OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

London's Roman Remains

Pages: <1> 2

From the end of the Stone Age the size and position of the Thames estuary made it, with rare interludes, the principal haven for the traffic of the northern seas, and, as witness of this, the river below Kingston has yielded great quantities of prehistoric remains. It might thus be expected that the origins of the city at the head of this estuary would be found embedded in that remote past to which the medieval romancers were fond of ascribing them. From the site of London itself, however, in spite of its accessibility from the sea, scarcely a dozen relics dating from the last 2,000 years b.c. have been recorded. Modern writers have, indeed, sought to reconstruct a "Celtic" London, a city of dwellings built upon piles, and rising above the shores of a marsh or lake. Unfortunately, the piles in question are now known to have been substructures of buildings no older than the Roman period, and the etymology which twisted "London" into "Llyn Din," the "lake city," is equally at fault. The prevalent view (that of Bradley) derives "London" from a hypothetical personal name "Londinos," formed from the Celtic "londos," meaning "fierce." Incidentally, it may be remembered that the Romans, like ourselves, often gave native names to towns or fortresses of their own foundation. The earliest tangible remains of a permanent settlement on the site of London are the potsherds and coins of the Roman city.

The seeming paradox is readily explained. Under natural conditions, the site of London was closely hemmed in by dense woodland, which was formerly co-extensive with the London clay and is now represented by the surviving fragment of Epping Forest. Under primitive conditions, therefore, when the population of the countryside was comparatively small and ill-organized, overland routes through the forest zones were difficult to clear and maintain; whilst river traffic, which formed the alternative, found easier landing-stages in the higher and narrower reaches. Thus it is that for evidence of a prehistoric "London" we have to look up-stream towards Mortlake, where the abundance of prehistoric relics indicates a long and intensive occupation before the present era. Only with the appearance of a strong centralised regime, able to organize regular crosscountry traffic and to engineer permanent roads, did the site of London itself come into prominence. This it did as the lowest point at which the Thames could be conveniently bridged. For here, and nowhere else between London and the sea, both banks of the river are alike of hard, dry gravel, suitable for bridgeheads. London Bridge was thus destined by geography and geology to become the natural focus of the English road system, and London may be described as the parasite of London Bridge.

It follows that the date of the building of London Bridge is of primary importance. At first sight our historical records seem to preserve a clue. The Graeco-Roman historian Dio, describing the Roman invasion of Britain in a.d. 43, states that the invaders pursued the Britons to difficult fords across the Thames at the point where it "empties into the ocean and at flood-tide makes a lake" - presumably, though not explicitly, in the London district. There the foe eluded their pursuers until some of the Roman troops swam the river, whilst others were able to cross "by means of a bridge a little way upstream." Whether the bridge was already in existence, or whether it was thrown up during the attack, is not clear, and, since the historian was writing nearly two centuries after the event, he may not have known clearly himself. We must therefore look elsewhere for evidence for or against the existence of London prior to the year 43.

Now, it was not unusual for Roman prospectors and craftsmen to penetrate into "barbarian" lands, and even to form small settlements there, in advance of the Roman legions. Caesar, Cicero and Tacitus all give examples of trade thus preceding the flag in Gaul and else where. Is it possible, therefore, that at London also some of the earliest Roman pottery was, as has been suggested more than once, brought by adventurous Roman traders who had set up a trading station at a bridge-head on the site some years before the military annexation? There is one small group of evidence which may support this view. In various parts of the City and Southwark have been found a few pieces of red-glazed "Arretine" ware-some fifteen or sixteen sherds in all-of a type which was made in Italy in considerable quantities before a.d. 20, and in diminishing quantities after that date. It is possible, therefore, that these sherds may represent a short epoch in the history of London prior to the formal Roman conquest. But in the absence of supporting evidence it must be confessed that this handful of sherds is a poor foundation for London, and it is best to be content at present with the one certain fact that, if London existed at all before the year 43, it was then a place of little or no importance.

In the year of the conquest the Roman armies may, as we have seen, have passed near the site of London. Thereafter, save in an occasional crisis, that site saw little of the legions. Its unrivalled advantages as a distributing centre for commerce now became the dominant factor, and the contemporary historian Tacitus was able to write that in a.d. 60 the town was already "teeming with traders and crowded with merchandise." Modern archaeology is able to amplify this statement by showing us that at this date London already extended from the Custom House on the east to the southwestern slopes of Ludgate Hill on the west. Within these limits has been found a considerable mass of the earliest red-glazed pottery (the so-called "Samian") which the Gauls had begun to make in imitation of the Italic or "Arretine" ware referred to above. Beyond, from the neighbourhood of the General Post Office to that of the Old Bailey, and across the river Fleet into Fleet Street and Shoe Lane, lay the great cemetery of the earliest Roman Londoners, buried in the vessels of earthenware, porphyry and lead, which can still be seen in the British, London and Guildhall museums. Between the living and the dead, on the site of St. Paul's, those potters whose kilns were found by Sir Christopher Wren when he laid the foundations of his cathedral may already have been working the brick-earth of the hilltop. Within less than fifteen years of the annexation of the province. London had grown into a township of nearly 200 acres with something of the suddenness with which in modern times the great mushroom cities of America grew under the not dissimilar circumstances attendant upon the opening up of the "Golden West."

Then, in the year 60, fell the blow. The Roman governor and his principal colleagues were away in the north and west, hammering out a frontier for the new province. Colchester, which, as the headquarters of the famous Cunobeline or Cymbeline, had been in effect the capital of south-eastern Britain on the eve of the conquest, had been taken over by the Romans as the working centre of their own civil and religious administration, and a colony of Roman ex-soldiers had been added, in the Roman manner, as a safeguard. Both in its civil and its military capacities, however, the newly organized capital failed in its trust. The incompetence and self-interest of its petty-officialdom spurred the native inhabitants to revolt and, under their queen Boudicca (Boadicea) the rebels swept down upon Colchester, London and Verulam (St. Albans) and "massacred, hanged, burned and crucified" the wretched, defenceless inhabitants to the number of 70,000.

Thereafter the revolt was suppressed; but deep down beneath the modern street-level to the north and north-west of London Bridge, immediately above the natural surface of the gravel or brick-earth, lie wide areas of burnt timber, wall-plaster, pottery and coins (including several of Claudius) which still, it seems, bear vivid witness to the words of Tacitus. And when, shortly after the destruction, the quays were rebuilt near by along the river front, they were levelled up with many tons of the debris of the first city. In all these layers the pottery and coins are found to be not later than the year of the revolt; and the masses of charred timber tell us that much at least of the first London was built of that material, and must have burned in the year 60 as readily as did its successor sixteen centuries later.

From the ashes rose a new London, the main outlines of which were destined to remain fixed until after the Middle Ages and are still traceable in the modern plan. In order to understand the nature of its outlines it is necessary to bear in mind the original aspect of the site which moulded them. The City of London occupies two low hills which rise fairly steeply from the river bank to the height of about forty feet above sea level. The summit of the eastern hill, or Cornhill, is marked approximately by Leadenhall Market; that of the western, Ludgate Hill, lies close to St. Paul's. Between the two hills, beneath the site of the Bank of England and the Mansion House, the stream known as the Walbrook flowed towards the Thames beside the site of Cannon Street railway station, and divided the old city into two equal halves. Farther west, at the present site of Blackfriars bridge, the mouth of the river Fleet, which sprang in the Hampstead and Highgate hills, provided a small but useful harbourage. At the eastern end of the city a less formidable valley flanking Tower Hill formed a convenient limit in that direction. This shallow valley continued northwards and northwest wards and was used by the Roman town-builders as their boundary.

A long these natural contours from the Fleet valley to Tower Hill the engineers who laid out the city in the years following the Boudiccan revolt marked, as it appears, the line of the town walls, of which time-worn fragments can still be seen. True, the date of these walls has been much disputed, but the balance of the evidence collected recently by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England) is in favour of the view that, at any rate on the landward side, the defences were built towards the close of the first century a.d. Apart from the direct and indirect archaeological evidence, which need not here be recounted, it is on general grounds reasonable to suppose that the Londoners, who had suffered from the recorded absence of fortifications in the year 60, had learnt from their bitter experience. The new walls, some eight feet thick at their base and probably twenty feet or more in height, were constructed of Kentish rag and sandstone with inter mittent courses of brick and were founded upon the natural gravel of the site. In front of them lay one or more ditches from ten to fifteen feet wide and be hind them may have been an earthen bank. At a later date, perhaps when, at the end of the third century and later, the Saxon invaders began to harass our coasts, strong projecting bastions of semicircular plan were added to the wall-probably at two separate moments, for there are minor but definite differ ences between those to the east and those to the west of the Walbrook. Fragments of these bastions can still be seen at the Tower of London and beneath the courtyard of the General Post Office, whilst the medieval superstructure of another stands in Cripplegate churchyard.

The new walls were some three miles in length and enclosed an area of about 330 acres—an area exceeded by that of only four Roman cities north of the Alps. Of the buildings within the walls, almost innumer­able fragments have been found and destroyed during modern building operations. Few of these fragments have been recorded and, in the absence of systematic observation, valuable evidence of this kind is still being lost almost every day. In one case, however—and that perhaps the most important—certain inferences are possible. At various times on and adjoining the site of Leadenhall Market, at the summit of the hill above London Bridge, have been unearthed the re­mains of a great building over 420 feet in length, with walls in some places six feet thick and with an apse at the eastern end. The plan seems to have included a nave flanked on the north and south by aisles, and corresponds therefore with the normal design of a Roman "basilica." The plan and size of the building, taken in conjunction with its domi­nant site, enable us to infer that it formed the principal basilica or town hall of Roman London. Here were the headquarters of the city admini­stration ; here prisoners were tried, and here, or close by, was transacted much of the commercial business of the city. The basilica and its adjacent structures combined, in fact, something of the Guild­hall, the Law Courts and the Stock Exchange. The walls beneath Leadenhall and Gracechurch Streets may, therefore, be regarded as relics of one of the most important buildings in the provinces of Rome, and they represent appropriately by far the largest Roman building yet identified in Britain.

Whether to the south of the basilica stood the open market-place or forum which would be expected in this position is at present uncertain. Various walls have been found in this area, but, in the absence of any precise record in regard to most of them, conjecture is unprofitable.

Other buildings in Roman London are represented for the most part merely by scattered fragments of walling or by remains of floors, which were in a number of cases covered with elaborately patterned mosaics; for example, the well-known mosaic representing Bacchus riding on a leopard, found long ago in Leadenhall Street and now in the British Museum. These pavements, together with the innumerable fragments of brightly painted wall-plaster which are unearthed in excavations throughout the city, show that the buildings of Roman London were more brightly coloured than are their modern successors. The remains suggest that most of this decorative work was carried out by craftsmen imported from Gaul or the Mediterranean lands. Only in the fragments of sculpture and of architectural decoration is it possible sometimes to detect the work of the native craftsman.

Apart from the basilica, Roman London must have included many public buildings devoted to secular or religious purposes, and it is possible that one of these should be recognized in the remains of a Roman bathing establishment which is still partly visible beneath the Coal Exchange in Lower Thames Street. Public baths formed a notable feature of Roman town life, and the Thames Street example is large enough to suggest that it was more than the mere adjunct of a private house. Of religious buildings, no structural remains have been recognized, but altars or other dedications to Diana, the Mother Goddesses, Mithras, Cybele and Isis and a few small relics bearing Christian symbols are witness to the former existence of many varied shrines, temples and churches. For the last, the best evidence is the literary record, which has preserved the name of two Roman bishops of London, one of whom, named Restitutus, attended the famous Council of Aries with two other British bishops in the year 314.

>>> Next page >>>
Pages: <1> 2

Pictures for London's Roman Remains

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About