Another in the series of posts taken from my forthcoming book, “The Flower Of All Cities” (most images courtesy of the Museum of London) …
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 c. 50.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Amphitheatre and associated artefacts can be viewed in the basement of the Guildhall.
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.
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.