Roman London, Pt. I – History and Social History

Another in the series on the history of London up to the time of the Great Fire of 1666, largely taken from my book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (Amberley, 2019) …

History

Map 1 – Roman London. 1 – Blackfriars; 2 – Ludgate; 3 – Central Criminal Court Building, Old Bailey (section of wall); 4 – Bank of America-Merrill Lynch Building, Giltspur Street (section of wall); 5 – Watling Street; 6 – Newgate; 7 – St Vedast-alias-Foster, Foster Lane (fragment of tessellated pavement); 8 – Remains of Cripplegate Fort, Noble Street; 9 – St Alphage Gardens/Salters’ Hall Gardens, London Wall (section of wall); 10 – Remains of Amphitheatre, Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard; 11 – Gresham Street; 12 – Moorgate and Princes Street (line of Walbrook stream); 13 – Poultry and Walbrook (“The Pompeii of the North”); 14 – Remains of Temple of Mithras, Bloomberg Building, Walbrook; 15 – Site of “Governor’s Palace”, Cannon Street Station; 16 – Old London Bridge (and Port of London); 17 – St Magnus the Martyr, Thames Street; 18 – Ermine Street; 19 – Remains of Basilica and Forum, Gracechurch Street; 20 – Bury Street; 21 – Fort, Plantation Place, Fenchurch Street; 22 – Remains of Billingsgate Roman House, 101 Thames Street; 23 – All Hallows Barking, Byward Street; 24 – Site of Basilica or “Palaeo-Christian” church, Novotel Building, Pepys Street; 25 – Cooper’s Row and Tower Hill (sections of wall).

Rome under Claudius invaded  Britain in 43AD/CE, and Roman London, or Londinium, was founded in c. 47-8, as evidenced by dendrochronological or  tree-ring dating of timbers from a Roman drain uncovered during archaeological excavations at  No. 1 Poultry  (Map 1).  The city was sited in a strategic position 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  (note that there is some evidence that the tidal head moved downstream in the later Roman period, and that some port facilities followed it, from the City eastward toward  Shadwell and Ratcliff).  If Rome was built on seven principal hills, Roman London was built on two, Ludgate Hill to the west, and Cornhill to the east, with the valley of one of the “lost” Thames tributaries –  the Walbrook – in between. 

Victorian statue of Boadicea in Westminster

The early  Roman city was razed to the ground  by revolting ancient Britons under Boudica or Boudicca (Boadicea of the Victorian re-imagining), the   Queen of the Iceni,  in 60 or 61.  Boudicca’s late husband, Prasutagus, had been a nominally independent ally of the Romans.  When  he died, he willed his tribal kingdom jointly to his daughters and to the Roman Emperor.  However, the  Romans chose to ignore his wishes, and to annex his land and property for their exclusive use.  Moreover, they had Boudicca flogged, and her daughters raped.  This drove the Iceni to  revolt, alongside  their tribal neighbours, the Trinovantes.   At the  time of the revolt, several Roman legions under the Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus were away attacking  the druid stronghold on  Anglesey.  They had to be rapidly recalled to London to face the advancing Britons, who  had already destroyed Colchester, or  Camulodunum.  Realising that he was confronted by  a much larger army, Suetonius  essentially  abandoned the city to its fate, in order to regroup (St Albans, or Verulamium, would also be destroyed).     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”.  The revolt ended with the Romans crushing the Britons  at the so-called Battle of Watling Street, one of the many purported locations for which  is the aforementioned Ambresbury Banks in Epping Forest.  At the end of the battle, facing capture,  Boudicca chose to end her own life by taking poison (according to one account).

Replica of tablet commemorating Julius Alpinus Classicianus, Tower Hill

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 early second centuries, only to be partially destroyed again by the so-called “Hadrianic fire” in c. 125.  The enclosing wall was originally built at the turn of the second and third centuries. 

The city then declined through the “crisis” of the third century, and into the fourth, during which time the Roman Empire as a whole came under increasing attack from within as well as without – Britain was ruled by its own rival Emperors Clodius Albinus in the late second century, and Carausius and Allectus in the “Carausian Revolt” of the third, after which latter, it was retaken by the Emperor Constantius Chlorus in 296.   It appears that many of Roman London’s  public buildings, including the “Governor’s Palace”, and the Basilica and Forum,  were  substantially  demolished at the turn of the third and fourth centuries  – perhaps as punishment for its perceived support of the “Carausian Revolt”.  “Barbarian” raids – by Picts and Gaels, and by Saxons and other Germanic tribes – began in the fourth  century.   The city  finally fell, and was essentially abandoned,  in the early fifth, around 410, after  the occupying army and the civilian administration, the instruments of Empire, were recalled   to Rome to assist in its defence against the encroaching Barbarians (on the orders of the Emperor Honorius).

Social History

Everyday life in London in Roman times would have revolved around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul. 

Religion

The predominant religion during the early part of the Roman occupation was pantheistic paganism, which perceived deities in all things, abstract as well as tangible; and during the later part, Christianity.  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, or beside the Walbrook in Moorfields, or on the south side of the Thames in Southwark. 

Reconstruction of Spitalfields Roman Woman, Museum of London

One particular fourth-century pagan Roman woman was buried in Spitalfields, just outside Bishopsgate, in a decorated lead coffin inside a plain stone sarcophagus, resting on a bed of laurel leaves, shrouded in damask silk interwoven with gold thread, covered in an Imperial Purple robe.  She was accompanied by further high-status grave goods, including delicately wrought  glass vials that once contained oil, perfume, and possibly wine,  and a carved jet box and hair-pins.  Isotopic evidence  from her teeth indicates that she may actually have come from the imperial capital of Rome itself.  A facial reconstruction of her can be seen in the Roman gallery in the Museum of London.  Interestingly, at least one woman buried in the southern cemetery in Southwark has been determined on morphometric and isotopic evidence to have been  of Black African origin.  And a further two individuals  buried in  Southwark have been determined to have  come from  Asia, possibly from India, or from the Han Empire in what is now China.  The site of the burial of a young girl discovered during the building of 30 St Mary Axe is marked by a plaque bearing the inscription “Dis Manibus Puella Incognita Londiniensis Hic Sepulta Est” (to the spirit of an unknown  girl of Roman London, who is buried here).  

Finds from the Temple of Mithras, Museum of London
Close-up of Tauroctony

Mithraism, the practice and mystery cult of worship of the god Mithras, was one of the many forms of paganism evidently  in existence  in Roman London, where there was  a  dedicated Temple of Mithras, or Mithraeum.   It originated in Persia, where Mithras was one of many gods in the Zoroastrian pantheon, arrived in Rome in the first century BC/BCE, and spread throughout much of the Roman Empire by the first century AD/CE, becoming most widespread in the third.  According to the Roman version of the MIthraean creation-myth, Mithras was ordered by the god of the Sun, Apollo, to slay the bull of the Moon, to release its vital-force, in order to bring life to the Earth (carved reliefs of the bull-slaying – or “tauroctony” – are  characteristic  features of Mithraean iconography).  He   eventually came to be identified with the Sol Invictus, or Unconquered Sun, and to epitomise the moral virtues of fidelity, loyalty and obedience (whence, presumably, his supposed popularity with Roman soldiers).  As intimated above, Mithraism was practised in so-called  Mithraea,  each representing the heavens, with stars and zodiacal symbols painted on the ceilings.  Many Mithraea, including that in London, were at least partly underground, because Mithras slew the  bull underground (in a cave).

Christianity spread throughout  the Roman Empire in the fourth century, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312, and the passage of the Edict of Milan, which ensured tolerance of Christianity,  in 313, and at least one representative from Londinium, named Restitutus, attended the Christian Council of Arles in 314.  Note,  though,  that – Nicene – Christianity  did not become the official religion of the Roman Empire until after the passage of the Edict of Thessalonica under Theodosius I in 380.   There is little surviving evidence of Christian worship in Roman London, and less of the existence of Christian places of worship (see under “Building Works” below).  However, a metal bowl inscribed with the Christian “Chi-Rho” symbol has been found in Copthall Close in the City, and another in the River Walbrook; and a number of ingots also inscribed with the “Chi-Rho” symbol,  together with the words “Spes in Deo” (Hope in God), in the River Thames near Battersea Bridge.  Note in this context that at least some Christian worship in Roman London may have taken place around shrines in private homes, as in the documented case of Lullingstone Villa in the Darent Valley in Kent.

Food and Drink

The diet of the average citizen of Roman London would appear to have been a surprisingly healthy one.  There were evidently numerous shops both within the 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.  The remains of a   bakery and hot food shop  have been unearthed on Poultry; those of further bakeries on Pudding Lane and Fenchurch Street; and those of a    mill on Princes Street.   The remains of two  “water-lifting machines”, one of 63 and the other of 110, have been unearthed on Gresham Street; and those of a system of water pipes on Poultry.

Sanitary conditions were also conducive to good public health.  There were numerous bath-houses intended for daily use, for example, public  ones on Cheapside and Huggin Hill, dating to the late first or early second century; and a private one in Billingsgate, dating to the late second to third.  There was even a rudimentary drainage and sewerage system.

Population

The population of Roman London is estimated to have been at most a few tens of thousands, essentially the same as that of Pompeii, a provincial town in Italy.  In contrast, that of the coeval imperial capital, Rome itself, was of the order of one million.

Administration and Governance

The province of Britannia was governed centrally  from Rome, and neither it nor its provincial capitals, including London, had much in the way of locally devolved power.  Nonetheless, Londinium  had become a comparatively important administrative centre by the turn of the first and second centuries.  Its principal public building, possibly the largest north of the Alps, was the Basilica.  Also here was the “Governor’s Palace”.

Trade and Commerce

Roman London  was more important as a  commercial and trading centre, with the port at its heart.  Tiles stamped CLBR have been found in London, suggesting at least some link between the port and the  Classis Britannica or “British fleet”, which was the part of the  Roman imperial navy  responsible for  supplying the Province of Britannia with personnel and materiel.  Foodstuffs  were brought into the port-city  by boat from all around the Empire, in pottery “amphorae”.  Pottery, notably “Samian Ware” was also brought in from what is now France (and was then Gaul); brooches from Belgium; amber from the Baltic; millstones from the Rhineland; decorative marble, bronze table-ware and lamps from Italy; marble also from Greece  and Turkey; glassware from Syria; and emeralds from Egypt.  Slaves were also brought into London, to be sold at markets like those known to have existed on the water-front, and then put  to work (in the worst cases, either effectively as draught-animals, for example, turning water-wheels; or else as concubines or prostitutes).  A recently-discovered writing tablet of c. 80 records the sale of a Gaulish slave-girl called Fortunata – “warranted healthy and not liable too run away” – to a senior imperial slave called Vegetus  for 600 denarii.  This was a substantial sum, approximately equivalent to two year’s wages for a skilled labourer.

There is abundant archaeological and other evidence of a wide range of industrial and commercial activity,  including metal-working, wood-working, pottery manufacture, glass manufacture, coin-minting, gem-cutting, butchery (and presumably also tannery and chandlery), garum production, milling and baking, in Roman London, both within and without the walls.  Some of the more anti-social industrial activities appear to have been deliberately re-located from within to without the walls over the course of the Roman occupation.  An early form of “zoning” may have been present.

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