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Today, it’s incredible to think that the sprawling urban metropolis of London was, originally, a Roman foundation. In its early stages, London was merely an outpost on the far edge of the Roman Empire, playing second fiddle to more prominent centres such as Rome, Athens, Alexandria and Cyrene. Yet it soon grew into a centre of Roman economic and military might.
Archaeological excavations, which are required before any new buildings are built, have uncovered so much incredible Roman material over the past decades across London. Key discoveries include an ancient cemetery underneath Spitalfields Market – which revealed more about the ethnic makeup of this ancient metropolis – a mysterious subterranean temple now preserved underneath the Bloomberg European Headquarters, fragments of ancient financial documents and the earliest depiction of London on coinage.
Thanks to these remarkable discoveries, we can propose a narrative for London’s earliest years and how this Roman foundation rose to become the beating heart of ancient Britannia.
Before the Romans
So what did central London look like 2,000 years ago, just before the Roman invasion of Britain under Emperor Claudius? The answer is, unsurprisingly, very different.
The River Thames, first and foremost, would have been a much ‘wilder’ river. Tidal in its nature, the Thames used to flood across a much wider area. The land around today’s Borough Market, for instance, would have been largely submerged. Emerging from these mudflats were little gravel islands, used almost like ‘stepping stones’ by the Romans for when they presumably constructed their first pontoon bridge across the Thames during the initial invasion.
Close by the River Thames was the Walbrook River, which fed into the Thames and is today covered over by the City of London. Either side of these rivers was a heavily-wooded landscape, interspersed with some sporadic, small Iron Age farmsteads. Dr Dominic Perring has proposed a theory that one of these farmsteads was called Londinum (a Celtic name) and that it was from this farmstead that Londinium (and London) got its name.
When and why was London founded?
When exactly the Romans founded London is debated, but it may well have happened during the early 40s AD, at the time of the Claudian invasion of Britain. Archaeologists have uncovered ditch systems at three sites under the City of London, dating to the Roman invasion period.
This is possible evidence for a Roman military presence at London when Emperor Claudius, his lead general Aulus Plautius and their tens of thousands of soldiers (plus some elephants) headed north from the Thames to receive the surrenders of British chiefs at Colchester, officially bringing the initial invasion of Britain to a close.
For the Romans, logistically, establishing a supply base in London made a lot of sense. Not only was this location a suitable area where large numbers of troops could cross the Thames (thanks to the gravel islets for instance), but this was also a place where boats sailing from the continent could reach with relative ease, offloading much-needed supplies that the Roman army demanded if they were to extend Rome’s control further and further into Britain.
As a result, the Roman presence in London rapidly developed into this economic focal point – a mercantile hub where traders and other businessmen would base themselves to take advantage of economic opportunities that conquest infamously offered the victors.
And so, perhaps within a year of the initial Claudian invasion, Roman London (Londinium) had emerged and rapidly began to develop into a thriving centre of business and supply.
London’s economic growth continued over the following decade, during the 50s AD, as the Roman armies oversaw a series of breakout campaigns that extended Rome’s influence further north and west. Archaeology has only affirmed this great hustle of mercantile activity in London.
Not only is it around this time that the Romans constructed their first permanent bridge across the Thames (near today’s London Bridge) but excavations in the Walbrook Valley (beneath the City of London) uncovered some remarkable artefacts dating to this very early period in London’s history. Most fascinating of all were numerous tablet fragments, preserved thanks to the anaerobic soil conditions of the covered up Walbrook River.
Among these fragments was one belonging to a financial document, dating to 8 January 57 AD. Alongside the date (which in itself is extraordinary), the writing records a deed of sale between two freedmen, with one owing the other 155 denarii in goods delivered. This fragment, today on display at the London Mithraeum, is the earliest piece of writing from London that survives.
By the end of the 50s AD, London had already experienced rapid growth. The mercantile centre had an estimated population of 10,000: it was by far the largest settlement in the whole of Britain, roughly twice the size of the official Roman provincial capital Colchester (Camulodunum).
Chief administrators based themselves in London. Although not officially a Roman city, this ‘emporium’ was a beating heart of the Roman administration. But in 60/61 AD, disaster struck.
In 60 AD, the Iceni queen Boudica launched her massive revolt against the Romans. Her warriors first targeted nearby Camulodunum, massacring the defenders and torching the official capital. A slaughter of part of the Ninth Legion followed, before Boudica set her sights firmly on London.
London was a key target for Boudica if her forces were to expel the Romans from Britain. As mentioned, it was this central hub of administration, it was this key connection nucleus, linking Roman Britain with the continent through business and supply. Militarily, however, it was vulnerable.
Although a powerful economic settlement, London lacked adequate defences and so Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman governor, opted to abandon the city to a gruesome fate before Boudica arrived.
What followed was destruction. Boudica’s warriors torched the city, with horrific accounts preserved in both Cassius Dio and Tacitus. Most remarkable of all is that the archaeology corroborates these descriptions. Underneath the city of London today, archaeologists have found a bright red burnt layer in the soil, dating to 60/61 AD. This is extraordinary archaeological evidence, affirming the destruction of London in that year.
London after Boudica
Boudica and her army left London a smouldering ruin, but this settlement did not remain ‘out of action’ for long. With a few months, Boudica’s revolt had been put down and the Romans quickly set about rebuilding their vital settlement along the River Thames – so important was it for supply and for business in Britannia. Also, London replaced Colchester as the provincial capital.
Those rebuilding London built new timber buildings on top of the debris. Soldiers erected a fort north of the Thames on modern-day Fenchurch Street. Meanwhile, work swiftly began on constructing a great, new waterfront – improving London’s port facilities in the wake of Boudica’s rampage.
Artefacts from excavations only proved this swift revival. The fragment of another financial document, for instance, dating to the aftermath of the Boudican revolt, highlights how London was already back up and running as a mercantile hub within around 2 years of the sacking. Meanwhile, fragments of Roman legionary armour highlight the new military presence based in London.
Over the next few decades, during the Flavian Period (69-96 AD), London’s revival continued. Monumental buildings began to appear. In the early 70s for instance, right at the start of Vespasian’s reign, the first amphitheatre was constructed under what is today Guildhall.
Although puny in comparison to the size and splendour of the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome (the Colosseum), this wooden structure was still a remarkable construction to build in London. It was physical proof that Vespasian was keen to leave his mark on Roman Britannia (Vespasian, after all, had been a commander in the initial invasion a few decades before).
Other monumental public buildings in London appeared in the following decades: grand public bathhouses, an enigmatic large construction at Southwark south of the Thames, a basilica, a forum, a governor’s palace (its location is debated) and several mills to provide more food.
By the time of the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), London had transformed into this extraordinary economic powerhouse. Tough tests did lie ahead (there is evidence of a huge fire and potential severe turmoil affecting London sometime during Hadrian’s reign), but overall London continued to grow until the late 2nd century.
As for the inhabitants themselves, the uncovering of residential houses and cemeteries have revealed more about the ethnic makeup of Roman London at that time and how people from across the empire ventured to this ancient metropolis.
Within a century of its founding, London had risen to become this thriving centre of Roman Britannia. But perhaps what is more astonishing is the fact that, to this day, we are still learning more about London’s origins. New archaeological excavations will undoubtedly reveal more information about the city’s earliest history in the years ahead. Almost 2,000 years on from its founding, we will continue to learn more about London’s earliest age.