London in the Roman World

Review by Sadie Watson

Scholars of Roman London might wait years for a major synthesis such as Dominic Perring’s London in the Roman World to be published. This is hardly surprising when you consider the amount of research that has gone into its production. Perring alludes to this in his introductory chapter, highlighting the extent of constant new discoveries that occur in London due to development-led archaeology; over 500 investigations conducted since 1990 make London the most explored Roman town in the north-western empire. The degree to which he has been able to piece together the disparate strands of evidence from this work, from a myriad of published and unpublished sources, is impressive. The maps of sites provided in the book’s appendix are hugely helpful, supplemented by tables with further information.

The main body of the book follows a chronological structure, which Perring acknowledges is the simplest way to provide an accessible narrative. London’s Roman story speeds along through this narrative, with diversions into the politics, the wider empire, and the social hierarchy of the time. Perring also highlights selected topics of interest or relevance, presenting critical aspects of Roman London’s character such as its shipbuilding industry or the organisation required for supply of various materials from the wider hinterland. These are highly informative, accessibly written sections that prove entertaining as a shorter read.

Perring is perhaps at his best when writing about the more contentious aspects of Roman London. Chapter 5 outlines London’s origin story: a source of ongoing debate still evading a firm resolution. Perring outlines the evidence for a military Claudian fort and presents his arguments in its favour in a fascinating exposition. I remain unconvinced that a garrison of up to 20,000 men would leave so little archaeological trace, but other readers should make their own minds up, and this chapter is certainly a valuable contribution to the debate. More research is needed on such critical matters.

His theories surrounding the infamous Walbrook skulls, an assemblage of human crania from the depths of a now lost Roman watercourse, are also of note. The reasons for the eventual resting place of these along the edges of the Walbrook stream and elsewhere across this corner of London are complex but the drawing together of the evidence here serves as a reminder of how much data we have, yet how little we know.

Perring suggests that the level of archaeological work in London’s Roman core will slow, with the ‘era of exploration’ ending. This has turned out to be only partly true; new development projects still require archaeological investigations. With the work continuing, we can look forward to more detailed syntheses of the Roman material such as Perring’s, but it will be a significant undertaking for authors to try and match the level of detail and analysis in this volume.

London in the Roman World
Dominic Perring
Oxford University Press, hardback, £40
ISBN 978-0198789000