Early Roman London

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Artist's impression of the Roman Londinium, looking at the first London Bridge. The muddy channels and islets in the foreground are the site of today's Shard.

While the coloniae at Colchester, Gloucester and Lincoln were deliberately founded by the Romans to bring `civilised' values to Britain, the circumstances surrounding the origins and early growth of London, where urban development began at much the same time as Colchester, may have been rather different.

The pace of modern construction in and around the City of London, whose boundaries are virtually the same as those of Roman Londinium, has been more rapid in recent years than almost anywhere in Europe, but this has brought enormous opportunities for archaeological research. It is now thought that, although there may have been some military involvement in the choice of the site itself, London's early development was largely undertaken by civilians. Most of them were presumably immigrants, either from other parts of Britain, seeking to escape hard, dull lives in native villages, or from Gaul and other Roman provinces, seeking new commercial opportunities. Many of these people clearly became prosperous as a result of trade, in some cases sea-borne long-distance trade with the rest of the empire. This is apparently confirmed by Tacitus who records that London was `an important centre for business-men (negotiatores) and merchandise'. A successful economic role was closely followed by the assumption of a political role, as London replaced Colchester, perhaps following the Boudiccan revolt, as the provincial capital of Britannia.

The City of London as the Romans found it was a site occupied by two low hills on the north bank of the Thames, separated by a small river now known as the Walbrook which still runs in a culvert below the street of that name. On the river bank was a shelving foreshore, ideal for the drawing up of small boats.

Human activity over the centuries has, of course, radically altered the natural contours and riverside, but the hills would have been more prominent to Roman eyes than might be supposed today, since the Thames is now at an appreciably higher level than it was in the first century.

London ousted Colchester as capital because it was a better communications centre. The Thames was a natural highway to the coast and continent, and London is the lowest point where the river can be easily crossed, before it reaches the sea, on the road from the ports at Richborough and Dover to the interior of the province. While it is not clear if the Romans appreciated this at the time of the invasion, and one theory is that a crossing was made upstream at Westminster, they soon found that by using a natural causeway over the low sandy islands on the otherwise marshy south bank of the Thames, a more satisfactory river crossing could be made close to where present-day London Bridge now stands. Excavations in Southwark have shown that the main road from the south lay immediately to the west of Borough High Street and was probably in existence by AD 50. Of particular interest in these excavations has been the discovery of numerous irregular coins of the Emperor Claudius, which were minted in Colchester for purposes of army pay when official coins were in short supply. Their presence in Southwark not only gives a date for the early roads, but suggests the involvement of the army in construction.

The Roman colony at Colchester

Plan of the principal sites of the late Iron Age and Roman periods in the Colchester area (drawn by Glenys Boyles; Colchester Museum)

Plan of the Roman colonia at Colchester showing the line of the Roman fortress defences and location of principal buildings and other finds (Colchester Archaeological Trust)

On approaching the Essex market town of Colchester by road, you will be greeted at the town boundary by a sign which bears the words `Welcome to Colchester- Britain's Oldest Recorded Town'. The visitor may, however, be forgiven for asking what this town consisted of. To the classical scholar the `-chester' element in the modern name, derived from the latin castra, a camp, suggests a Roman origin, but virtually all that is recognisably `historic' in Colchester is a few stretches of town wall and the Norman castle. The disappearance of the tangible remains of Colchester's past is, of course, largely due to the growth and accompanying rebuilding of the town in the twentieth century, which has culminated in some major redevelopment projects in the 1970s and 1980s. It was in advance of these redevelopments, however, that a remarkable series of excavations made discoveries vital not only for understanding Colchester's Roman past, but also the origins of urbanism in Britain.

In essence Roman civilisation was an urban civilisation based on a network of city states which acted as centres for all the economic, political, social and religious life of their region. As we have already noted, these cities were graded according to legal status and this in turn determined the inhabitant's status, including tax liability and level of punishment in the event of wrongdoing. Every town in the empire was, up to a point, organised along the lines of Rome itself, with a town council, or ordo, nominally made up of one hundred decuriones who qualified to serve on the basis of a property qualification. They elected four magistrates annually, two to act as justices and two to carry out public works. Although Rome itself did not have much of a clear and ordered plan, provincial towns usually bore some resemblance to a Roman ideal. The principal streets were laid out on a rectilinear grid pattern which divided the urban area into what were known as insulae (islands). The central insulae were occupied by the public buildings which included the forum, essentially a large courtyard, often used as a market, which was enclosed on three sides by shops or offices behind a colonnaded portico and on the fourth by the basilica, a hall in which administrative and judicial business was conducted. In adjacent insulae there would usually be a public bath house, temple to the Roman gods and, on occasions, a theatre.

In Britain the Romans encountered a country without towns, a country where the vast majority of the population lived in small villages or isolated farmsteads. In order to conquer, govern and tax the Britons, therefore, the Roman administration had to create towns. This involved stimulating a taste for urban living, and a willingness on the part of the leaders of native British society to adopt the Roman custom of paying for public works as a way of expressing their social status. A reference to the problem of changing the life-style of the native Britons is specifically made by Tacitus in a well-known passage in his biography of Agricola, Governor of Britain from AD 78 to 84:

Agricola had to deal with people living in isolation and ignorance, and therefore prone to fight; and his object was to accustom them to a life of peace and quiet by the provision of amenities. He therefore gave private encouragement and official assistance to the building of temples, public squares, and good houses.

In the light of this passage it is, perhaps, no accident that one of the earliest mosaics in the palace at Fishbourne, near Chichester, probably built to ensure the loyalty of a native British king, is a simplified representation of a Roman town with walls, gates and a street grid. It is, to a great extent, by the success of urbanisation that we may measure the success of the Roman conquest of Britain.

Armed with this yardstick, we may now ask why the Romans chose to start at Colchester. The answer is that one of the principal centres of British resistance to the Roman invasion in AD 43 was a site at Gosbecks, now on the south-western outskirts of the modern town. This was the headquarters of the Trinovantes, one of the dominant peoples of south-eastern England in the early first century AD. They were ruled in 43 by the sons of King Cunobelin who had been leader of the Catuvellauni, another important tribe with a base at Verulamium. All that survives above ground today of the native capital at Colchester is a series of prominent linear earthworks, or dykes, and a burial mound known as the Lexden tumulus. These sites have been the subject of considerable speculation since at least the eighteenth century, and in 1759 they were drawn and mapped by the famous antiquary William Stukeley, inventor of druidic mythology, who also suggested that The Mount, a surviving Roman burial mound, was Cunobelin's grave

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