Last word on Roman London

Andrew Selkirk reviews favourite theories and new thinking about Roman London.

Roman London is a problem. It was not a civitas capital with two Roman names. Nor was it a colonia, a chartered Roman town, as Tacitus specifically says it was not. Yet it was the largest town in Roman Britain, with a very large basilica. So what was it?

Thirty years ago, I suggested that it was part of the imperial domain – that is, the emperor’s private property, a piece of property speculation that he (or, rather, his agent, the procurator) had founded as a new town that was hugely successful and provided succeeding emperors with a steady flow of income. Alas, no one really liked my idea at the time. So when I saw the publication of a splendid new book, London in the Roman World, by Dr Dominic Perring – maestro of Applied Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology – I seized it eagerly. It is a major work, surveying all the recent archaeological investigations done in the city. The past 30 years have seen an enormous amount of work done in London under commercial archaeology, and Dominic pulls it all together magnificently. Is my argument about imperial domain destroyed? Or does it survive?

An early fort

A proposed reconstruction of London c.AD 130, showing the fort, amphitheatre, and forum, as well as dockside buildings, and the numerous skulls found along the Walbrook (the grey circles). Image: drawn by Justin Russell.

A key aspect of London’s Roman story is its origins as a legionary fort. Three separate sites have revealed a typical Roman military ditch, and if all of them are plotted together, they reveal a fortress covering 27 hectares. One of the sites, moreover, yielded very early indigenous-type pottery. During the AD 43 invasion of Britain, the Roman army advanced to the Thames, but then paused while the emperor Claudius made his way up from Rome to claim his triumph. Is this where the army waited?

Five years later, a hard standing was laid out, underlying what subsequently became the forum – though I suspect that the real impetus for the new town came from the building of the original London Bridge. The settlement expanded fast: I would argue because the emperor or his procurator had offered very attractive terms. Traders poured in, London flourished, and in ten years it became the biggest town in Britain. But then, disaster! Boudica rebelled and London was destroyed: traces of burning from this episode are still visible in the lower layers of excavations.

A new town soon arose from the ashes – and the emperor helped its growth by providing entertainment, so in the early 70s an amphitheatre was built, spectacularly rediscovered in the 1980s under Guildhall Yard. Ten years later, attention turned to more serious matters when a rather small forum and basilica were constructed. Other buildings followed, including a monumental structure excavated in the 1970s and dubbed the ‘Governor’s Palace’. Then there were the Huggin Hill baths. These are the nearest London ever came to having a spectacular set of baths, but they were only used for 30 or so years and were then suddenly abandoned. Dominic wonders whether there was a structural fault.

With the advent of the ambitious Trajan, it was decided to build a grandiose basilica. Its predecessor was very small, but this was huge, five times larger, and said to be the biggest Roman building north of the Alps. A basilica is normally the seat of the town council, but I would argue that there was no town council in London, so it should be compared to the grandiose basilicas that Trajan was building in Rome.

But no sooner was it completed than it was destroyed in the second great fire of London, known as the Hadrianic fire and dated to around AD 125. This was even more extensive than Boudica’s fire, but was it simply an accident, or was it deliberate? Dominic’s boldest reinterpretation addresses this; he argues that the fire represents a major rebellion against the Romans. He has two main arguments for this: first, that the Roman fort discovered in the post-war excavations was built as a reprisal to the fire, only to be abandoned 40 years later. Then there are all the skulls discovered in the Walbrook, some of which he suggests were the result of the terrible retribution exacted by the Romans after the rebellion. If this interpretation is correct, the Romans played down the traumatic episode, omitting it from their histories. But it is an interesting idea and it will be interesting to see how far it is accepted.

A profile for all Roman pottery from Museum of London excavations in the City of London down to 2005, in percentage of sherds by decade. Originally published in S Watson and K Heard,  Development on Roman London’s Western Hill: excavations at Paternoster Square, City of London, MoLAS Monograph 32. Image: Robin Symmonds/MOLA.

After the fire, London was rebuilt fast, with masonry houses making their appearance. The settlement was the emperor’s prestige bauble and he wanted it to look good. Indeed, the mid-2nd century marks the high point of London’s grandeur, with the forum and the basilica restored, and the amphitheatre completely rebuilt in stone.

But then something happened: London collapsed. An interesting analysis of the pottery from all the commercial excavations in Roman London shows that the amount of sherds recovered suddenly declines at this point, and remained low for the rest of the Roman occupation: London was no longer a major town. The collapse coincides with the reign of Marcus Aurelius: was this due to his war in Germany? Or the result of the terrible plague that bears his name? Did the emperor drain London of its population to meet the emergency?

Rebirth and remodelling

It was not until 50 years later that London again received imperial attention, acquiring the most extensive town wall in Britain. The date of this development is difficult to tie down as, at the beginning of the 3rd century, Septimius Severus was campaigning in Scotland and would not have had time to worry about London. But on his death his successor Caracalla withdrew from Scotland: did he need to gain prestige by walling London? Dominic points out that the distinctively chamfered plinths suggest military work.

In around 255, a strange episode occurred when London’s port was deliberately dismantled. Dominic sees this as a turning point in the Roman function of London. Hitherto, he argues, London had been essentially a supply base for the Roman army, but now the troops were expected to procure supplies locally. This can be seen in the pottery, with the Samian ware imported from Gaul coming to an end and fine local wares from Oxford and the Surrey kilns taking its place. Similarly, the wine shipped from the Mediterranean in amphoras was now replaced by locally brewed beers.

Twenty years later, another major event occurred: the riverside wall was built. Previously, the town walls had only encircled three sides, leaving the Thames open for trade. The new construction cut off London from its docks. This was a time of chaos in the wider Roman world, when the northern states broke away to form the Gallic empire, and then Britain broke away under Carausius. Germanic pirates were a grave threat and forts were being built along the Saxon shore. Was the riverside wall in London part of this picture?

In the 4th century, the most interesting change was that London was renamed Augusta, the emperor’s town. In my belief, this is merely stating what it had always been. The late Roman Notitia Dignitatum also records the presence of thesauri augustensii: were these the officials who collected in the final rewards of a very successful property speculation?

This is a splendid book, covering most of the sites excavated through commercial archaeology, and Dominic’s wide knowledge of other parts of the Roman world gives it a depth that makes it a landmark in the study of Roman London. But how far does my belief that Roman London was an imperial domain survive? In places, Dominic almost seems to agree with me – on p.93 he says that Roman London ‘could originally could have been built on captured land and as such on imperial property managed by a procurator… London may have remained imperial property.’ Admittedly, his main interpretation is that London was a supply base, but he leaves the status uncertain. I like to think that my interpretation of Roman London still survives.