Episode 1:

Roman London - An Introduction

Join London guides Hazel Baker and Ian McDiarmid as they discuss Roman London.

Find out whether London's history really begins with the Romans, when they came to Britain, why they chose the area to build Londinium.

Hear about the trades that went on inside Londinium, what goods were made there and what they imported. 

Discover what of Roman London there is left to explore.

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Full Transcript

Hazel: Joining me in the studio today is our erudite guide Ian McDiarmid. Ian McDiarmid is a qualified City of London Tour guide providing guided walks, private tours and virtual history talks at londonguidedwalks.co.uk

Ian: Hello, good to be here.

Hazel: Now, Ian, I have a question for you. Does London's history really start with the Romans?

Ian: Yes, I think it does. Archaeologists and historians like to be revisionist, which is to say they're always liking to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. And a lot of archaeologists have said recently, "Well, look, we've done important work on the London area and we found evidence of lots of activities, and in particular, we found burials in the reed beds alongside the Thames.". And burials are important; they're important for a ritual point of view, obviously, but also in Iron Age Britain, that is the period before the Romans, they were used to demarcate boundaries. However, this really just proves the point; London was an empty space, no one is saying that empty spaces can't be important, and it's only with the Romans that you get a proper settlement in London. There is another essence in which history in a broader sense begins with the Romans, and that is for Britain as a whole, Britain before the Romans came was an illiterate society, and it's only with history in the sense of our study of it, which is the reading of documents primarily, that we can begin to talk about history in the recorded sense. However, we've got a big problem with London, and that is that there are only a few references in Latin literature to London, and there's not really enough to construct in any meaningful sense a narrative history of London, and we are unusually reliant on archaeology to try to reconstruct the history of London in this period.

Hazel: Okay, so I get that, but why did they choose here?

Ian: London is the first place where you can put a bridge across the Thames, and we have to be a bit careful here because we're not entirely sure when the first bridge was constructed; it's probably a few years after the Romans actually arrived. But for the future development of London, it's obviously extremely important, because it's the first part on the coming up the river where you can construct a bridge. And before then, it was also relatively easy to cross, Southwark on the south bank of the Thames looked very different in Roman times. It was a series of small islands or islands. And these islands were connected to the mainland as it were on the South Bank in Iron Age times by walkways. So, you could walk across to the island nearest the Thames and then get a ferry across. So, it was always, even before they put to bridge up, it was always a very easy place to cross the river. And indeed, once the Romans have constructed the bridge, we should remember that they would still be using ferries for an awful lot of the transport. It's very easy to imagine that London Bridge was probably very easily congested with carts at this time. And the Thames is of course, tidal, where the tide actually reach is a matter of some debate, but it was certainly tidal up until the, what is now the City of London; and this is extremely important for bringing ships in and out easily. The river is also suitable as a port, it's deep enough. And finally, on the north bank of the Thames, it's good building ground where the City of London would develop its gravel so it's easy to build on, and there's a plentiful supply of fresh water from springs.

Hazel: When did the Romans come to Britain and why?

Ian: The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD. Now, they had been here before, under Julius Caesar a 100 years earlier in 55 and 54 BC, there were expeditions to Britain. And no one is quite sure what Caesar was up to, certainly the first year he came in 55 BC, he only arrived with two legions, which is totally inadequate to conquer Britain. And it could be that the second time around, he's aiming to take possession of Britain, we just don't know. But perhaps more likely is that he was aiming to punish the tribes on this side of the channel, who had quite possibly been aiding the tribes over the other side of the channel in their fight against Caesar. Caesar was involved in the Gallic war at this stage, which was an enormous military enterprise to conquer what is nowadays France, and during a quiet period, he may well have taken the opportunity in these two years to come over and punish allies of his enemies. It's also quite possible that Caesar needed a reason to maintain the authority he'd been granted by Rome and, wanted to demonstrate back home in the Capitol that there was an ongoing military need for his powers. 

After Caesar leaves in 54 BC, the Romans aren't heard of for another hundred years. There's trade going on between Britain and the Roman Empire so, there's lots of archaeology, there's lots of coins and shirts found on the south coast, in particular, indicating commerce. But for 100 years, the Romans aren't here. And then under the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD, they invade. And this time it's serious, it takes a few years, but it leads to the successful conquest of the province that they call Britannia. Now, why they should want to come over here is almost certainly tied to Claudius' domestic politics. We have the biography of the early Emperor who was written by Suetonius. And Suetonius described Claudius as a man with a limp, a stutter, and indeed as a man who is found behind a curtain on the death of his Emperor-- death of his nephew, the Emperor Caligula, carrying behind the curtain and is then hauled out by the Praetorian Guard to be Emperor. Now, this isn't necessarily true, but what it does indicate is a man who lacks legitimacy, who doesn't cut the fine figure, or an emperor should. And this is a man who needs to justify his position, and what better way to do this than by having a military victory and adding another province to the Roman Empire? So, in 43, the armies come over, Claudius later joins them, and he's later able to have his triumph in Rome.

Hazel: And how long were the Romans here for?

Ian: They were here for about 350 years. The precise ending of the Roman Empire in Britain as elsewhere is difficult to pinpoint. It used to be thought that there was a letter from the Emperor Honorius written in 410, in which he replies to an appeal from the Britons asking for help, and he writes back saying, "I'm sorry, you're on your own.". But it's no longer certain that Honorius was actually doing this. But it seems to be fairly clear that by this time, the Roman soldiers have left, they've been taken over to go to help in a civil war that's going on there, and there are no longer Roman soldiers in Britain. And it seems fairly clear that by about the mid fifth century, the institutions of Roman Britain are beginning to break down, this certainly seems to be the case in London, which by this date seems to be pretty much deserted.

Hazel: And by deserted, do you mean that this great Londinium was just completely empty, there was no one living here?

Ian: Yes, pretty much. It seems extraordinary, doesn't it? But archaeologists have tried very hard to find evidence of Anglo-Saxon occupation of Londinium. It's always dangerous to argue for something from an absence of evidence, but they just aren't the archaeological finds that you would expect if people were living here. The Anglo-Saxons moved their settlement further upriver to what is now Old Wich, Old Wich meaning Old Market in Anglo-Saxon. And the Anglo-Saxon London wick remained there, right up until the ninth century when under King Alfred, the centre of London settlement is then moved back inside the old Roman city walls for protection against the Viking raids.

Hazel: That's really quite extraordinary. So, how big was Roman London and how do we know this?

Ian: Well, we have a nice elegant answer for later on in the period of London, which is the walls. The city becomes to be defined by its walls, and they're constructed in about 15, maybe 30 years leading up to that approximate date. Before then, it's largely a question of trying to work out where the boundaries were as the settlement expanded, by trying to guess where the edges of the settlement were. And one way you can do this is to use burials, because burials continuing from the Iron Age were used as a means of marking edges. So, you can try and work out roughly what the area occupied by Londinium was. In terms of population, in the early period, ahead of the Boudican Revolt of 61 AD, the population, according to the latest academic studies, was probably just short of about 10,000. And then the city expands, and it carries on growing and it reaches this substantial number of around 30,000 by about 200 AD, before then going into some kind of decline up until the 450s, when the endpoint is reached and the city is virtually empty.

Hazel: So, what kind of trade was going on in London?

Ian: London was above all, a commercial centre, and it may well be that a lot of its trade was to do with supplying the military, who would arrive in London, cross the river at London, and then the supplies the army could be sent out from the Capitol. But they were importing a whole range of things that were necessary for Roman life, including olive oil, and then they were also manufacturing things. So, there's evidence for iron working, there's evidence in the west of the city for some pottery making. And we've got to imagine that the Roman buildings were on their standard pattern, which is to say you would have shops on the front of buildings facing the streets and then behind, you would have the living quarters. The Roman historian Tacitus describes London as being full of merchants and soldiers and Tacitus' description has been borne out by the marvelous find of 400 writing tablets in the excavations of what is now the Bloomberg building, just on what was the Walbrook River. And there have been found over 400 tablets and many of these are written by soldiers and by merchants.

Hazel: And presumably, we weren't making wine in this country, so they had to import that as well?

Ian: Yes, wine would be imported  - it was a very large trade. It would be imported in those big ceramic vessels, the amphora that they use, and we can also imagine that they probably had to import lots of their favourite delicacy, that stinky fish sauce known as Garum.

Hazel: So, if you're Roman traveling to this far off land Londinium, it would have been a home from home?

Ian: Yes, I think it would. Londinium must have been extremely impressive. I mean, we've already said that the population peaked at 30,000, that is enormous. It's far, far larger than anything else found in the province of Britannia. And there's quite a lot of evidence of sophisticated town living. The Roman civilization was marked by towns and here in London, we've got quite a lot of evidence of a highly developed Civic Centre. The second forum that was built, which is on the site now of Leadenhall market, when you read the literature, it is often described as being the second largest forum north of the outs in the Roman Empire, second to true, and the Basilica itself is frequently described as being the largest Basilica. The Basilica being the main civic building in a Roman town, it's where the council meetings took place, where treasure was stored, where the courts were held. And the forum in London was enormous. Now, I don't think we need to take these second largest, largest, necessarily at face value, I can't really believe that people went around measuring these things and drawing up comparative tables in the Roman Empire. But nevertheless, this was a huge Civic Centre. And if you go around the British Museum, in the room devoted to Roman Britain, you can see a very fine head of the Emperor Hadrian that probably, well, possibly once stood in this forum, and this is pretty much as fine as anything you'll find anywhere in the Roman Empire. 

And this is interesting because it contrasts with a whole raft of Roman authors living in Rome without direct contact with the province of Britannia, who described it really as being the most remote place you could possibly think of, and going alongside its remoteness, it's also extremely backward. And this contrasts with the evidence we've got for the size of London, and I think probably the people living in Londinium may well have shared some of these patronizing attitudes towards the native Britons that were directed at the whole of the province, including probably the people in Londinium, by these people living in Rome who were being disparaging about the entire province without knowing a great deal about it. The historian Herodian, for example, described Britons as living in tents, being covered in tattoos, running around naked, and that kind of attitude, as I say, is very interesting in terms of the arrogance of the people writing about it, but it also contrasts with this evidence we have of Londinium as being this great city with a population of about 30,000.

Hazel: You touched on a Boudican Revolt of 61 AD earlier, what do we know about it?

Ian: Well, first of all, we're not entirely sure as to the date, it's either 60 or 61. But this was a huge rebellion against the then recent Roman occupation. Boudica had been married to Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, he was a client King of the Romans. And when he dies, he leaves his kingdom part to his daughters and half to the Roman state. And the Romans then renege on this agreement and take over the entire kingdom, they rape his daughters, and they flog Boudica. And there's a big rising of her tribe, the Iceni against the Romans, which was joined by other tribes. The Roman governor, the military commanders at this stage away in Anglesey trying to deal with the druids. The New Roman state in Britannia is vulnerable, and this terrible rebellion takes hold, and Boudica sacks, burns Colchester, St Albans, and then turns to London, and Londinium itself is burned. And the misfortune of the people then has become, in many ways, archaeologists good fortune because this burning of London has left a thin black layer in the archaeology, which greatly helps in the dating of matter. So, if things are found beneath this Boudican layer, we know that they are before 60 or 61, and if they are above, we know they are after revolt. So, this was devastating, all of London was burnt, but the city recovers very quickly. And it's in around the mid 70's that we can see a huge public works building program, they lay out the first forum, they build the first amphitheatre, and so we can see that there's a big public works program and Londinium recovers pretty rapidly after this revolt.

Hazel: At Tower Hill station there's a statue of a Roman Emperor, who is he and why is he there?

Ian: He's the Emperor Trajan, and he looks rather splendid. And he's often used to illustrate books on Roman London. The problem is that the statue is not really Roman at all. He's an 18th century statue, and his head probably doesn't go with his body. He was only put there in the 1970's. He looks very grand, he was actually found in a scrap yard on the south coast in the 1920's, I think and was placed there by the vicar of the local church, All Hallows by the tower. This description of it as being an 18th century statue that's cobbled together indicates that it's rather disappointing from people who are looking to do walks with a theme on Roman London. And this is perhaps attitude by the fact that there's nothing linking the Emperor Trajan with the City of Londinium at all. There's no references to him connecting him with this city.

Hazel: And what a Roman lander is there to see now?

Ian: Well, just by this statue of Trajan that we're talking about, is a huge surviving section of the Roman wall, it's enormously impressive. The top third of it is medieval but basically the first 20 feet of this wall that you see, are Roman. And there are other sections of the wall surviving, a couple of them to mention, one is a Cooper's road just to the north of Tower Hill. And another one is in a car park along London Wall, so they're all well worth a visit. And then in terms of attractions that you can visit itself to actually go in and see, well there's the Roman bars on Lower Thames Street, where you can go on to the corporation of London website and book up a tour. There's the mithraeum, the Temple of Mithras, which is in the Bloomberg building and you can book online for that. And then finally under Guildhall Art Gallery, you can go down and visit the remains of the amphitheatre and all three of those are well worth doing.

Hazel: Thanks very much Ian, really interesting. And when Coronavirus dies a death, then people will be able to venture out and enjoy your Roman London tour. And that's all from us for now.

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