Comfort Classics: Caroline K. Mackenzie

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Caroline K. Mackenzie

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent and in particular its wonderful mosaics.

When did you first come across this place?

I first visited Lullingstone Roman Villa as a child and was amazed that I was able to step into a world from so long ago – it fired up my imagination! As for many Classicists, I think this first, early impression of another culture and society had a huge impact on me and it has certainly enticed me back to Lullingstone many times!

Can you tell me a bit about the site and its context?

Lullingstone Roman Villa is in the Darent Valley in west Kent and is managed by English Heritage. Excavations from 1949 to 1961 revealed the remains of a villa which boasted much evidence of a luxurious lifestyle: mosaics, sculpture, wall-paintings, a hypocaust and baths. The villa went through various phases of construction including a flint and mortar house in c. AD 90-100, which was expanded in c. AD 180, with the baths being rebuilt in c. AD 280-90. Lullingstone enjoyed additions and embellishments to its reception rooms in the fourth century and in c. AD 330-360 lavish mosaics were installed in the dining room and central room. A fire in the early fifth century led to the final abandonment of the villa.

The villa is in a beautiful setting and, when visiting, it is worth allowing time to explore the surrounding area.

Modern view of Darent Valley, taken from road approaching the villa. © Caroline K. Mackenzie

Lullingstone is also famous for its Christian house-church which is believed to have been built above, and used simultaneously as, a pagan cult room. So far, this is a unique discovery in Roman Britain, if not the empire.

What is it about this site that appeals to you most?

Reconstruction of Lullingstone’s apsidal dining room with ‘stibadium’. c. AD 330-360 (illustration by Peter Dunn). © Historic England Archive.

Much of the villa and its beautiful mosaics have been preserved in situ so it is possible to explore it all in person, as if visiting someone’s home. Although we don’t know exactly who lived at Lullingstone Roman Villa, I love wandering around the site and trying to visualise everyday life there, whether it be the master of the house hosting a grand dinner party to impress his guests, or the resident cat getting up to mischief and chasing mice. There is evidence of all aspects of life in the artefacts that were uncovered during the excavation: exquisite jewellery, beautiful glassware, dice used in games, and pips and seeds from the fruit trees that probably grew in the garden.

You can completely immerse yourself in a form of time travel there. I also love the reaction of school children when they visit – their amazement at it all and of course the fun they can have in dressing up in Roman costumes and making their own mosaics.

Europa mosaic. c. AD 330-360. © Historic England Archive.

The mosaics themselves are probably my favourite part of the villa as they tell such wonderful stories. In my book on Lullingstone, I examine what the mosaics may reveal about the inhabitants of the villa, and how the inhabitants used the mosaics to assert their status and cultural identity. The dining room mosaic depicts Europa riding across the ocean on the back of a bull (Jupiter in disguise) with a pair of cheeky, chubby Cupids framing the scene. It also has a Latin inscription above, which seems to have been created specifically for this mosaic and could have been the patron’s own composition. If so, it reflects an education based on that of the Roman élite, with Virgil and Ovid on the syllabus:



If jealous Juno had seen the swimming of the bull,

more justly would she have gone to the halls of Aeolus.

The allusion is to Book 1 of Virgil’s Aeneid where Juno visits Aeolus asking him to send a storm to blow Aeneas off course and prevent him reaching Italy. Juno opposes Aeneas for various reasons and this inscription intimates that if she had known of her husband’s seduction of Europa (depicted in the inscription’s accompanying mosaic and described in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’), Juno would have had even more justification in wishing destruction on Jupiter’s protégé, Aeneas. This would have been a great conversation piece during dinner!

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

I am very fortunate that the work that I do every day, whether it be tutoring in Latin, or researching Homer, cheers me up no end! However, the temptation is never to leave my desk so I tear myself away at regular intervals for a walk around the garden. I live in the countryside so share the garden with a variety of wildlife and being close to nature always lifts my spirits. Even then, I find myself reflecting on ancient sources such as Pliny and Virgil and their descriptions of rural life. Classics seems to permeate even my leisure time but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Caroline K. Mackenzie read Classics at Pembroke College, Cambridge. After a decade as a lawyer in London, she was enticed back to Classics and became Head of Department at a school in Sevenoaks. In 2013, she set up Caroline K. Mackenzie Tuition and offers private tutoring in Latin and Greek, online Classical reading groups, school visits, museum tours and lectures/study days in Art and Archaeology. In 2018 she was awarded a distinction in an MA in Classical Art and Archaeology at King’s College London. Caroline is the author of Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa (Archaeopress, 2019) and A Latin Lexicon: an Illustrated Compendium of Latin words and English derivatives (Archaeopress, 2020).

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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