Roman London


Having been established after the the Roman conquest in 43 AD, Londinium seems to have quickly become an important commercial trading gateway probably due to its location at the first crossing point of the Thames from the sea, with the wide and shallow tidal river at this point also providing ideal landing ground for sea going vessels.

After suffering a severe sacking, by Boudican forces during the rebellion of 60 AD, the settlement was razed to the ground by fire and any citizens that had failed to evacuate were put to the sword.

Despite this, and setting a morbid pattern of calamity and resurrection for the future, Londinium was re-planned and is thought to have recovered within about 10 years, so much so that by the end of the 1st century AD, Londinium took over from Camulodunum (Colchester) the role of capital city for Roman Britain.  

The city continued to prosper and it is estimated that at it's peak in around 140 AD the 

population of Londinium was between 45,000 to 60,000 citizens.
It was during this period of the late 1st century and 2nd centuries, that the major civic building works in London were completed, including the basilica and forum, amphitheatre, public baths and fort.

Roman Fort

During this period of prosperity, a walled fort was completed in about 120 AD, its location centred on the modern day streets of London Wall and Wood Street.  The fort was square in layout, each side being approximately 200m (655ft) in length with gatehouses situated in the middle of each of the four walls, stone towers at each corner and several more towers or bastions inter spaced along the walls.  It is thought the fort provided barracks for about 1000 troops.  

The fort began to be decommissioned after only about 100 years of usage, and it's buildings dismantled.  The troops were likely accommodated elsewhere in London especially in Southwark.

The north and west walls were retained and became incorporated in to the new city wall. These two walls of the fort were widened by the addition of a second wall constructed against it's inside face to bring the whole to the same height, width and standard as the rest of the new city wall.

Roman City Wall

In the period of 180-220 AD the city wall was constructed, with the north and west outer-facing walls of the existing fort being incorporated into the line of the wall. On completion, the city wall was approximately 5km (3 miles) in length, up to 2.4m (8ft) thick and up to  6-7m (20ft) tall, and enclosed an area of 130 hectares (330 acres), making it the largest enclosed town of Roman Britain.  There would also have been a defensive ditch on the outer side and a raised embankment on the inner side.

The material used to build the wall was rag-stone, sourced from near Maidstone in Kent, and would have been transported up the Thames by barge.  It is estimated that some 1,300 barge trips would have been required to transport the 85,000 tons of stone for the construction.  One such barge, fully laden with stone was found in 1962, sunken into the mud, at the entrance to the River Fleet, near Blackfriars.

During the 4th Century AD the wall was enhanced with the addition of at least 20 towers or Bastions evenly spaced along the eastern section of the wall.  Each bastion was semi-circular and about 8-9m high and were built as an additional defence to provide a platform for an artillery machine called "ballistae", essentially a large mechanical crossbow.

The outer skin of the towers was built from ragstone, like the walls, and the solid core of the tower bases included rubble and reused stone material including tomb-stones taken from earlier Roman cemeteries that where positioned on the outsides of the city wall at that time.

During the same period an additional river-side wall was contructed, running from Blackfriars to Tower Hill, along the line of modern day Upper and Lower Thames Streets. A section of the river-side wall is visible today in the grounds of the Tower of London.

Late Roman Occupation and Withdrawal

In the 3rd and 4th century the Londiniums population declined, and it changed from being a crowded, busy town of merchants and craftsmen, to being a less densely-populated settlement, a resort of the wealthy and influential. 
Many of the earlier public buildings were demolished near the end of the 3rd century, however, many large domestic houses were built, frequently with heated rooms and fine mosaics.

Londinium was finally abandoned following the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the early 5th century about 410 AD.

The fate of Roman London

With the departure of the Romans, the walled town was largely abandoned and the buildings would likely have collapsed, been consumed by nature, or pillaged for materials.  The Saxons initially preferring a new location 1 mile upstream to be known as Lundenwic, where they settled in more traditional wooden structures.

Eventually, for defensive reasons, during the 9th century there was a move back inside of the remains of the Roman walled town, with Lundenwic becoming known as ealdwic "old settlement" which name survives today as Aldwych, and is now associated to a street rather than a whole area.  At this time the city walls were repaired and improved and the defensive ditches re-cut.

Even though the city walls were enhanced throughout medieval and even Tudor ages, the original line remained unaltered. The city wall was a prominent feature of the city for the best part of 1300-1400 years.  

During the 17th century it's defensive purpose effectively expired as the city grew beyond its confines, and the wall was gradually dismantled during the 18th and 19th centuries, as it was pillaged for building materials.  Many parts of the wall becoming incorporated into the cellars and foundations of the shops and warehouses that grew in its place, or simply covered over and buried to make way for new or widened roads.

As for other Roman buildings within the city, much had collapsed or been dismantled, and what remained became covered over by natural means, or built over with newer structures. Events such the Fire of London in 1666 created mountains of rubble and debris. This was spread over the lower parts of London along what is now Upper and Lower Thames street, in order dissipate the material, with the effect of burying ancient structures under metres of debris. 

During the late Victorian era, and into the early 20th century, many Roman structures were rediscovered as large portions of streets were dug up for the installation of sewers and railways lines.  The slum clearances of this period also saw the demolition of large parts of the city to make way for wider roads and the building of banks, warehouses and offices.

This incredibly comprehensive publication of 1928, available to view online, gives great detail of all the finds from Roman London up to that date, with most coming from the period mentioned in the previous paragraph.

During the Second World War bombings of London, large parts of the city were destroyed. As these sites were cleared, sections of the lost city wall and other structures were rediscovered. The area of Noble Street and Cripplegate, has been left in this ruinous state, with the city wall revealed amongst the remains of destroyed Victorian buildings.

Roman London today

London is continually in redeveloped, and these days archaeological surveys form an important part of any construction process.  So more and more evidence of Roman and other periods of occupation is being continually discovered.  Most recently at the time of writing this article, the development of the new Bloomberg building on the banks of the Walbrook, has unearthed over 20,000 artefacts alone.  Roman buildings are now being incorporated into new buildings and made into show pieces, rather than destroyed or simply covered over.

Today there are sections of the city wall and several other Roman structures that have been discovered and preserved.  Some are freely accessible, others require the permission of the occupiers of the host buildings to visit in them person.

The list below is all the Roman structural remains with the City of London. Having now visited most of them, I am slowly posting articles on this blog for each site.
  • Roman City Wall
  • River Wall - Tower of London
  • Western Gatehouse to Fort - Museum of London
  • House with private baths - Lower Thames Street
  • Mithras Temple - Being resited - Again!
  • London Forum - Gracechurch Street
  • Amphitheatre - Guildhall Art Gallery
  • Tesselated Pavement - All Hallows by the Tower
  • Roman wooden embankment pile - St. Magnus the Martyr
In addition to the structural remains, there are the 1,000s of Roman artefacts continuing to be discovered. The best place to see these are:

No comments :

Post a Comment