Roman London

Roman London

This article covers the history of London during the Roman period from around 47 AD when the Roman city of Londinium was founded, to its abandonment during the 5th century.

Origins and language

Londinium was established as a town by the Romans after the invasion of AD 43 led by the Roman Emperor Claudius. Archaeologists now believe that Londinium was founded as a civilian settlement or civitas by AD 50. A wooden drain by the side of the main Roman road excavated at No 1 Poultry [ [ Summary of the excavation reveals much about the planning of Londinium.] ] has been dated by dendrochronology to 47 which is likely to be the foundation date.

Prior to the arrival of the Roman Legions, the area was almost certainly lightly rolling open countryside traversed by streams such as Walbrook. Londinium was established at the point where the Thames was narrow enough to build a bridge, but deep enough to handle sea going marine vessels. Remains of a massive Roman pier base for a bridge were found in 1981, close to the modern London Bridge.

It was traditionally thought that Londinium started as a Roman fort to defend the crossing, and later developed into a civilian settlement. However, archaeological excavation (undertaken by the Department of Urban Archaeology of the Museum of London, now called MOLAS) since the 1970s has failed to unearth any convincing traces of military occupation on the site, so many archeologists now believe that Londinium was the product of private enterprise. Its site on a busy river-crossing made it a perfect place for traders from across the Roman Empire to set up business.

The name "Londinium" is thought to be pre-Roman (and possibly pre Celtic) in origin although there has been no consensus on what it means. It was common practice for Romans to adopt native names for new settlements. A common theory is that it derives from a hypothetical Celtic placename "Londinion" [This etymology was first suggested in 1899 by d'Arbois de Jubainville and was generally accepted (as by F. Haverfield, "Roman London" "The Journal of Roman Studies" 1 (1911:141-172) p. 145 ] which was probably derived from the personal name "Londinos", from the word "lond" meaning 'wild'.

A theory proposed by Richard Coates, [Coates (University of Sussex), "A New Explanation of the Name of London" "Transactions of the Philological Society" 96.2 pp 203-229.] which does not have widespread acceptance, suggests that the name derives from a Celticized Old European river-name forming part of the oldest stratum of European toponymy, in the sense established by Hans Krahe; Coates suggested a derivation from a pre-Celtic "Plowonida" — from two roots, "plew" and "nejd", possibly meaning "the flowing river" or "the wide flowing river". "Londinium" would therefore mean "the settlement on the wide river". He suggests that the river was called the Thames upriver where it was narrower, and "Plowonida" downriver where it was too wide to ford. [A review of Geoffrey of Monmouth's myth-making and other [ "Legendary Origins and the Origin of London's place name"] adapted from Kevin Flude and Paul Herbert, "The Citisight's Guide to London" (Virgin Book 1990)] .

Inscriptions and graffiti found by archaeologists confirm that Latin was the official language. It has been implied that many of the local people spoke Brythonic (a Celtic dialect similar to Welsh), although Stephen Oppenheimer in "The Origins of Britain: A Genetic Detective Story" (Constable and Robinson, London 2006) controversially claims that it is possible that an early version of the English language was already being spoken in the south of Britain at the time of Londinium's foundation.

Status of Londinium

The "status" of Londinium is uncertain. It was not the capital of a civitas, though Ptolemy lists it as one of the cities of the Cantiaci. Starting as a small fort guarding the northern end of the new bridge across the River Thames, it grew to become an important port for trade between Britannia and the Roman provinces on the continent. The lack of private Roman villas (plentiful elsewhere) suggests military or even Imperial ownership. At the time of the uprising of Boudica, Tacitus writes that "Londinium ... though undistinguished by the name of a "colonia", was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels." In the years after the uprising, the provincial administration of Britain moved from Camulodunum (modern Colchester in Essex) to Londinium. The time of the move is not recorded, though second century roofing tiles have been found marked P.PR.BR.LON - "The provincial procurator of Britain, at Londinium". Londinium is not recorded as being called the 'capital city' of Britain, but there are several strong indications for this position, such as the building of a Roman Governor's palace, the building of a military camp and several tombstones belonging to members of a governor's staff. It has been assumed that the city became a "colonia", as the early fourth century Verona List describes a bishop Adelphius as "Adelphius episcopus de civitate colonia Londiniensium". In the fourth century AD Londinium changed its name to "Augusta".

History and development

First century AD

Following its foundation in the mid first century, early Roman London occupied a relatively small area, roughly equivalent in size to Hyde Park at 350 acres. The nineteenth-century antiquarian Roach Smith estimated its length from the Tower west to Ludgate at about a mile; and from London Wall in the north to the Thames bank around half a mile. Archeologists have uncovered numerous goods imported from across the Roman Empire in this period, suggesting that early Roman London was a highly cosmopolitan community of merchants from across the Empire and assuming that there was a local market for such objects.

Boudica's uprising

In around AD 60, little more than ten years after "Londinium" was founded, it was sacked by the Iceni led by the their queen Boudica. Excavation has revealed extensive evidence of destruction by fire in the form of a layer of red ash beneath the city at this date.

Boudica's forces, rebelling against Roman rule, first destroyed Camulodunum and then defeated the Roman legion sent from Lindum (Lincoln) to retrieve the city. They then turned their attention towards Londinium. The Roman general Gaius Suetonius Paulinus managed to send some troops to London before Boudica's much larger forces arrived. What happened next was recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus, in what was the first written record of London.

At first, he [Gaius Suetonius Paulinus] hesitated as to whether to stand and fight there [Londinium] . Eventually, his numerical inferiority - and the price only too clearly paid by the divisional commander's rashness - decided him to sacrifice the single city of Londinium to save the province as a whole. Unmoved by lamentations and appeals, Suetonius gave the signal for departure. The inhabitants were allowed to acompany him. But those who stayed because they were women, or old, or attached to the place, were slaughtered by the enemy.

Tacitus then states that the Romans responded to Boudica's attack by slaughtering as many as 70,000 Britons. There is a longstanding folklore belief that this battle took place at King’s Cross, simply because as a medieval village it was known as Battle Bridge; Tacitus describes the site: "Suetonius chose a place with narrow jaws, backed by a forest" but does not mention the River Fleet, which flowed here. [The tradition is not supported by any historical evidence and is rejected by modern historians: see [ 'Highbury, Upper Holloway and King's Cross', Old and New London: Volume 2 (1878:273-279).] Date accessed: 26 December 2007.] After the battle Boudica is said to have committed suicide by taking poison.

However, after this, the city was quickly rebuilt as a planned Roman town and recovered after perhaps ten years. During the late decades of the first century Londinium expanded rapidly, and quickly became Roman Britain's largest city. By the end of the century, Londinium had replaced Colchester as the capital of Roman Britain (Britannia).

econd and third centuries

During the second century Londinium was at its height. Emperor Hadrian visited in 122, and probably as one result a number of impressive public buildings were constructed. At some point soon afterward, a major fire [The archeologists' 'Hadrianic fire'.] destroyed much of the city. Archeologists have discovered significant amounts of burnt debris from this period, although there is no mention of a fire by any classical writers.

London appears to have recovered, however, and by about 140 Londinium had reached its estimated population height of around 45,000 to 60,000 inhabitants. By the middle of the century Londinium boasted major public buildings, including the largest basilica north of the Alps, a governor's palace, temples, bath houses and a large fort for the city garrison.

Excavations during the 1980s uncovered a large Roman port complex near the present-day London Bridge as well as on the other side of the river at Southwark, confirming that, during this period, Londinium would have been an important commercial and trading centre.

In the second half of the second century Londinium appears to have shrunk in both size and population. The cause is unknown, but plague is considered a likely culprit, as it is known that between AD 165 and 190 the so-called Antonine Plague severely affected Western Europe. Another explanation put forward is that Emperor Hadrian's decision not to extend the empire any further may have caused London merchants to lose valuable contracts, causing the economy to slump. Although Londinium remained important for the rest of the Roman period, it appears to have never fully recovered from this slump, as archeologists have found that much of the city after this date was covered in dark earth, which remained undisturbed for centuries.

London Wall

Some time between 190 and 225, the Romans built the London Wall, a defensive wall around the landward side of the city. Along with Hadrian's Wall and the road network, the London Wall was one of the largest construction projects carried out in Roman Britain. The wall was about 3 kilometres (2 miles) long, 6 metres (20 feet) high, and 2.5 metres (8 feet) thick. Although the exact reason for the wall's construction is unknown, it may have been connected to the invasion of northern Britain by Scots who overran Hadrian's Wall in the 180s. [ [ Timeline of Romans in Britain] ] Many historians link the building of London Wall with the political crisis that had emerged in the 190s when two men—Septimius Severus, and the governor of Britain (and usurper) Clodius Albinus—both claimed the right to succession as Emperor. The wall may have been constructed on the orders of Albinus in the 190s, who, in a power struggle with his rival, may have felt the need to protect his capital. Septimius eventually defeated his rival in 197.

The economic stimulus provided by the wall and Septimius's campaigns of conquest in Scotland appear to have revived Londinium's fortunes somewhat in the early third century. Archeological evidence points to renewed construction activity from this period. One of the reforms introduced by Severus in around 200 AD was the division of Roman Britain into two provinces: Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior. Londinium remained capital of Britannia Superior, whilst Eboracum (York) became capital of Britannia Inferior.

The wall would survive for another 1600 years and define London's perimeters for centuries to come. The perimeters of the present City of London are roughly defined by the former site of the wall.

In the late third century, Londinium was raided on several occasions by Saxon pirates. This led, from around 255 onwards, to the construction of an additional riverside wall.

Carausian Revolt

In 286 the usurper Carausius rebelled against Rome's rule and declared himself the Emperor of Roman Britain. His rule lasted for seven years before he was murdered by his treasurer Allectus, who assumed his position.

In 296 the general Constantius Chlorus invaded Britain to reclaim Britain for Rome. At this point, Frankish mercenaries employed by Allectus started to sack Londinium. They were interrupted in this task when a flotilla of Roman warships sailed up the Thames. According to the fourth century writer Eumenius "the ships reached London, found survivors of the barbarian mercenaries plundering the city, and, when these began to seek flight, landed and slew them in the street".

The event was commemorated ("illustration") by a gold medallion known as the "Trier medallion", which shows Constantius Chlorus on one side and on the other side a woman kneeling at the city wall welcoming a mounted Roman soldier. The medallion is so named because it was minted at Trier in what is now Germany. It was discovered in Arras in France in the 1920s.

Another memorial to the return of Londinium to Roman control was the construction of a new set of Forum Baths. Recognized only recently as bath structures, [Previously the remains were supposed to have been part of the forum and market.] the buildings are thought to have been instrumental in restoring peace to the area. The baths were constructed in the year 300 A.D.Fact|date=December 2007 The scale of the building was not very grand, but it incorporated many elaborate and luxurious necessities of bath structures. The favored room in the bath is the "frigidarium" which has two southern pools, and an Eastern "natatio".

Fourth century

The first half of the fourth century appears to have been a prosperous time for Britain, for the villa estates surrounding London appear to have flourished during this period. It is certain that a Christian metropolitan bishop was seated in the city by this time. The asserted antiquity of the see of London depends upon the traditional names of sixteen archbishops listed in the twelfth century by Jocelyne of Furness in his work "Bishops", the sole source of these names; however, the earlier of the two bishops named Restitutus in Jocelyne's list is known to have existed, as he is named as attending the Council of Arles in 314. By the middle of the century, however, Britain had become increasingly troubled by incursions by barbarian invaders. From 340 onwards, northern Britain was attacked by Picts and Scots. In 360 a large-scale attack forced the Emperor Julian the Apostate to send troops to deal with the problem. In London at about this time, large efforts were made to improve the city's defences. At least twenty bastions were added to the city walls.

In 367 the "Great Conspiracy" - another large scale invasion by Picts, Scots and Saxons - occurred. This time the commander Count Theodosius was sent to deal with the problem and restore order, using Londinium as his base. In around 368 Londinium was renamed as Augusta. [ [ The status of Roman London] ] In the same century, Roman Britain was divided again, and Londinium became the capital of the province of Maxima Caesariensis.

However, the troubles in the empire continued, and in 382 British troops rebelled and elected their own "emperor", Magnus Maximus. He soon gathered all of the British-based troops he could and crossed the channel. He gained control of the western part of the empire before being defeated by Theodosius I in 388. Unfortunately this left few troops remaining to defend Britain.

By the end of the fourth century, many Romano-British towns, including London, were in decline. Evidence shows that many of London's public buildings had fallen into disrepair by this point.

Decline and abandonment

During the early 5th century the Roman Empire continued its decline. Between 407 and 409 large numbers of barbarians penetrated Gaul and Spain and seriously weakened communication between Rome and Britain, on the western ege of the Empire. British troops elected their own leaders - the last of these, Constantine III, declared himself to be emperor of the Western Roman Empire - and took an expeditionary force across the Channel, leaving Britain short of troops. In 410, the Romano-British authorities dropped their allegiance to Constantine and appealed to Emperor Honorius for help. He told them that the Britons would have to look after their own defences, meaning effectively that the Roman occupation of Britain officially came to an end (a period covered by the Roman departure from Britain).

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Britain became increasingly vulnerable to attack by Germanic invaders, namely Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. There is very little evidence - either historical or archaeological - of what happened to London in this sub-Roman period. However, chaos in the collapsing Roman Empire and Roman Britain meant that long distance trade broke down, wages of Imperial officials were not paid, and London declined drastically.

According to early historians such as the Venerable Bede and Gildas, whose writings were later brought together in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 449 Angles, Saxons and Jutes were invited to Britain by King Vortigern as mercenaries to help defend Britain against Picts and Scots. Bede, writing in the eighth century, stated that Jutes settled in Kent, and in 457, led by brothers Hengist and Horsa, turned against the Britons who had invited them and defeated them at the Battle of Crecganford (Crecganford is thought to be modern Crayford) and the Britons fled to London in terror. After this, it is very unclear as to what happened to London, as the historical records are very patchy.

Archeologists have found evidence that a small number of wealthy families managed to maintain a Roman lifestyle until the middle of the fifth century, inhabiting villas in the south-eastern corner of the city. By the end of the century however, the city was largely an uninhabited ruin. [ [ Museum of London - Roman London: A Brief History]]

The area of the Roman city remained largely uninhabited for the next 400 years, until the site was resettled by Anglo-Saxons: see Anglo-Saxon London.

Important buildings

The city limits

The Roman city covered about the area of the City of London. In the East from the London Tower to Ludgate (about Ludgate Hill in modern London) in the East, being around 1.5 km along the Thames. In the North the city limits were at Bishopsgate and Cripplegate (near the Museum of London). The modern street London Wall marks that site. Outside the limits of the city wall were suburbs and cemeteries. South of the river was a substantial suburb at Southwark, with many well equipped house.


Around the area of modern day Cannon Street station, the remains of a large building have been found, often interpreted as the palace of the governor ("praetorium"). It had a garden, water pools and several large halls, some of them decorated with mosaic floors. The plan of the building is only partly preserved. The building was erected in the second part of the first century and was in use until around AD 300. It was rebuilt and renovated several times. [P. Marsden, "The Excavation of a Roman Palace Site in London", In: "Trans. London and Middlesex Archaeological Society", 1961-71, 26 (1975:1-102).]

In the middle of the Roman town, the Forum was the largest marketplace building north of the Alps, measuring an almost perfect square 168 x 167 m. Two main building phases have been distinguished. The early forum, built after the time of the rebellion of Boudicca, had an open courtyard and several shops around it. The identification of this building as a forum has been disputed, and it has been argued that these were merely large warehouses. At the beginning of the second century the complex was significantly enlarged. The forum still had an open courtyard with shops around, but also a large Basilica. The forum was in use till around AD 300. [P. Marsden, "The Roman Forum Site in London. Discoveries before 1985", London 1987 ISBN 0-11-290442-4]

In the north of the city there have been found remains of the amphitheatre, some still visible under the modern Guildhall. Roman London had several bath houses or Thermae, although it is often not clear whether the remains found belonged to public baths or to private houses. A well-preserved public bath was excavated at Huggin Hill (near the Thames). It dates into the second part of the first century; it was demolished around AD 200.


The city certainly had several important temples. The restoration of a Jupiter temple is mentioned in an inscription, although this building has not yet been identified. Inscriptions mentioning a temple of Isis were found in Southwark. Temple buildings have been excavated near the oldest forum, a round temple west of the city and perhaps at Peter's Hill, where strong foundations were found that are often assigned to a temple building. The name of a god did not survive in any of these buildings. The only exception is the Temple of Mithras found in 1954 and still containing many high quality miniature votive sculptures.

Living quarters

In the first century AD most houses of the city were built of wood: only in the second century were they partly replaced by stone buildings. In the second century the city reached its highpoint; parts of Roman London were packed with dwellings such as Domus or townhouses. At the end of the second century, when many of them were built of stone, the building density became lower: instead of many small wooden houses, there were at least in parts of the city big well-equipped stone buildings. Excavations have shown that many of the buildings were richly adorned with wall paintings, floor mosaics and sub-floor hypocausts, demonstrating the wealth of the elite.

ee also

*Anglo-Saxon London
*History of London
*Temple of Mithras
*Museum of London Archaeology Service


Bibliographic References

* Billings, Malcolm (1994), "London: a companion to its history and archaeology", ISBN 1 85626 153 0
* Inwood, Stephen. "A History of London" (1998) ISBN 0333671538
* John Wacher: "The Towns of Roman Britain", London/New York 1997, p. 88-111. ISBN 0-415-17041-9
* Gordon Home: "Roman London: A D 43 - 457" Illustrated with black and white plates of artefacts. diagrams and plans. [Published by Eyre and Spottiswoode (London) in 1948 with no ISBN]

External links

* [ Ancient Places TV: HD Video of remains of Roman London]
* [ Roman London] - From
* [ Article about Roman London from]
* [ Reassessing what we collect website – Roman London] History of Roman London with objects and images

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • London Houses —    Roman tiles used in the walls of houses were 17 in. long, 11 in. wide and 11/2 in. thick. The draining tiles made to fit into each other were 12 in. to 25 in. long, 4 in. to 8 in. in diameter.    The tiles were stamped with the names of Roman… …   Dictionary of London

  • London —    The capital of the Empire and from early times an important centre of trade and commerce. On the northern bank of the River Thames.    The first authentic mention of Londinium, as it was called by the Romans, occurs in Tacitus, Annales, Lib.… …   Dictionary of London

  • London Wall — This article is part of the series on: Military of ancient Rome (portal) 753 BC – AD 476 Structural history Roman army (unit types and ranks …   Wikipedia

  • London Wall, Street —    West from Old Broad Street to Cripplegate (P.O. Directory).    A street on the line of the old Wall of London (q.v.). In Broad Street Ward, Bassishaw Ward, Coleman Street Ward and Cripplegate Ward Within.    First mention of the street : In… …   Dictionary of London

  • London Bridge —    Extends across the River Thames from Adelaide Place and King William Street to High Street, Southwark. Architect, J. Rennie.    Erected 1824 31. Opened by King William IV. in 1831.    It is made of granite, with 5 elliptical arches (Gent. Mag …   Dictionary of London

  • Roman Bath Street —    North out of Newgate Street at No.76 (P.O. Directory). In Farringdon Ward Within.    First mention: 1885.    Former names: Bath Street in O.S. 1848 50, so named 1843. Bagnio Street c.1840. Bagnio Court (Rocque, 1746 Elmes, 1831). Royal Bagnio… …   Dictionary of London

  • London Coffee House —    On the north side of Ludgate Hill at No. 42, west of St. Martin, Ludgate, in Farringdon Ward Without (P.O. Directory).    First mention: Horwood, 1799.    In 1806 some Roman remains were discovered at the back of the Coffee House, including an …   Dictionary of London

  • Roman Britain — History of the British Isles This box: view · talk · edit …   Wikipedia

  • London — This article is about the capital of England and the United Kingdom. For other uses, see London (disambiguation). London From upper left: City of London, Tower Bridge and London Eye, Palace of Westminster …   Wikipedia

  • Roman Polanski — Infobox Actor caption = Roman Polanski with a Crystal Globe birthdate = birth date and age|1933|8|18 birthplace = Paris, France birthname = Rajmund Roman Liebling spouse = Barbara Lass (1959 1962) Sharon Tate (1968 1969) Emmanuelle Seigner (1989… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.