London is undoubtedly Roman Britain's greatest legacy. At 138 ha (330 acres), it was the largest city in the province, and served as the centrepiece for a system of communication that has shaped the face of modern Britain. London is today exactly what it was in the beginning: an international commercial metropolis. Ironically, the intensive occupation of London since antiquity means that more Roman material has been found here than at any other Romano-British town. Bombing in World War II and the subsequent redevelopment has led to an almost unending sequence of major excavations and discoveries.
Until the conquest in 43, the Thames served largely as a tribal boundary. There is no trace of any significant prehistoric settlement in the London area. After the conquest, the Thames became the most important route into the heart of Britain. By the year 50 a bridge had been built, close to the present site of London Bridge. It was a decisive moment. London’s name provides us with no clues as to its origins. But by the time of the Boudican revolt, Londinium was a well-known and prosperous trading centre that had developed of its own accord. Yet the city was important enough to make it one of the three key urban targets for the rebellious Britons. It seems that the combination of a vast increase in military commercial traffic under Roman occupation, together with the bridge and roads made London’s development into a significant town inevitable. The most likely scenario is that Roman entrepreneurs, servicing the influx of soldiers and administrators, took advantage of the facilities and settled there. Confident and complacent, none of them took the trouble to install fortifications. During the rebellion, London was torched and any remaining inhabitants massacred. The aftermath was equally dramatic, as London was transformed from a frontier-trading town into the capital of Roman Britain, with all the features necessary to make it a major administrative, social and economic centre.
90. Reconstruction view of Roman London.
London in the mid-second century. The Hadrianic forum-basilica was one of the biggest buildings in Briumtiui, and London the largest settlement.
Temporary fortifications were erected and London was rebuilt. The new procurator of the province, Gaius julius Alpinus Classicianus, was based in London instead of at Colchester. His tombstone has survived, reused in a bastion added to the walls in the late fourth century (see p. 40). His presence marks the time when London emerged as the preeminent town in Roman Britain, and we can safely assume that the governor was also based there. A massive building on the site of the present-day Cannon Street station has been tentatively identified as the governor’s palace. The fort in the northwest part of the city housed his garrison, and was certainly in existence by the early second century. Its associated amphitheatre had been built by the year 70. The many tiles stamped PPBRLON’ (see p. 88) show that the Roman government was behind a number of the major public buildings. The city may have been classed as a colony or a municipiiwu but ironically no inscription has ever been found that specifies its formal legal status.
A crucial part of the reconstruction was the installation of public buildings. London received a modest forum and basilica by 85 at the latest. They were soon replaced by a far bigger version on the same site, with a cathedral-sized basilica begun under Hadrian (117-38), and from which the well-known bronze bust of the emperor (see p. 143) may have come. Public baths on Huggin Hill were begun around the same time as the first forum, but there were several other, earlier baths.
Around these great structures houses and shops proliferated, jockeying for position and street frontage. Excavations at No. 1 Poultry have produced evidence for a series of tightly-packed wooden buildings along the street, and this seems to have been typical of much of Roman London in the first and second centuries.
During this time the quantity of evidence for commercial activity exceeds any other known settlement in the province. Substantial timber wharfs were being built as early as the year 62, and vast quantities of imported goods started to arrive, including glass, Gaulish samian ware and Italian amphorae. London also became home to artisans and 91. Plan of Roman London.
London’s modern streets bear little relation to known Roman streets shown on the plan, though the third-century walls (which incorporated the earlier fort) provided the foundations for the medieval walls.
ROMAN LONDON COntillHCli
93. The Governor’s Fort.
Reconstruction of the fort at London, possibly built as part of improvements at the time of Hadrian s visit. The fort housed the garrison of the governor, including detachments from units stationed across Britain.
92. Borough High Street (London).
An oil-lamp in the >hape of a human foot, found during the digging of the lubilee Line extension. The wick was placed in the hole in the big toe, and oil would have been poured through the hole in the ankle. Mid-second centurv.
Manufacturers of all types, including potters, metalworkers and jewellers.
Londons population is known to us from tombstones and graffiti. Its military population, serving on the governors bodyguard or acting in some other official capacity (such as policing), is as usual more conspicuous than any other group of people. Ulpius Silvanus, a veteran of the II legion and devotee of Mithraism, is recorded on the marble relief he donated to London’s mithraeum (see p. 249). Silvanus had enlisted at Orange in Gaul, but London’s inhabitants included people from even further afield. Aulus Alfidius Olussa, who died in London at the age of 70, had been born in Athens. Tulla Numidia’s tombstone was incomplete when found, but her name suggests that she or her father originated in North Africa.
Religion is another indicator of how closely this early London resembled its modern counterpart. Open only to men and emphasizing the importance of valour and physical resilience, Mithraism was popular amongst soldiers and traders. Its adherents carried the cult around the Empire, as did the
94. Monument Street (London).
Rile and stone culvert used to drain water
From the citv out to the Thames.
Lollowers of the Egyptian goddess, Isis. Two inscriptions, a first-century graffito on a flagon and a third-century altar, record a temple of Isis in London. Such exotic cults sat easily alongside more mainstream religious pursuits. Tiberinius Celerianus, probably a merchant shipper, made his dedication to Mars Camulos and the Imperial Spirits at a temple precinct in Southwark (see p. 176).
London’s later history was just as dramatic as its beginning. After sub-stantial damage sustained by fire c. 125-30, London was rebuilt, but the boom had passed. Commerce began slowly to decline over the next hundred years. As with most towns in Roman Britain, a circuit of stone walls was built in the third century, but we have no idea whether this was to meet a specific threat, to control movement, or to simply be a statement of power.
'I'he new walls were later reinforced with riverside fortifications. In 286, London became the capital of the independent breakaway regime ruled by Carausius (286-93). Carausius struck the first coins in London, a process continued by his murderer and successor, Allectus (293-96). The female personification of London first appeared on the gold medal struck for Constantius Chlorus (293-306), to commemorate his recovery of the city for the Empire (see p. 71).
The city’s latter years were ’ery different. The forum and basilica had been demolished by c. 300, and other public buildings were in various states of disuse. The riverside fortifications had a devastating impact on commerce. The cramped commercial quarters of the first and second centuries had been replaced by more widely-spaced housing. Nevertheless, investment in the defences continued, with bastions being added to the walls after 350.
London seems to have faded quietly in the way of most of Roman Britain’s towns, as the economy that supported them ceased to exist. In the fifth century, settlement seems to have shifted temporarily west to the area now known as AldNsTch, but by the tenth and eleventh centuries London was once again a thriving city.
95. Cirencester (Gloucestershire). This late fourth-century farm at Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum) was built within the town walls on a virgin plot. Like any such establishment in the late Roman world, its estate, manpower and produce would have been subjected to taxes and tribute based on standard units of measurement.
Multiplied as bureaucracy became more cumbersome. Britain’s taxes were now handled by a praepositusy and submitted to the receiver of revenues, or rationalis. The problems with endemic inflation had led to taxation being more commonly paid in kind, as food and resources were often more useful than cash. Land was divided into 0.26-ha (0.64-acre) units, or iugera. Each iugerum was assessed for its productiveness. The more productive it was, the higher its taxable value. The population was counted. Then the state assessed its needs and set the tax rate payable per head and per agricultural productivity unit. Throughout the fourth century this continually increased, unlike earlier taxation, which had been fixed . The system was unfair and rife with corruption. The main beneficiaries were the local officials drawn from the landowning members of town councils.