How Ancient Roman Ruins Ended Up 2,000 Miles Away in a British Garden

A brief tale of imperialism

A c.1900 postcard depicts the Virginia Water Ruins in Surrey, England. (Library of Congress)

Anyone taking a walk through the Great Windsor Park in Surrey, England, is met with an impressive sight. Through the thick coverts and oak trees, across the long lawns where deer scatter, the towering lines of roman columns loom into view. This is the Temple of Augustus, a piece of classical finery crumbling into the ground of the mossy valley.

At first glance, the ruins look like they have stood on that spot for thousands of years. But if you strolled through this park at the beginning of the 1800s, they wouldn’t be there at all. They originated in Libya, 2,000 miles away.

In fact, the story of how these ruins ended up in the grounds of Windsor Castle goes back to the heyday of the British Empire and to the ancient world of Roman North Africa. It shows how the imperial mind imagined ruins of the past—and how quick it was to plunder its dominions.

The Temple of Augustus, in 2014 (Stephen Craven / Wikimedia Commons)

In 1816, the British officer Hanmer Warrington visited the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, on the Mediterranean coast of Ottoman Libya, with his friend, the artist Augustus Earle. The sight of the ruins seems to have made a great impression on them both. Earle painted a watercolor of what he saw, capturing how the sand dunes had rolled over the site and covered its stones.

In ancient times, the city of Leptis achieved its greatest prominence after 193 A.D., under Emperor Septimius Severus. The emperor lavished it with wealth, developing it into the third most important city in Africa, rivaling Carthage and Alexandria. He built a magnificent new forum and expanded the docks, along with gifting the city a huge basilica replete with ornate carved columns. After Severus’s reign, the city slowly declined, and this was compounded by a series of destructions. A great tsunami in 365 devastated Leptis along with much of the Mediterranean coast. This was followed by the invasion of the Vandals in the fifth century, and the arrival of Muslim armies in the seventh century finally left the city in ruins.

Since its abandonment, Leptis had been used as a quarry by local people, and was also a site of colonial plunder. In the 17th century, 600 columns from Leptis were taken by Louis XIV for use in his palaces at Versailles and Paris. Its columns can also be found in Rouen Cathedral and the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Preps in Paris. By 1816, however, Napoleon had been defeated, and France no longer held sway in Ottoman Libya. When Warrington arrived in Leptis, Britain was the world’s only superpower.

As the historian G.E. Chambers has recounted in his 1950s history of the Temple of Augustus, The “Ruins” at Virginia Water, Warrington, apparently captivated by the haunting sight of the ruins, decided to take as much as possible back to the British Museum. Earlier that year, Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, had sold the carved marbles he stripped from the Parthenon in Athens to the British government. Perhaps inspired by this, Warrington was convinced that he would be hailed as a hero for bringing the antiquities of Leptis home for the empire. He set about persuading the local Ottoman governor that, on behalf of the British crown, he should be able to help himself to the antiquities of Leptis.

The Severan Basilica of Leptis Magna, built in the second century A.D. (Sasha Coachman / Wikimedia Commons)

In Libya, local people were outraged at the news. Like most ruin sites, Leptis had been a source of cut stone for local building projects, and the round columns were useful as mill stones. The locals began obstructing efforts to remove the stones, even destroying some statues and columns as they waited to be loaded onto Warrington’s ships. As a consequence, the British officer collected fewer pieces than he planned. Today, three large columns he abandoned still lie on the beach.

Despite this local resistance, by 1817, artifacts from several different buildings had been shipped to the United Kingdom: 25 pedestals, 22 granite columns, 15 marble columns, 10 capitals, 10 pieces of cornice, seven loose slabs, five inscribed slabs, and various fragments of figure sculpture. When Warrington returned home with the stones, however, he found he had misjudged the reaction of the British government. Experts in the British Museum, he recounted, were not “at all impressed or convinced of the value, either aesthetic or intrinsic, of the cargo.”

The Leptis stones stayed in the forecourt of the British Museum for eight years. No one seemed to know what to do with them. Finally, in 1826, it was decided that the stones would be given to Jeffry Wyatville, King George IV’s architect, who determined to use them to create a folly, a building constructed for purely ornamental purposes, in the royal estate of the grounds of Windsor Castle, near the lake of Virginia Water.

No designs or sketches have survived of how Wyatville wanted the Virginia Water ruins to look, and it seems he relied quite heavily on improvisation. The architect supplemented the Leptis Magna artifacts with stones taken from a recently demolished country house, which he used to construct walls, roughly carving them to imitate Roman capitals. He even added a chipped cornice to a nearby road bridge so it looked like an arch in a city wall. One commentator later remarked that “the work must have cost the architect … as much intellect and labour as a finished building of similar proportions.”

Follies had a long tradition in European architecture, and the mid-19th century was their heyday. They sought a particular kind authenticity, designed to beguile if not fool the viewer. Another contemporary architect, William Gilpin, commented on the difficulty of creating the right kind of authenticity in a ruin folly: “If the mosses and lychens grow unkindly on your walls … if the ivy refuses to mantle over your buttress … you may as well write over the gate, Built in the year 1772.”

Part of the Virginia Water folly (Colin Smith / Wikimedia Commons)

Wyatville named his strange franken-ruin “The Temple of Augustus.” It was not a reconstruction in the way we might think of today. The site was designed to evoke “ruin-ness,” but it was an illusion. As if emblematic of the confusion and strangeness of the whole endeavor, a local newspaper even erroneously claimed that the stones used were a part of the Parthenon Marbles that Lord Elgin had stripped.

The use of Roman ruins in British follies was in part to do with English notions of the picturesque,” which, along with “the beautiful” and “the sublime,” underpinned a developing aesthetic sense that reached through architecture and influenced painters and poets like J. M. W. Turner and William Wordsworth. But this recycling of the remains of the past also sought to place Imperial Britain as the inheritors of Roman greatness. At this point in history, Britain had grown to become the largest empire in history. During the 19th century, its “Imperial century,” around 400 million people and 10 million square miles were absorbed into imperial control.

The British saw their imperial mission as inherently enlightened. Knowledge of the classics was imbued in the aristocratic class. As the Romans had supposedly settled and civilized their province of Britannia, so Britain hoped to do to the reaches of its own empire. This attitude was evoked by the popularity of the phrase “Pax Brittanica” at the time.

The ruins at Virginia Water reinforced this association between Britain and ancient Rome. Naming the site “The Temple of Augustus” may even have been a reference to George IV’s full name: George Augustus Frederick. In George IV’s official 1821 coronation portrait, you can even see classical columns in the background, marking him as the inheritor of an ancient right.

Ruins have always formed a conversation between what is missing between the falling stones, and what can be imagined of the past. Virginia Water raises the specter of the ruin being used to create a false reality, a false history. It shows how far our identities rely on these material remains, and how those remains can be manipulated.