Story of Roman London

From the very start of its existence London was an urban development. Romans founded Londinium in 43 CE, and it was an important port city since. Neither a bloody rebellion, nor an economic stagnation could stop international community from investing its fortune into Londinium’s business and real estate. The rise and fall of Britannic Empire changed the face of the coins, but not the faces on the streets. Several centuries later Saxons will use Roman wall as a protection from Viking raids, marvelling at the ruins of the city of giants. And nowadays traces of Roman planning manifest themselves in the street layout, and archaeology discoveries open a new old word to the curious museum visitor.

The settlement

The good news was that there was plenty of water, if settlers can stand the mosquitoes buzzing over their ear. On their way they saw small roundhouses scattered over the valley, but no village, not to mention a town. Travellers trudged the boggy ground, still swaying a bit after a long sea journey. For how long will they live here? Romans weren’t sure. But they knew the place is perfect for their needs: here the river was narrow enough for the bridge, yet still navigable in high tide. It will be easier to control the conquered tribes form here. Yes, the land was prone to floods; the Thames was three times wider then, after all. South bank was no more than a pattern of rivulets with sandy islands here and there. But on the Northern side there were two small hills with a river between them, enough space to start a new Roman town. They will name it Londinium. Romans rerouted the existing roads ever so slightly to have a perfect crossroads and a port at the same place. It was the seventh year of their presence in British land.

Actually, Julius Caesar conquered Britons almost a hundred years ago, to stop them from helping his enemies. The campaign wasn’t as successful as he expected, so he had to withdraw the troops to the continent. Nevertheless, he brought back the hostages and an agreement of annual tribute. 

South bank was just a couple of sandy islands in Roman time.

Museum of London.

Now Claudius was an emperor, and he wanted to keep his ratings up. A successful invasion was a sure way to do it. Pretending they’re helping the most powerful British king to gain his power back, Romans brought their troops to stay. They made Camulodunum — Colchester — their capital, and quickly set to build all the infrastructure. They needed a port and roads to deliver goods and armies across the land. So Londinium was established. Docks were built soon enough. The timber bridge crossed the Thames at the same place where London Bridge stands now. Trade took off. Ships with cargo were constantly arriving and departing during high tide. In the docks one could hear thud of stone blocks, clattering of imported pottery, clinking of exported lead, whistling of slave supervisors’ whips, chatting of wealthy merchants who were happy to feel a steady ground after a month long journey from Rome. 

London was founded in 43 CE by the army of Roman emperor Claudius. It was named #Londinium and became an important port city. Click To Tweet
Hustle and bustle of Londinium’s quays. Museum of London. 

Boudican uprising

Roman towns grew fast. Londinium alone had 10 000 inhabitants, and they wanted to eat, travel, and live comfortably. Taxes went up, and debtors were enslaved and sold to the continent. Romans were greedy for the land, too. When the king of a Celtic Iceni tribe died, Roman soldiers made sure to seize the land, which was left to king’s daughters in his will. Soldiers didn’t ask nicely: they flogged king’s widow Boudica and raped both their daughters. After this, Iceni lost their temper. 

Citizens weren’t surprised to see dark clouds of smoke hung over the town. Everyone’d heard the news. Revolt moved fast through the land, looting and burning everything on its way. The capital didn’t offer any help: Camulodunum had already been devastated. Its buildings were incinerated, its defenders were massacred; the lively, prosperous city was now a pile of corpses in glowing ashes. The governor had returned the troops from the Wales campaign just in time to evacuate Londinium; everybody who was able to escape fled with him. Yet some couldn’t make it in time. They knew this heavy smell of burnt oak was probably the last feeling they had in their lives. Soon they will be either burned alive or murdered by Boudica’s warriors. Their eyes stung. Gods didn’t reply. But incomprehensible Iceni shouts were already heard on the streets. 

Though her existence doesn’t have a solid evidence, Boudica is a national hero. Thousands of tourists pass a statue of the Iceni queen and her daughters on Westminster bridge, but pay their attention mostly to Big Ben on the opposite side of the road.
Queen of Iceni tribe #Boudica was flogged by #Roman soldiers, while her daughters were raped. So she led the #uprising, which burned 3 Roman cities and killed 80 000 people. Click To Tweet

When Romans gathered their army, it was easy to put down the revolt. By now they were short of three major towns, which were burnt to the ground. They repaired the roads and restored timber quays, but were reluctant to settle in the unsafe place. Some people probably still had vivid memories of their flight; they remembered exactly where they were standing, feet in mud up to ankles, hands clenched on their most precious belongings, when they saw the first cloud of smoke over the town. 

Within a decade though, the memory faded. Trade opportunities lured residents back, and crossroads were again adorned by rows of humble mudbrick buildings. Soon Londinium flourished.

Londinium grows

It was not a shy small town anymore. It was one of the biggest provincial capitals in Roman Empire. In the room glass glittered under the sudden ray of sun, contrasting with the terracotta of oil amphoras. Aulus Alfidius shut a heavy door of his shop, wrestled the key out of the lock and hung it on his belt. Wind pulled the hems of his cloak while Aulus hopped over a filthy content of a toilet bucket. Smell of bread from bakeries, mixed with stench from the tannery, confused merchant’s senses, while he struggled his way down the street. For a moment he could imagine that he is back in Athens, on the way to family dinner. But why is it so cold then. And this British-style cloak. He shivered. Such an old man, and respected, too; yet he has to drag his feet to a public bathhouse to get a little bit of warmth. Thanks Jupiter they are building extra rooms there: it gets so crowded that one can’t use his own strigil without cleaning someone other’s skin. It will be crammed today, he thought, wincing under the first drops of rain.

Romans used strigils (bottom left) to scrub skin from oils and dirt. They splashed themselves with cold water from a pan, then applied aroma oil, which was most likely olive oil mixed with herbs and spices, on the clean skin. The set would be carried to the bath with the special handle (top left).
British Museum.

Something shoved the Greek to a whitewashed wall suddenly. Stuttering, he apologised to a huge walking mountain, but it was already too far away to hear Aulus. Oh, of course he loved gladiators. They never got old. The man went to the amphitheater as on duty, just to see them dying. Most of the times he was not satisfied. Usually it was local volunteers, who got killed by the gladiators. Once he saw two women fighting, their bare breasts jiggling around as they attacked each other. It was hilarious, the best time he’d ever had in the amphitheatre. His gaze was glued to the arena. Until one of the fighters had to kill the other. He remembered how cheering of seven thousand voices shrieked in his ears while he was staring at the stream of blood making its way to the underground sewer.

Romans didn’t like to get their feet wet. For the amphitheatre they built a clever system of timber sewers, together with wells to collect rubbish and prevent the pipes from clogging. 

Roman Amphiteathre.

The archeologists believed that city of Londinium’s size should have had an amphitheatre, but couldn’t find it for a long time. It was finally discovered in 1988. It is open for public admission through Guildhall Art Gallery. 

Stone dust filled the old lungs. No wonder rich Romans prefer to build their villas outside of the city bustle. A new fort was under the construction, and carts of stone threaded their way through the crowded streets to the northwest side. Hopefully the fort, along with the ditch around the city, will help to save him and his goods, if somebody will decide to burn the city down. Aulus smiled. He thought that by the next time Londinium is destroyed, he will probably be in his grave. 

Gravestone of Aulus Alfidius of Athens, 70 years old.
British Museum. 

London Wall

Indeed, the ditch was enough to defend Londinium from sporadic tribe attacks, but later the city status called for more than a gutter. In 200 Romans started a construction of a city wall, and works lasted for two or three decades. It was an enormous enterprise, enough to follow the suit of the other Roman buildings. The wall was six meters high, made of 86 thousands tons of Kentish stone, clay tiles for additional strength, and concrete so strong that for millennia it was easier to build on top of the wall than to take it down. That is, if somebody ever wanted to take it down. Medieval citizens were quite happy to use it as a defence it was intended to be, and nowadays the street pattern still repeats the traces of the Roman wall. 

The #Roman wall of #London was 3m wide, 6m high, had 22 towers, and was made of 86 thousands tons of Kentish stone and clay tiles for additional strength. Click To Tweet
Roman wall on Tower hill. The bottom part, lined with red tiles, is Roman. Medieval Londoners built an extension on the top of it to make it higher.

The city decays, while private villas flourish

In the third century Britain was divided into two provinces, and importance of Londinium declined. 

Public buildings wore marks of disuse, whitewash fell away, and here and there one could see traces of fire which were not repaired. Amphitheater was probably used as a slaughterhouse, warm blood once again mixed with old trash in its complicated sewer system. Simultaneously with this decline, taxes dwindled. So private business flourished, and villas were built in the more expensive and adorned style, along with mosaic floor, expensive glass windows and deliberate wall paintings. Floor and walls were heated with hot air running through the hidden clay pipes. When the river levels began to fall, Romans had to extend the quays into the river. New public bathhouse was built in Shadwell area.

Rich #Romans had central heating in their #villas. From the basement furnace warm air spread trough clay pipes, hidden in floor and walls. Click To Tweet

Clay pipes were built into the walls and were invisible in the finished room. But their texture, which was important to hold the pipe in place, was sometimes turned into a deliberate ornament, or even a hunting scene.
British Museum. 

Room of a wealthy Roman merchant with the original mosaic floor. Museum of London.

The first ten years of British Empire

In 286 CE citizens of Londinium woke up in shiny new British empire. A revolt again, will these people ever calm down? As soon as some commander falls out of favour, he starts an insurgency, fighting for a chance to be an emperor of a province. Not to mention that Roman emperors were constantly changing, so that nobody bothered even to learn their names. If all these people set to trade instead of fighting each other, maybe prices wouldn’t rise that much. They remembered the time when one coin would had sufficed where now they had to give a whole chest of them. That is, if they had any coins at all, for most of the gold went to barbarians’ troops, and Romans had to be satisfied with bartering. 

Turned out it was Carausius, a Roman naval commander, who was responsible for their new status. Wasn’t he the commander of a fleet fighting Saxon raiders? Wasn’t he supposed to be in English channel? Yes, it was him; and he has been convicted of a treason recently. Rumours were that he wasn’t fighting Saxons as much as collaborating with them. What a twist: Carausius had been sentenced to death, and now he was a British emperor. More successful than the leader of a previous revolt, whose uprising was put down by Vandal troops, Carausius had enough military skills to defend his empire from Roman attacks. To mark his rule, he ordered to mint a new coin. Spirit of Britain, pictured on tails side, appealed to native Britains’ dissatisfaction with Roman rule. That probably worked, because in medieval legends Carausius appears as a native Briton, though in fact he was a humble Menapian, from a Belgic tribe. Carausius felt so sure in his position that he started to build an enormous basilica in the centre of Londinium. After all, he’s been an emperor for several years now. But he didn’t see the building finished. He was killed on the seventh year of his rule by his own treasurer Allectus, who didn’t have much time to rule, either. Romans were already gathering forces to take Britain back, and they finally did so in 296, killing Allectus in the battle. Male parta male dilabuntur, as Cicero once said. Easy come, easy go.

The coin minted by the Roman emperor in 297 pictured him on the horse advancing to the open gate of welcoming Londinium.

British Museum. 

In 286 CE Carausius established #Britannic #Empire, which lasted for just 10 years before #Romans conquered it back. Click To Tweet

The beautiful ruin

In the fourth century Britain was once more divided, this time into four provinces. Londinium was renamed Augusta. It was just a shadow of a city it had been, though it was surrounded by prosperous villa estates. However, the large temple was erected on Tower Hill, and now that Christianity was the state religion, it was probably the first St Paul’s cathedral in London. 

Attacks by northern tribes became more frequent, but despite that, Roman sent less and less troops to oppose them. They were busy with their own troubles by that time. Communication broke. Trade ceased. By 410, all Roman army completely withdrew from Britain, and it was forgotten by the great civilisation. Life continued in villas around, but in Londinium the enormous buildings fell apart, the large paved streets overgrew, the quays fell silent. In a couple of centuries deserted city turned into a garden behind the walls. When Anglo-Saxons settled in the area in the beginning of 7th century, they picked the name Lundenburh for the ruins. In the 9th century they finally moved into the walled land to continue the diverse history of great London. 

Wall Street in modern London.

Understandably, it’s not the whole story of Roman London. Further reading with plenty of interesting details (affiliate links):

London: The Illustrated History — a beautiful book by curators from the Museum of London. Its colourful illustrations and interesting details help to understand the city development from ancient times to nowadays;

Roman Britain: Life at the Edge of Empire — The British Museum’s introductory guide to Roman Britain;

Londinium: A Map and Guide to Roman London by Museum of London overlays the archaeologic findings on the present day map.

Why did Romans forsook Londinium? They needed every soldier they had to protect Rome itself. Read about the collapse of the vast empire in AD 410: The year that shook Rome by the British Museum.

Places to discover Roman past, all free of charge (download the free map for more information):

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