Roman towns hold house prices

From The Sunday Times. The second part of the article is by Mary Beard.

What the Romans did for Britannia

What did the Romans ever do for us? They founded many of the towns and cities expected to weather the current market downturn, for a start

Helen Davies

They came, they saw, they conquered – and they were mad about houses. It seems we have the Romans to thank not just for sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, fresh water systems and public health, as the sketch in Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it, but also for our national obsession with all things property-related.

The Romans, who ruled Britannia from AD43 to AD410, built grander and grander homes, were fantastically competitive over their mosaic designs, and invested in underfloor heating systems, indulgent spas and swimming-pool complexes. But what did they ever do for house prices? Well, it turns out they were spot-on when it came to choosing the sites for their settlements. The estate agent’s mantra “location, location, location” – or “ubi, ubi, ubi” – was as relevant then as it is 2,000 years later.

Research by Savills for The Sunday Times shows that the 25 towns and cities in England and Wales (outside London) with the strongest Roman links are among those tipped to ride out this year’s housing-market storms. The agency’s residential research department studied the former imperial colonia, garrisons, forts and spas from the English Channel to Hadrian’s Wall. It found that property in more than two-thirds of them outperformed areas elsewhere in their respective regions – with prices an average 27% higher.

In the case of the top 10, which includes Welwyn, St Albans, Winchester and Bath – the premium reaches 50% and is growing: prices rose by 61% over the past five years, against 58% in the country as a whole.

So, what makes these former Roman settlements such safe bets? “They offer the ultimate mature location,” says Lucian Cook, Savills’ director of residential research. “In cases such as Winchester, St Albans and Welwyn, proximity to London – which the Romans correctly picked as their provincial capital – plays a fundamental role. As well as good communication links, the top 10 have good housing stock, good schools and a good overall living environment. Even in a slow market, buyers still want to live in such places. And, importantly, they are prepared to pay for it. It is due to their Roman past that these towns later developed as religious and educational centres. It all goes to create a historic and cultured ambience. It also means that they have avoided the significant levels of postwar development that affected other towns and cities.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, Usk, in Mon-mouthshire, on the Welsh borders, has been the best performer, beating the more heavyweight contenders on the list. Philip Smith, director of Roscoe, Rogers & Knight (01600 772929,, an agency based in Usk, says that the town has always been a big draw, with strong appeal to more affluent families.

“The middle and upper end of the market is still active – from £450,000 to £1.5m,” he says. “Expect to pay £600,000 or more for a fourbed family house near the centre. Developers are starting to build modern townhouses that are selling for more than £1m.”

It is but a short chariot ride down the Roman road from Usk to Cirencester, in the Cotswolds, where a cluster of forts and spas sprang up. The Romans loved the area and built grand villas so they could enjoy the countryside.

“There is a saying, ‘Put a spade into Gloucestershire and you’ll turn up Rome,’ ” says John Paddock, 48, a specialist in Roman archeology and curator of the Corinium Museum, in Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum to the Romans), the capital of southwest Britain in the fourth century AD.

Paddock, with his wife, Judy, 38, and their 11-month-old daughter, Rhian-non, owns a three-bedroom Tudor house on the outskirts of the honey-coloured market town. “There is something about towns that are so old,” says Paddock, who has previously lived in London and Lincoln. “It’s a comfortable feeling to be somewhere where people have been for so long.

“Like everyone else, we do the tour of estate agents’ windows. Although the papers are talking about a slowdown, there hasn’t been a slump here that one can see. Period properties in Cirencester always fetch a premium.”

That’s not to say the Romans had a monopoly on the best locations. Other towns in Britain, including Sevenoaks, Harpenden, Haywards Heath and Alder-ley Edge, look set to resist the worst of the slowdown, and they never saw as much as a leather sandal or a toga. By and large, though, when it comes to houses – as with almost everything else – the Romans seem to have got it right.

“Their legacy will continue to benefit homeowners from York to Winchester, even in today’s slower market,” Cook concludes. “In the same way that the Romans were the pioneers of underfloor heating, they had a knack of identifying town locations that have historically withstood slowdowns and capitalised on market upswings.”

Frankie says…

Buyer beware: Caveat emptor

With sea view: Conspectu maris

Deceptively spacious: Capax usibus – haud credibile!

All mod cons: Omnia nova et salutaria

Location, location, location: Ubi, ubi, ubi

Up-and-coming area: Nil ibi plebeium

Good transport links: Aditur non una via

Convenient for the city: Situs opportunissimus urbi

Lovely area: Locus amoenus

All up for sale: Omnia venalia

The Roman way

It all sounds familiar: house prices doubling in a decade, holiday-home owners crowding out the locals in sunny seaside resorts, bijou residences in desirable areas fetching as much as stately piles in the unfashionable north, and repossessions hovering over the sub-prime-mortgage market.

In fact, this is ancient Rome in the 50s BC. Julius Caesar was busy conquering Gaul. His rich friends in Italy were busy at their favourite pastime – buying and selling houses. The Romans outdid even our own generation in their obsession with the property market.

Like the modern super-rich, the wealthiest Romans saw a second home as merely the start. Cicero, nouveau riche politician and celebrity orator, possessed no fewer than eight country houses, as well as several properties in Rome – and he wasn’t unusual.

Down on the Riviera, around the Bay of Naples, it would have been hard to spot a local farmer or fisherman for all the rich holidaymakers in their villas. The Appian Way, leading south from the capital, must have been the equivalent of the M4, full of Roman people-carriers driving down to their bolt holes.

It all cost a fortune, of course. One of Cicero’s homes set him back, in local currency, 3.5m sesterces – enough to keep 7,000 families fed and watered for a year. He was not pleased when it was later given an insurance valuation of only 2m.

People hardly had that kind of money lying around, so they had to borrow. There weren’t mortgages as such, but there were primitive banks and a series of private deals – not to mention good bargains to be picked up when overstretched borrowers defaulted.

Then there were home improvements and the costly business of keeping up with the Julii. We find Cicero, on one occasion, fretting about having a swimming pool installed on one of his brother’s country estates. And there were even more state-of-the-art furnishings for the real connoisseurs. One of Rome’s semi-professional property developers is credited with the invention of one of the first century BC’s must-haves: “hanging baths”. Whether these were showers or baths with underfloor heating is a moot point.

And the poor? Predictably enough, they lived in the crumbling tenement blocks owned by the rich. As slum landlord Cicero joked with one of his wealthy friends: “Two of my buildings have fallen down, and the rest have large cracks… Even the mice have moved out.”

Mary Beard

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University. Read her blog at Her most recent book is The Roman Triumph (Harvard University Press £19.95)

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