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.


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