and Aeneas from Rome's great national epic, The Aeneid. It is thought that the artist of the mosaic may have been working from an illustrated manuscript of the text. The hypothesis could be applied to the mosaic. It is tempting to think that they could have been made by the same workshop.

The mosaic is damaged. The decoration was blackened by fires at some point, according to John Thomas. The building fell into rubble. Two bodies were buried in the ruins. It is still not known what the story of a building beyond its days of pomp is. The mosaic of Rutland is a great discovery. Roman Britain is still throwing up its secrets and is still surprising.

Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain was written by Charlotte Higgins.