London in the Roman World

Professor Dominic Perring, former Director of the University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, visited the LSA CA in February to give us a fascinating insight into the complex history of London, as Classics Ambassador Sophie B recounts.

I had the pleasure of attending Dominic Perring’s fascinating lecture on London in the Roman World, the title of his new book. Prior to this lecture, my knowledge of Roman Britain was limited to the content of Books Two and Three of the Cambridge Latin Course, but after a very informative hour, this had much improved! Professor Perring, enticed by civic pride and archaeological curiosity, has had an enduring interest in London, and in this lecture he detailed the foundation of the city through to its exponential growth and governance under Roman imperial authority.

Prof. Perring firstly drew attention to the history of London, because in the framework of pre-Roman Britain, London, or rather the site of modern day London, is unusual. Despite there being other pre-Roman polities in Britain, such as Verulamium (modern day St. Albans), Calleva (modern day Silchester) or Durovernum (modern day Canterbury), there is no evidence of an urban settlement on what is now London, which could be somewhat confusing considering the vibrancy of London today. This is due to the marsh lands and floods created by the Thames. So, London came into existence as the creation of a new Roman province, and it only thrived because of Roman infrastructure. This is an accepted model of London’s foundation because of existing material culture and writings that indicate when London was first referred to as a site. One of which is the writings of Tacitus on the raids of London, Colchester and Verulamium during the Boudiccan revolt of AD 60/61. Interestingly, what is related to us in writings is virtually confirmed by archaeology. The archaeology in question is a writing tablet from the Bloomberg building (the site of the Temple of Mithras) and the address on the tablet was Londinio at the time around the time of the revolt.

As a North Londoner, Perring was sad to tell us that London’s origins seem to lie south of the river. The archaeology confirms that the first settlements in London are on the southern side of the river, such as Southwark, and Roman military fittings have been found in one of the iron age gullies in Suffolk Street, which also suggest south-bank origins. What also confirms this is the etymology of the site’s name, Londinium. It derives from the Celtic ‘Londonion’, possibly meaning ‘low lying lands’. And London’s southern origins are important, because Southwark, the Roman settlement situated where the river is most crossable, made London more accessible. Not only did the construction of Roman roads to London from other polities and London Bridge facilitate access into London, making it the ‘focal point in the provincial geography’, but it also made London the most advantageous territory to occupy when trying to gain hegemony over other British kingdoms. London, therefore, had immense importance to Roman generals and Emperors, because it was likely created to assist imperial aims. 

After establishing how London came into being, he then discussed the differing models of how London worked and was run. One prevailing model is that of Haverfield who argued that London was a community run by merchants to support the Romans in the process of conquest, instead of serving as a military settlement, and it was established as Londinium in c.50 AD. This view was supported by the fact that no Claudian fort had been found. All of this changed, though, once Perring, Ian Blair and a team of archaeologists came across an ‘unusual double ditch configuration’, within which was some iron age pottery (in the pre-Roman conquest style) when excavating on the Walbrook in 2006. Conveniently, a drawing by Harvey Sheldon and Ralph Merrifield from the post war period placed this site as the likely western boundary of a Claudian fort. What ensued was a hunt for other similar ditches across London, and Perring was able to identify a site at Bishopsgate and a site at Regis House with appropriate features for that fort site. This is the topic of his new book. Although he says that it isn’t proven, there is now a strong case for seeing the foundation of London as the creation of a fort, rather than solely mercantile. What strengthens Perring’s view are the historical accounts available on the origin of London. Greek historian Dio Cassius writes on Aulus Plautius’ troops winning battle, crossing the Thames and then waiting in London for the arrival of Claudius as he needed to lead them to conquer Colchester, the capital of the enemy. Therefore the new model sees London as the site of the Claudian fort. However, because the forces were in temporary housing there, as the archaeology tells us, and they only occupied the fort for a few weeks, this doesn’t change very much about the foundation of London. It wasn’t until AD 48 and AD 52 that London started to become an urban settlement, instead of existing to support the army. This is because an excavation at 1 Poultry in 1994 revealed a wooden conduit, the timber of which was felled in AD 48, which removed heavily flowing water from nearby ponds in order to create a bridging point, and an excavation at Regis House in 1996 revealed waterfront revetments and a new laying out of the street grid, a major change to the settlement of London, which had been made in AD 52.

The Walbrook Skulls

Prof. Perring then detailed the various periods of rebuilding and expansion of London. The first notable changes of the settlement of Londinium came in AD 60 when Boudicca razed the city, leading to rapid rebuilding post-revolt, such as bath houses, military engineering, a new causeway and a fort. In this period of rebuilding the settlement, London became a site dominated by ‘agents of Imperial Rome’. As it usually does, archaeology provides us with strong evidence of this, including cinerary urns, Egyptian porphyry (an indication of an imperial household) and a burial site of a potential governor. The strength of the influence of Rome in London is also shown through the presence of Roman gods at the burial of a British born female, perhaps belonging to the community on the Southbank in which she was buried. Under Vespasian (Emperor in the early 70s AD) came great transformations to the settlement. An amphitheatre was constructed from AD 71 to 74 (of which we know the dates due to the dendrochronology of the timbers used to construct it), and the amphitheatre in London was constructed at a similar time to the construction of the Colosseum in Rome. 

Image of Vespasian’s wooden amphitheatre  

Both demonstrate imperial authority, indicating that London was very important to the empire, or at least to Vespasian. Perring gave some interesting explanations for Vespasian’s interest in London, such as his desire to mirror what Caesar had done (i.e. go to Britain) in order to legitimise his sovereignty – Vespasian did not descend from the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and he had entered the role of emperor for his ability to stabilise the empire (after the tumult of the Year of the Four Emperors, AD 69), so it was important for him to continue to do this. The amphitheatre, Perring said, was Vespasian’s physical manifestation of order and might in the empire, not least because public executions would take place there. London continued to thrive for much of the Flavian period, with waves of investment leading to the construction of watermills to produce flour in AD 78, and massive public buildings such as an imperial bar house and a forum in the 80s AD, upon the arrival of Agricola, a Roman general as governor of Britain. Perring pointed out that the purpose of such public improvements were done to keep the Roman troops in Britain ‘happy and fed’; ‘bread and circuses’ as the satiric poet Juvenal famously quipped. Some notable building improvements came too in the Hadrianic period, such as the enlargement of the Forum in London, finished under Hadrian 15 years after Trajan had started it. 

Model of Londinium bridge in the old Museum of London

Prof. Perring concluded the lecture by discussing the catastrophes of London in the Roman world, some of which led to the cessation of Roman interest in London. London’s population at its height was 30-35,000 under the reign of Hadrian, but during the Antonine period, this had halved to around 15,000. The first great disaster in London was a fire soon after Hadrian’s visit, possibly at the time of a British war. The archaeology, such as the rebuilding of water fronts, the building of a new large road bypassing London and the construction of a new fort, suggests that the fire was around AD 127-28. Not only did London suffer physical damage itself, but also the violence of Roman rule, which is very disturbing. Bodies have been found with their legs shackled with molten hot iron bars (probably put on them just before they died), decapitated heads and smashed skulls. Ouch! In the Antonine period, London’s position as an urban site declined. Archaeology suggests this as pottery kilns cease production, c.57% of sites in London are left derelict, implying drastic population decline. The arrival of the Antonine plague in c. AD 165, perhaps smallpox, also led to urban decline and the interruption of timber production in the city. 

‘Abrai Barbasō Barbasōch Barbasōth. teuliōr (?) of divine form, send away the discordant clatter of raging plague, air-borne, tanuchizon, tnudrolees, infiltrating pain, heavy-spiriting. flesh-wasting, melting, from the hollows of the veins. Great lao, great Sabaoth, protect the bearer. Phoebus of the unshorn hair, archer, drive away the cloud of plague. lao, God Abrasax, bring help. Lord Phoebus ordered mortals to refrain from †chileōn. Lord God, watch over Demetrios.’

Inscription of a spell to rid of plague on a pewter strip

Within the following century, another plague hit London. This led to a flight of people from the city due to fear of the plague, leaving London without doc hands to run the ports. And by the second to third century, London was no longer ‘a beast of administrative enclave’. There is still so much more of London’s history to be uncovered and much more that Professor Perring could have told us but he had to draw to a close as we parted for the evening, having enjoyed a brilliant taste of London in the Roman World.


Prof. Dominic Perring and LSA CA Chair Katrina Kelly

Huge thanks to Professor Perring for coming to talk to us and to all of our members and volunteers (especially photographer John McVitie) for their support and interest on the night; as well as our hosts AKS Lytham, EGO Lytham and the Clifton Arms Hotel. Our next event on 9th March is online-only so do join us and Prof. Paul Cartledge for a trip to Ancient Sparta via the medium of Zoom!