London in the Roman World

Review by Owen Humphreys.

You wait decades for a new book about Roman London, then two come along at once. Dominic Perring’s previous work Roman London (Routledge, 1991) was the standard reference for nearly 30 years. Now, just three years after Richard Hingley’s Londinium: A Biography (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), Perring is back.

Despite being the largest and perhaps best understood city in Roman Britain, London receives only a handful of mentions in historical sources. What we know about the city comes almost entirely from archaeological evidence, which has ballooned since the 1990s. In this new book, Perring provides an accessible narrative of the city and its archaeology, surveying its origins, fluctuating fortunes, and eventual fall. Perring’s decades of work in the city shine through, with him employing evidence from antiquarian discoveries through to still-unpublished modern excavations.

The text is engagingly written and demands little prior knowledge, providing an excellent introduction to the city. More than this, however, this book provides a full articulation of Perring’s bold thesis for the development of the city. Perring argues that Londinium’s development reflects specific historical events, not longue durée processes. Perring’s detective work uncovers new events, including a Hadrianic rebellion and repeated plagues, in addition to the Claudian invasion and Boudican revolt. Moreover, using the tight dating provided by recent dendrochronology, Perring links London’s public architecture to the agency of specific individuals: the governors, procurators, and even emperors who passed through the city. This version of events is bound to be contentious, and there are certainly alternative readings of the archaeology (see, for example, Hingley’s recent volume). The book is rich with colour drawn from artefacts, burials, and environmental archaeology, but the greatest explanatory weight is given to public architecture. This biases the account towards certain types of person, and the daily lives of Londoners, particularly women and children, figure little. This book is nevertheless an excellent and thoughtful exploration of London at a macro level, exploring the forces that governed its wider fate, and placing it firmly in context as part of a wider empire. Agree or disagree, this book will be central to discussions of the city for decades to come.

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