The Rise and Fall of Roman London

Robert Wynn Jones

5 mins

11 Jun 2019

Under Claudius, Rome invaded Britain in 43AD/CE, and Roman London, or Londinium, was founded in c. 47-8, as evidenced by the scientific dating of timbers from a Roman drain uncovered during archaeological excavations at No. 1 Poultry.

The city was sited in a strategic position. It was on high ground overlooking the Thames, at the lowest crossing-point on the river, and at a point at which it was also still tidal, enabling easy access to the open sea and the empire beyond.

If Rome was built on seven hills, Roman London was built on two: Ludgate Hill to the west, and Cornhill to the east, with the valley of one of the “lost” Thames tributaries – the Walbrook – in between.

At Boudicca’s mercy

The early Roman city was razed to the ground by revolting ancient Britons under Boudica or Boudicca (Boadicea of the Victorian re-imagining), the Queen of the Iceni, in 60 or 61.

Boudicca’s late husband, Prasutagus, had been a nominally independent ally of the Romans; when he died, he willed his tribal kingdom jointly to his daughters and to the Roman Emperor.

The Romans, however, chose to ignore his wishes, and annexed his land and property for their exclusive use.  Moreover, they had Boudicca flogged and her daughters raped, driving the Iceni to revolt alongside the Trinovantes, their tribal neighbours.

Boudicea haranguing the Britons.

At the time of the revolt, several Roman legions under the Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus were away attacking  the druid stronghold on Anglesey, and they had to be rapidly recalled to London to face the advancing Britons, who had already destroyed Colchester (or Camulodunum).

Realising that he was confronted by a much larger army, Suetonius essentially abandoned the city to its fate in order to regroup (St Albans, or Verulamium, would also be destroyed).

Tacitus wrote:

“The inhabitants … who stayed because they were women, or old, or attached to the place, were slaughtered ….  … For the British … could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn and crucify – as though avenging, in advance, the retribution that was on its way”.

The revolt ended with the Romans crushing the Britons at the so-called Battle of Watling Street, one of the many purported locations for which is Ambresbury Banks in Epping Forest. At the end of the battle, facing capture, Boudicca chose to end her own life by taking poison.

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Reconstruction

After the Boudiccan revolt, the city was rebuilt, initially by the Procurator Julius Alpinus Classicianus under the Emperor Nero and subsequently under the Flavian, Trajanic and Hadrianic emperorships, in the late 1st to early 2nd centuries.

There being no local source of stone, construction work involved extensive use of Kentish Ragstone, transported down the Medway and up the Thames to London on barges (the remains of one which have been found at Blackfriars, with its 50-ton cargo intact).

The city wall was originally built at the turn of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and subsequently extended and reinforced in the late 3rd, when a river wall was added, and again in the mid 4th, when bastions were added. In its heyday in the 2rd century, Londinium was an important trading, commercial and administrative centre, with its port at its heart.

A scale model of the port and bridge of Londinium around 100 AD from the Museum of London. Image Credit: Kleon3 / Commons.

Decline and fall

The city declined through the “crisis” of the 3rd century and into the 4th, during which time the Roman Empire as a whole came under increasing attack from within as well as without.

Britain was ruled by its own rival Emperors on several occasions: by Clodius Albinus in the late 2nd century, and Carausius and Allectus in the 3rd, after which it was retaken by the Emperor Constantius Chlorus in 296.

It appears that many of Roman London’s public buildings, including the “Governor’s Palace”, and the Basilica and Forum, were substantially demolished at the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries – perhaps as punishment for its perceived support of the “Carausian Revolt”.

A marble bust of Clodius Albinus in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Credit: Sailko / Commons.

Christianity replaced polytheistic paganism in London, as throughout the Roman Empire, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312 and the passage of the Edict of Milan, which ensured tolerance of the new religion, in 313.

At least one representative from Londinium, named Restitutus, attended the Christian Council of Arles in 314. Little evidence of Christian worship survives, however, and essentially no places of Christian worship.

The city finally fell, and was essentially abandoned, in the early 5th century, around 410, after the occupying army and the civilian administration, the instruments of Empire, were recalled to Rome to assist in its defence against the encroaching Barbarians (on the orders of the Emperor Honorius).

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New discoveries

Recent archaeological excavations around Poultry and Walbrook have led to one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in London, that of the “Pompeii of the North”.

Here have been uncovered an entire waterfront development, and thousands of artefacts – including, importantly, many made of organic materials that would normally have perished but that were preserved in the abnormal anaerobic conditions of the waterlogged deposits of the river Walbrook.

Large numbers of skulls have also been found over in the Walbrook. It is likely that some originated in the Roman burial ground north of the City wall in Moorfields, and were subsequently naturally transported and deposited to the south, in the process becoming hydro-dynamically sorted from their skeletons.

Some others, though, appear to have been deliberately placed in pits, and, moreover, exhibit evidence of trauma. These could be those of victims of gladiatorial combat, or of judicial execution, or perhaps of ritual decapitation.

Alternatively, they could be those of victims of the “Boudiccan Revolt” or the “Carausian Revolt”. Or possibly of a  native British uprising during the Hadrianic emperorship.

Dr Robert Wynn Jones is a retired professional palaeontologist, interested amateur archaeologist and historian. His most recent book, ‘The Flower Of All Cities: The History of London From Earliest Times to the Great Fire‘ was published by Amberley Publishing on 15 July.

Featured image credit: Thomas Thornycroft’s statue of Boadicea and her Daughters in London Jason Halsall / Commons.

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