London – Mirror of Rome

Dominic Perring

London has a rich Roman past, so much so that it imitated the capital of the Empire.
Londinium 120AD
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Roman London is probably the world’s most heavily explored archaeological site. Thousands of excavations have taken place on City building sites, generating millions of archaeological assemblages and a vast library of archaeological reports. Thanks to the exact science of tree-ring dating, and an ancient engineering preference for using unseasoned building timber, these discoveries include hundreds of precisely dated constructions: waterfront quays, drains, wells, and the piled foundations of monumental buildings. This chronological precision tells the story of London’s birth and opens up new ways of understanding Rome and its empire.

London was an unusual place. Unlike most Roman cities, it was not shaped as the administrative seat of a local landed gentry. Nor was it planted on the banks of the Thames as a settlement of army veterans to colonise and control conquered territories. Tacitus, who was the first Roman historian to mention London’s existence when telling the story of the British revolt of AD 60-61, made a point of drawing our attention to its unusual character. He observed, that at this time, London ‘was not marked by the title of colony, but renowned for a profusion of dealers and supplies’.

Archaeological discoveries have confirmed London’s role as an operational supply base. It was planted on borderlands between late Iron Age kingdoms, only becoming a sensible site from which to dominate Britain once Rome had unified these competing territories through the force of conquest. A series of new arterial highways, to carry heavily-laden convoys of ox-drawn waggons, radiated out from a new fixed crossing of the Thames at London Bridge. The engineering works started c. AD 48, but the settlement may have re-used the site of an earlier military camp. Traces of defensive ditches found in recent work may mark the site where the invasion army had halted its advance, having forced the crossing of the Thames, to await the triumphal arrival of the emperor Claudius in the summer of AD 43.

By the time of the Boudiccan revolt London was much more than just a supply-base, having been reshaped into something resembling a city c. AD 52 and then further enlarged a year before the revolt.  This was the largest settlement that Britain had ever seen, perhaps housing some 10-15,000 people, and – whatever its formal status – was the effective seat of the provincial government.

London prospered when Rome advanced, or when emperors invested in the welfare of Britain’s large military garrison but suffered at times of weak or distracted government, and in the wars and pandemics of the second and third centuries. We can now trace the pulse of Roman London’s prosperity with remarkable precision: this witnesses London’s importance as a gateway between Britain and Rome’s continental empire, and its dependency on the availability of manpower to service its docks, shops and markets.

The dominance of the colonial administration and its agents – whose activities are documented in a wealth of writing tablets recovered during building the new Bloomberg headquarters – may have acted to supress the emergence of a local curial class. This was a working city, concerned with equipping and provisioning the Roman forces, raising rents and taxes, and turning conquest to profit.  London was populated by people drawn from across the Roman provinces, especially Gaul and the German frontier, whose leisure time was spent in dinner parties or at the baths. But apart from a handful of small bathhouses, the Claudio-Neronian city was conspicuously lacking in monumental civic architecture.

The first patrons of public buildings and works were almost certainly government officials, foremost amongst them the Procurator who was responsible for managing the emperor’s property and interests.  Later building dedications also testify to the involvement of imperial slaves and Gallic shippers.  None of these leading figures was described as a Londoner. They remained citizens of other cities, owing their status to their role in supporting the provincial administration rather than their local standing. London’s architectural history consequently shadowed the interests of Rome but remained largely mute about the lives and aspirations of the peoples ruled from the city.

Bronze head of Hadrian found in the River Thames in London.

By way of illustration, we can briefly examine how some building projects of the late first and early second century took inspiration from Rome. London’s first great public building was its amphitheatre. Its eastern entrance was found beneath Guildhall Art Gallery, where it now forms an atmospheric and attractive display. The timber-fronted cavea, the earth bank surrounding the arena, supported tiers of seating capable of accommodating over 6000 spectators. Construction timbers show that building materials for the project were being assembled in AD 71, although the structure was not finished before c. AD 74. This dating shows that it was a particularly early monument to the new Flavian regime, following Vespasian’s assumption of power at the conclusion of the civil war in AD 69. Preparations for its building started around the time that Vespasian’s new governor of Britain, Petillius Cerialis, probably arrived to take up office in the spring of AD 71. Notwithstanding vast differences of scale and sophistication, London’s arena shared ideological purpose with Rome’s Colosseum. This too was a gift from Vespasian, and also built in the early 70s. Both buildings witness the reconfiguration of urban performative ritual promoted by the new regime. Festivals associated with the Imperial cult marked Flavian patronage and were set at the centre of city life. At the start of the games, ceremonial processions would have carried the gods and imperial effigies from temples across the city to attend gladiatorial contests and exhibitions of animal baiting. Executions were also an important part of public spectacle here, and a scatter of fragmented human remains along London’s border wetlands witnesses the violent rituals of corpse abuse that punished enemies of Rome. London’s amphitheatre – like the Roman Colosseum – proclaimed Vespasian’s imposition of order as the new regime transcended the chaos that attended Nero’s fall.

London’s Flavian administration conspicuously invested in architectures of bread-and-circuses that echoed the public works of Rome described in Juvenal’s satires. A few years after London’s amphitheatre was complete, sophisticated water-powered mills were built along canalised sections of the rivers Fleet and Walbrook. These were capable of supplying flour to nearby bakeries sufficient to feed upwards of 5000 mouths. The main phase of hydraulic engineering associated with these mills is dated c. AD 78, indicating that it must have been put in hand under the influential governor Agricola.   The feeding of London’s large and growing urban community had become an unusually important concern.

London’s largest building was its forum: the focal point of public life, government and business.    The first basilica may not, however, have been built much before AD 80, perhaps also as a consequence of Agricolan policy. Prior to this date, there is no evidence that London had its own administration, and there is a distinct possibility that it continued to lack the political instruments normal to self-governing communities. This is the implication of a text dated 22 October AD 76 that appears to describe a legal judgement made by a magistrate appointed by the emperor.

This Flavian forum was soon demolished to clear the way for a vast new complex, nearly five times its size, with a basilica that was longer that St Paul’s Cathedral and a central courtyard that was almost as large as Trafalgar Square. This courtyard was dominated by a large ornamental pool and would have provided a setting for markets and ceremonial activities such as the annual swearing of oaths of loyalty to the emperor. The ranges enclosing the courtyard housed stores and workshops, set behind a wide portico. The rooms here may have included offices for moneylenders, officials, and businessmen responsible for managing supplies and feeding the city. Pottery dating suggests that work started on London’s new forum during Trajan’s reign. The building was associated with other public works that included harbour improvements c. AD 102, hydraulic engineering c. AD 104, and the building of new public baths. This dating evidence indicates that London’s forum was a close contemporary of Trajan’s forum in Rome, where building work began in earnest in AD 106/107 drawing on the spoils of victory obtained from the Dacian war. At a very superficial level, Trajan’s forum basilica in Rome presents similarities of scale with London’s second-century basilica. Another point of comparison can be found in the fact that both projects were designed on such an ambitious scale that they remained incomplete until being finished twenty years later by Trajan’s adopted heir, Hadrian. London’s second century forum far exceeded the town’s needs, and many of its rooms remained little used, but it made an important statement about London’s role in the imperial project, serving as a distant simulacra of the fora of imperial Rome and built to commensurate scale.

There are many other ways in which London’s architecture offers insight into imperial policy, and echoed works undertaken in Rome and the capital cities of the later empire. Despite these grand building programmes, London failed to match the architectural splendours of the cities of the Roman Mediterranean. The urban community here failed to develop a local tradition of civic euergetism, perhaps in large part because of its unusual dependency on the direct agents of the Roman administration. Since London lacked rich local patrons, whose power and status were defined through participation in civic affairs, its architecture described the sporadic and narrow interests of a distant imperial authority that eventually faltered and failed.


Dominic Perring is an archaeologist at University College London and the author of London in the Roman World, an authoritative overview of the history and archaeology of Roman London.

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