The Hidden History of Roman London | History Hit

The Hidden History of Roman London

Graham Land

24 Jul 2018

The Romans founded London as Londinium in 47 AD, later building a bridge over the River Thames and establishing the settlement as a port with roads leading to other outposts in Roman Britain.

As the largest Roman city in Britannia, London remained under Rome’s authority until 410 AD, a very substantial stretch of time.

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The origins of London

Though Londinium began as a small fortified settlement, after it was demolished by a massive force of native tribes led by Queen Boudica in 60 AD, it was rebuilt as a planned Roman town and expanded rapidly.

Around 50 years after its founding London was home to some 60,000 inhabitants.

Life in Londinium

roman london

A model depicting life in Roman London during 85-90 AD. Credit: Steven G. Johnson (Wikimedia Commons).

Though Romanised, most of the population of London were native Britons, including soldiers, families, labourers, tradesmen, sailors and slaves. For the average Londoner, life was tough, though there were relaxing pursuits imported by Rome, including bathhouses, taverns and amphitheatres. People could also unwind during the many Roman festivals celebrated in the city.

Religion in Roman London

One of London’s most significant archaeological finds dating from Roman times is a temple to the Persian God Mithras, the London Mithraeum, uncovered in 1954. The cult of Mithras, though not Roman or Hellenistic in origin, was popular in the Empire for a time.

For the most part, however, Londoners worshiped the gods of the Romans, which were mostly derived from the Greek pantheon. In the late period of occupation Christianity began to make inroads.

roman london

Finds from the London Temple of Mithras in the Museum of London. Credit: Carole Raddato (Wikimedia Commons).

Decline and fall

Londinium was at its peak in the 2nd century when Emperor Hadrian visited on one of his many travels around the Empire. But by the next century, things were headed downhill. Instability and economic troubles of the Empire increased the city’s vulnerability to Barbarian raids and pirate attacks.

Around 200 AD a defensive wall was built, encircling the city. The population dwindled over the following 200 years.

By the 4th century, public buildings were demolished (maybe due to a rebellion) and the settlement south of the Thames was abandoned. By 407 Emperor Constantine II withdrew all forces from the city and subsequently Emperor Honorius left London’s defence to the Britons.

While some aspects of Roman culture and lifestyle remained, particularly among the wealthy classes, officially London was Roman-less.

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Roman London today

London has maintained a population for over 1,600 years since the Romans left. Time, the elements, demolitions and construction have long removed most visible features of old Londinium. Yet much remains, buried underground and in urban features that survived throughout the years, such as roads that were continually repaved or the odd building foundation.

Some remnants of Roman London can still be seen today, including sections of the Roman Wall at Tower Hill, the Barbican Estate and on the grounds of the Museum of London.

Excavations throughout the years have also exposed much of the city’s Latin past, like the Roman house at Billingsgate (uncovered in 1848) and the 2013 discovery of entire Roman streets and countless well-preserved artefacts at the building site of Bloomberg Place in London’s financial district. A Roman ship was found in the Thames in 1963.

Small artefacts like Roman pottery, statuettes and coins, even brothel tokens, are still routinely found in the city’s main river.

Graham Land