Category Archives: Roman London

ROMAN LONDON contd.

Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (most images courtesy of the Museum of London) …

Building Works

Restoring the mosaic of Roman London from the  isolated “tesserae” that remain is a challenging task.

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The Roman London Bridge and embryonic Port of London was   originally built in c. 50.

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A recently-discovered post-Boudiccan fort on   Mincing Lane  was built in c. 63, although it appears to have been out of use by c. 80.

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The  “Governor’s Palace” was built during the Flavian period of the late first century, c. 69-96, on the then-waterfront, which was much further north in Roman times than it is today, and it remained in use throughout the  second and third, before being substantially demolished at the turn of the third  and fourth, the remains being discovered during   the nineteenth.

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The first undoubted Basilica and Forum were built in c. 70 (there may have been earlier ones, destroyed during the Boudiccan Revolt of 60 or 61), and rebuilt and considerably extended in c. 100-30, before being substantially demolished in c. 300,  the remains being discovered during   excavations at 168 Fenchurch Street  in 1995-2000.

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The Amphitheatre was originally built in timber in c. 75, rebuilt in stone in the second century, and renovated in the late second to early fourth, before falling into disuse, and eventually being substantially demolished, in the late fourth, possibly around 365,  the remains 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, from east to west;  extended  from  the  mid to late  third onwards,  when a river wall was added; and strengthened  in the mid fourth,  when bastions were added (the original wall cuts through, and thus  post-dates, a deposit containing a coin of Commodus dating to 183-4, and  is in part contemporary with a deposit containing a coin of Caracalla dating to 213-7).    There being no local source of stone, the wall was constructed  out an estimated 85000 tons of Kentish Ragstone, quarried near Maidstone and transported down the Medway and up the Thames to London on barges, the remains of one of which  have been found at Blackfriars, with its 50-ton cargo intact.

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The  Temple of Mithras on the Walbrook was originally built in the early third century, c. 220-40, and abandoned in the fourth, when Christianity came to replace paganism throughout the Roman Empire, the remains being revealed  during the bombing of  the Blitz of the Second World War.  The Temple of Mithras was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street in 1962, and reconstructed again – inside a specially designed  space – in the Bloomberg Building on Walbrook in 2017.  Some of the finds from the recent archaeological dig on and around the temple site may be viewed in the Bloomberg Space (other finds, from the original post-war dig, including a marble bust  of Mithras in his distinctive Phrygian cap, may be viewed in the Roman gallery in the Museum of London).

There was probably also a  Temple of Isis on the Thames in the third century, as indicated by the finding of a re-used altar stone dedicated to the goddess in Blackfriars.  And plausibly a Temple of Diana on Ludgate Hill, as indicated by the finding of a bronze statuette of the goddess somewhat to the south-west of St Paul’s Cathedral, between the Deanery and Blackfriars.  (No Temple of Cybele has as yet been found, although the worship of that goddess was evidently practised in Roman London, as indicated by the finding in the Thames of a curious  piece of liturgical equipment, interpreted by some as a “castration clamp”, featuring figures of her and of consort Atys, and also by the findings at various locations in the city of figurines of Atys).

An  enigmatic, only partially excavated, building, variously interpreted as a late Roman Basilica or – on the basis of similarity to the Basilica di Santa Tecla in Milan – a “palaeo-Christian” church or cathedral, was built  in the south-east, between  Pepys Street and Trinity Square, sometime in the fourth century.  Note also that a late Roman, fourth-century origin has been postulated, although not proven, both for the church of St Peter-upon-Cornhill in the City,  and for St Pancras Old Church in Camden. Perhaps significantly in this context, the present church of St Peter-upon-Cornhill lies,  and presumably the previous one(s) lay, within the footprint of the disused second – to third- century Basilica, possibly at least in part adopting its form, as was common practice in the early Christian church.  In the case of St Pancras Old Church, there is clearly recognisable Roman tile incorporated into the surviving Norman north wall, which could indeed  have been robbed  from a Christian church that once stood on the site – or perhaps from a pagan compitum or shrine (such as was often located on such prominent  ground adjacent to a water-course).  The  local historian Charles Lee went so far – in other words possibly too far – as to suggest a date, “possibly as early as 313 or 314” (313 was the year of the issuing of the Edict of Milan, which ensured tolerance of Christianity; and 314 was the year of the Christian Council of Arles).  Coincidentally or otherwise,  the patronal Pancras was martyred on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian in 304.

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The pattern of the Roman roads within and outwith the City may best be described as radiating out from the Basilica and Forum toward and beyond the various City Gates, which were, anti-clockwise from the east, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate and Ludgate (Moorgate, between Bishopsgate and Cripplegate,  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 to Lincoln and York, takes its name from the Saxon Earninga straet, after one Earn(e).  Watling Street, the main east to west route, linking  Richborough on the Kent coast to London, and London to Wroxeter, takes its name from the Saxon Waeclinga straet, after one Waecel.

Surviving Structures

Essentially the only structures that survive from Roman London  are parts of the “Governor’s Palace”, the Basilica and Forum, the Amphitheatre, the City wall, and the Temple of Mithras.  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 palace).     A pier base from the Basilica can be seen in the basement of No. 90 Gracechurch Street.

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The  Amphitheatre and associated artefacts can be viewed in the basement of the Guildhall.

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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.

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As noted above, the recently-reconstructed  Temple of Mithras may be viewed inside the Bloomberg Building on Walbrook.

It will be noted that, with the sole exception of the wall,  all of these structures, are below – and indeed 20’ or more below – modern street level.  Over the two millennia of London’s existence, street level has risen at an average rate of  1’ per 100 years – simply through the accumulation of demolition rubble.

ROMAN LONDON contd.

Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

Social History

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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.

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.  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.

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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).

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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.

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

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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

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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.

 

ROMAN LONDON

Another in the  series of posts taken from  my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” …

History

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.  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).

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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.

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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, 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 so-called Battle of Watling Street, one of the many purported locations for which  is Ambresbury Banks).

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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.

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The enclosing wall was 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).

Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp, Epping Forest (Iron Age enclosures)

In the timeless wilds of Epping Forest lie the remains of two partially-preserved prehistoric earthworks:

Ambresbury Banks, a little over a mile north-west of Theydon  Bois;

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and Loughton Camp, a mile north-north-west of Loughton – at the end of a muddy slalom!

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Both are banked and ditched enclosures with areas of around 4 hectares.  When they were built, the banks would have been 3m high and the ditches 3m deep.  They are believed to have been built by Ancient Britons during  the Iron Age, circa 500BC.  They are further believed to have built to mark the boundary between the tribal areas of the Catuvellauni to the west and Trinovantes to the east, or as lookout posts, or defensive positions, or livestock pens, or some combination of any or all of the aforementioned.

They remained in use at least until the Roman period.  According to local legend, Ambresbury Banks was where the Iceni  Queen Boudicca made her final stand against the Romans in 61AD.

The notorious highwayman Dick Turpin is rumoured to have had a hideout in Loughton Camp in the eighteenth century.

Buried Treasures of Greenwich Park

Greenwich was first recorded in 964 as Grenewic, from the Old English grene, meaning green, in context grassy or vegetated, and wic, meaning trading settlement or harbour.

Bronze Age and or Saxon burial mounds

Among the many features of historical or archaeological note in Greenwich Park – a World Heritage Site – are approximately fifty  rather eroded burial mounds or barrows on Croom’s Hill, a little to the west of the line of the Prime Meridian.  Archaeological excavations on the burial mounds have unearthed swords, shields and other pagan grave goods dating to  the seventh century, i.e., the Saxon period.  It is possible, though,  that the barrows themselves were originally of Bronze Age construction, a number of instances of such re-use having been recorded elsewhere in England (as in Howard William’s “Death and Memory in early Medieval Britain”).   Note in this context that there is a demonstrably Bronze Age barrow known as the “Shrewsbury Tumulus”  on nearby Shooters Hill.

Romano-Celtic temple

Also in Greenwich Park, near the junction between  Bower Avenue and Great Cross Avenue, are the remains of a second- to third- (or fourth-) century Romano-Celtic pagan temple.  A dig on the site by Channel 4’s “Time Team”, in collaboration with Birkbeck College, in 1999, turned up a number of interesting finds, including part of a statue, and a stone bearing an inscription to the god Jupiter and to the spirits of the Emperors.

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Temple reconstruction

The dig also revealed enough of the foundation of the temple, in the form of a central principal building or cella and surrounding covered walkway or ambulatory, and  outer  walled precinct or temenos,   to enable it to be reconstructed.  The cella clearly had a tessellated floor and painted plaster walls.

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The temple would have stood at a strategically important high point adjacent to the principal Roman road from Kent into London, Watling Street, possible stretches  of which have also been recorded nearby.

 

 

The Roman London Mithraeum (Temple of Mithras)

The Roman London Mithraeum (Temple of Mithras) 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, the remains only coming to light again during rebuilding after the Blitz.

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The temple was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street in 1962.

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It has recently been reconstructed again – inside a specially designed  space in the Bloomberg Building – on Walbrook.

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Some of the finds from the recent archaeological dig on and around the temple site may be viewed in the Bloomberg Space.

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Other finds, from the original post-war dig, including a marble bust  of Mithras in his distinctive Phrygian cap, may be viewed in the Roman gallery in the Museum of London.

Mithras and Mithraism

Mithras, sometimes referred to as the “pagan Christ”,  was originally a Persian god, from the Zoroastrian pantheon, believed to be an assistant of the powers of good in their struggle against those of evil, who served to slay a bull created by evil, from the blood of which all life sprang  (*).  He   eventually came to be identified with the Unconquered Sun, or Sol Invictus, and to epitomise purity, honesty, and moral and physical courage (whence, presumably, his supposed popularity with Roman soldiers).

Mithraism, the practice and mystery cult of Mithras  worship, as by then distinct from Zoroastrianism,  came to Rome in around the first century BCE, and spread throughout much of the Roman Empire by the first century AD, becoming most widespread in the third. It was practised in specially dedicated temples or “Mithraea” (sing., “Mithraeum”), many of which were underground (because Mithras slew the  bull underground, in a cave).

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(*) Carved reliefs of the bull-slaying – or “tauroctony” – are  characteristic  features of Mithraean iconography

The London Mithraeum (Temple of Mithras)

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According to the temporary outdoor exhibition entitled “The Lost City of London” (yes, really), the recently-reconstructed  London Mithraeum in the basement of the Bloomberg building on Walbrook will be opening to the public later this autumn.

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Finds from recent archaeological excavations on and around the site will also be available for viewing.

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Finds from earlier excavations – undertaken in the immediate post-war period – may be viewed in the Roman gallery in the Museum of London.