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A Tour of Roman London

by Sean McLachlan

London is such a vast and vibrant city, it's hard to imagine a time when it wasn't a vital part of England's life, but before the Romans arrived, there wasn't even a town here. When Julius Caesar marched his legions through the land in 54 B.C., he found nothing but a few scattered villages. The land was chalky and bad for farming, and the Thames couldn't be forded anywhere downriver of Westminster, making it more of a barrier than an asset to the native Celts, who were brave warriors but poor sailors.

Roman Temple of Mithras in London

Julius Caesar decided not to expend the resources to bring the island into the Roman sphere, but the Romans returned under the emperor Claudius in 43 A.D. Claudius came with the intention of making Britain a new province in the empire and quickly conquered the various Celtic tribes, who were too divided to make a united stand. While the land in the London basin was poor, the Romans realized its strategic importance and built their provincial capital here, naming it Londinium. The word comes from the Celtic word lond, meaning wild, an indication of state in which the Romans found it. They built a bridge just a few yards west of where London Bridge stands today and Claudius himself visited the city while on a tour of his new province.

There's a stereotype that Britannia, as the Romans called it, was the backwater of the Empire, but in fact the province and its capital thrived. Londinium's forum, where people met for commerce and socializing, was the biggest outside of Italy, as was its basilica, a building used for communal meetings in the days before that type of architecture became associated with the Christian church. At its height Londinium had a population of about 30,000, making it one of the largest cities outside Italy, with a busy international trade, rich villas, an amphitheatre, and several temples.

Londinium stood in the area now known as Square Mile, or The City, which remains the financial center of the British Isles to this day, and if you know where to look you can still see some remains from the Roman capital.

Roman Wall at Museum of London

On Noble St., just south of the Museum of London, stands a portion of the Roman fort built in 110 A.D. to protect the city at its northwestern corner. Here you can see the foundations of one of the towers and part of the wall. The wall atop it dates from the nineteenth century, and it's interesting to see that they built upon the old Roman foundations. This has been a common practice throughout London's history, where newer buildings so often get built atop the remains of previous ones, gradually building up a new city from the old.

Continuing north past the pedestrian overpass at the appropriately named London Wall Street are the remains of part of the Roman city wall, built sometime around 200 A.D. from more than a million blocks of stone hauled all the way from Kent in southwest England on an estimated 1,750 barges. The wall stretched for almost 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) and stood 6 meters (20 feet) high and 2.4 (8 feet) thick at the base. The country had long since been pacified, and the Anglo-Saxon invasions wouldn't begin for another two centuries, so it seems the wall was built for propaganda purposes, or as a way of employing the urban mob, which had a bad habit of rioting when they weren't getting enough to eat. Only the foundations survive, the wall and postern tower above them date to the thirteenth century. If you continue north for another hundred yards through the grassy area you'll find another thirteenth century postern tower, also built on Roman foundations. In the springtime, yellow and red wildflowers bloom on its crumbling summit, making for a great photograph. Another stretch of the Roman wall can be seen just next to the Tower of London in the southeast corner of The City.

While you are on London Wall Street, make sure to visit the Museum of London, which covers the city's entire history from the first Ice Age hunters to modern times. Each period has recreated interiors such as a cramped Roman living room, complete with an uncomfortable-looking toilet, and an entire street of Victorian shops. The collection of Roman artifacts includes some fascinating tools, jewelry, cultic statues, and other everyday objects. From a large window near the Roman gallery you can look out at the medieval tower and wall built on Roman foundations.

Roman walls in London

The most complete Roman building in the city is the second century Temple of Mithras, at the corner of Queen and Queen Victoria St. Workmen uncovered it during the rebuilding after the Blitz of World War Two and, since it was in the way of some new construction, reassembled it here. Mithras was the god of a late Roman mystery religion that originated in Persia. The original temple was underground and was the scene for religious banquets and rituals. Mithraism was so popular it became the main rival to early Christianity, but its secretive nature, and the fact that it only accepted men as members, meant it eventually lost out. The entire floor plan can clearly be seen, with colonnaded side aisles where initiates could recline while sharing the sacred banquet, and an altar at the back which once had a statue of Mithras slaying a bull and thus bringing life to the world.

Other remnants of Londinium are scattered throughout the City. At St. Bride's church on Fleet St., a visit to the crypt will reveal the foundations of a sixth century Saxon church and a portion of a Roman building with a decorated floor. While archaeologists are unsure what the Roman building was used for, local legend says St. Bride's is built on the site of a Celtic Christian community, perhaps the earliest in the British Isles.

Beneath the Guildhall at Guildhall Yard is an even greater find, part of an amphitheatre built in 70 A.D. so gladiators could fight it out with wild animals (and each other) to the roaring of the crowd. These bloody spectacles must have been popular, because the amphitheatre was expanded in 200 A.D. to hold 6,000 people at a time when the population of Londinium numbered around 30,000.

While many Roman remains are in basements of later buildings, some of Londinium's features are in plain view. Watling St., for example, is an old Roman road that used to run from St. Albans all the way to Wroxeter via Westminster, the probable site of the first Roman fort in the area. You can still follow much of its route today.

Other bits of Roman London are scattered throughout The City. On the porch of St. Magnus the Martyr church on Lower Thames St. is a beam from the Roman wharf found under Fish St., and construction often reveals Roman layers of occupation. Keep an eye on the newspapers when you're in town, because new finds are made every year, and the archaeologists often let visitors view the excavations. One of the strangest archaeological finds was in 1969 on the eastern edge of the old city wall, in an area called Houndsditch. Excavators found eight dog skeletons from a layer dating to the Roman period, an eerie testimony to the city's long memory for names.

But as you make your tour of Roman London, spare a thought for the brave Celts who fought and died to protect their lands from the powerful empire. Legend has it that far below platform seven of King's Cross Station lies the tomb of Boudicca, the female leader of the Iceni. This warrior queen waged started a rebellion the Romans in 60 A.D., laying waste to Verulamium (now St. Albans) and other outlying towns before marching on Londinium. She burned and looted the city but the Romans soon counterattacked. An epic battle ensued in which thousands died, supposedly near what the area that has throughout the city's history been called Battlebridge. The Romans prevailed and Boudicca, despairing, poisoned herself. While the rattle of the trains might disturb her sleep, she can rest with the satisfaction that she is more famous, and more admired by the British, than any of the Romans who ever lived on her stolen lands.

Related Articles:

The Museum of London, by Kavitha Rao

Sean McLachlan is a freelance writer specializing in travel and history. He has written several books including Byzantium: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 2004) and Moon Handbooks London (Avalon, 2007). Visit him on the web at http://midlistwriter.blogspot.com and http://grizzledoldtraveler.blogspot.com.

Article and photos © 2008 Sean McLachlan


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