Another in the series of posts taken from my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …
Everyday life in London in Roman – as indeed in all other – times would have revolved around the requirement and search for sustenance for body and soul.
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. One particular fourth-century 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, and 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 the Han Empire in what is now China.
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 dedicated 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 arrived in the late Roman period, after the conversion 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). There is little surviving evidence of Christian worship in Roman London, and less of the existence of Christian places of worship. However, a metal bowl inscribed with the Christian “Chi-Rho” symbol has been found in Copthall Close in the City, and 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.
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.
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.