The Roman invasion under Claudius was in 43AD, and Roman London, or Londinium, was established in around 50, in a strategic position at the intersection of important land- and water- routes, on high ground overlooking the Thames, at the lowest crossing-point on the river, and at a point at which it was also still tidal, enabling easy access to the open sea (and the empire beyond the sea). If Rome was built on seven hills, Roman London was built on two, Ludgate Hill to the west, and Cornhill to the east, with the valley of one of the Thames tributaries – the Walbrook- in between. The early Roman city was razed to the ground by revolting ancient Britons under Boudicca (Boadicea of the Victorian re-imagining), the Queen of the Iceni, in 60 or 61, while the legions under the Governor Suetonius Paulinus were away attacking the druid stronghold on Anglesey. Tacitus wrote:
“The inhabitants … who stayed because they were women, or old, or attached to the place, were slaughtered … . … For the British … could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn and crucify – as though avenging, in advance, the retribution that was on its way [at the Battle of Watling Street]”.
After the Boudiccan revolt, the city was rebuilt, initially by the Procurator Julius Alpinus Classicianus under the Emperor Nero, and subsequently under the Flavian, Trajanic and Hadrianic emperorships, in the late first to earlier second centuries, only to be partially destroyed again by the so-called “Hadrianic fire” in circa 125. It then declined during the later second century, through the crisis of the third, and into the fourth, during which time the Roman Empire as a whole came under increasing attack from within and without (Gaul and Britain were temporarily ruled by rival Emperors – Carausius and Allectus – during the late third century, between 286-296). It finally fell, and was essentially abandoned, in the early fifth, around 410. Archaeological evidence points to an Anglo-Saxon presence in the city, although not a full-scale occupation, from around 430-450.
Everyday life in Roman – as indeed in all other – times would have revolved around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.
Religion. The predominant religion during the Roman occupation was paganism, at least until the time of conversion to Christianity of Emperor Constantine in 312, and the passage of the Edict of Milan, which ensured tolerance of Christianity, in 313 (at least one representative from Londinium, named Restitutus, attended the Christian Council of Arles in 314). During the pagan period, there were perceived deities in all things, abstract as well as tangible. The principal funerary rite was cremation, although this later gave way to inhumation. Remains were typically buried outside the city limits, for example, just outside Aldgate, Bishopsgate, or Newgate.
Food and Drink. The diet of the average citizen of Roman London would appear to have been a surprisingly healthy one. By the turn of the first and second centuries, the City was already not only an administrative centre, but also a important commercial and trading one, with the port at its heart, and there were evidently numerous shops both within the Basilica and Forum, and lining the roads leading to and from it, where all manner of imported as well as locally produced foodstuffs could be bought, including olives, olive oil, wine, grape juice, dates, figs, salted fish and fish sauce, from all around the Empire, brought in by boat in pottery “amphorae”. Carbonised grain has been found in Pudding Lane and in Fenchurch Street, and points to the former presence of bakeries at these sites. Part of a donkey-driven mill found has been found in Princes Street.
Sanitation. Sanitary conditions were also conducive to good public health. There were numerous public bath-houses intended for daily use, for example, ones on Cheapside and Huggin Hill, dating to the late first or early second century; one in Billingsgate, dating to the third; and one on Strand Lane (which may actually be a seventeenth-century copy). There was even a rudimentary sewerage system.
Restoring the mosaic of Roman London from the isolated “tesserae” that remain is a challenging task. The Roman London Bridge and embryonic Port of London was originally built in circa 50. The “Governor’s Palace” was built during the Flavian period of the late first century, circa 69-96, on the then-waterfront, which was much further north in Roman times than it is today, and in use throughout the second and third, before being demolished in the late third or fourth, the remains only coming to light again during the nineteenth.
The first undoubted Basilica and Forum were built in circa 70 (there may have been earlier ones, destroyed during the Boudiccan Revolt of 60 or 61), and rebuilt and considerably extended in circa 100-30, before being substantially demolished in circa 300, only coming to light again during excavations at 168 Fenchurch Street in 1995-2000.
The Amphitheatre was originally built in timber in circa 75, rebuilt in stone in the second century, and renovated in the late second to third, before being abandoned in the fourth, and only coming to light again during excavations on the site of the Medieval Guildhall in 1987.
The City Wall, incorporating the early second-century fort at Cripplegate to the north-west, was originally built in the late second to early third century, circa 190-225, extended in the late third, when a river wall was added, circa 275, and strengthened in the mid fourth, when bastions were added, circa 350.
The Temple of Mithras on the bank of the Walbrook was originally built in the early third century, circa 220-40, and abandoned in the fourth, when Christianity came to replace paganism throughout the Roman Empire. There may also have been a religious precinct in south-west of the city in the third century.
The pattern of the Roman roads within and outwith the City may best be described as radiating out from the Basilica and Forum towards the various gates in the wall, which were, anti-clockwise from the east: Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate and Ludgate (Moorgate was a later addition). Interestingly, the Romans do not appear to have had names for their roads. Ermine Street, which was the main south to north route of Roman Britain, linking London by way of Bishopsgate to Lincoln and York, takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon Earningastraet, after one Earn(e). Watling Street, the main east to west route, linking Richborough on the Kent coast to London by way of London Bridge, and from London by way of Ludgate or Newgate to Wroxeter, takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon Waeclinga or Waetlingastraet, after one Waecel.
The “Governor’s Palace” forms a Scheduled Ancient Monument substantially buried beneath Cannon Street Station. The so-called “London Stone” that stands opposite the station is likely a relic of the “Governor’s Palace”. A pier base from the Basilica and Forum can be seen in the basement of No. 90 Gracechurch Street. The surviving structures of the Amphitheatre and associated artefacts can be viewed in the basement of the Guildhall on Gresham Street. The best-preserved sections of the City Wall are near the Museum of London on London Wall to the west, and around Tower Hill to the east. The remains of the Temple of Mithras are currently in storage, awaiting a move to a specially designed space in the Bloomberg Building on Cannon Street/Walbrook, which is under construction and scheduled for completion in 2017.
The more important, including “high-status”, archaeological finds from Roman London are on exhibition in the City’s principal museums, that is to say, the Museum of London on London Wall, the British Museum in Bloomsbury in the West End, and the Victoria and Albert in South Kensington. The extremely abundant and exceptionally preserved finds from the recently discovered site on Walbrook – the “Pompeii of the North” – are still in the process of being worked on and written up (see also June 9th facebook posting).
There are also interesting displays of in situ Roman tessellated pavements and of associated finds in the crypts of the churches of All Hallows Barking, on Byward Street/Great Tower Street, and St Bride, off Fleet Street. All Hallows Barking also features a fine dioramic reconstruction of Roman London. A timber from one the Roman wharves stands outside St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street.
Roman London on our Walks
Further details of all our walks are available in the “Our Guided Walks” section of the web-site. Bookings may be made through the “Contact/Booking” section, by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), or by phone (020-8998-3051).