• Erin

Roman London AD 43 - 410

Updated: Jan 15, 2018


Julius Caesar first invaded England in 55 BC, but it's generally accepted that Romans founded Londinium in AD 43. They came across a land with geographical features they could exploit, a practicality which ancient Britons lacked the skills for. Soon after their arrival, they built the first bridge across the Thames, not far from todays London Bridge in fact: The point in which the lowest point of the river met the highest tidal point was the area of choice for easy accessibility for boats, and it just so happened that the natural sandy banks of the river conveniently provided two areas of firm gravel to establish the bridge on.

The north bank of the river was a more ideal setting for the foundation of a Roman town; higher ground and with the river Walbrook flowed North to South, it was perfect for trading and later provided fashionable housing along the banks. Despite Emperor Claudius making Colchester the capital, London was growing at an astonishing rate, with main garrisons also at Lincoln, York and Gloucester – but all roads were leading to London. But just 18 years later the city would be left in ruin.

AD 61 Queen Boudica and her tribe arrive from East Anglica and burn london to the ground - it would seem that the inhabitants of London decided not to flee, perhaps believing that they would be accepted into Boudicas tribe. Nevertheless many thousands were slaughtered, with an estimate of up to 70,000 in the areas of London, Colchester and St Albans. During construction work near the Mansion House, skulls were found along the old course of the Walbrook, and it's believed that these could well be from the time of Boudica as decapitation was a particular favourite for Celtic warriors. Archaeology has discovered a layer of red burnt debris under the city of London, covering pottery and coins dating before AD 60.

But a new and improved city rose from the ashes under the new ruler Gaius julius Alpinus Classicianus, who preferred to base himself in London instead of Colchester. London was emerging as the most important town in Roman Britain, boasting a forum, basilica, temples, an amphitheatre and public paths. A huge 12 acre fort was built in around 120 AD at the northwest of the city at Cripple-gate, housing around 1000 soldiers which was later incorporated into the City Wall.

The Roman wall was built around 200 AD, about 80 years after the construction of the city fort - 2 miles long, 20 feet high and 7/8 feet thick. It was made of ragstone brought up by barge from Kent - evidence of a barge was discovered preserved in mud and still containing its delivery of building material. A copper coin was found in the mast step, which according to suspicion carries good luck, the coin is marked with the goddess of fortune and dates back to AD 88/89, being well worn before being placed on the barge. The reasons for why such a great wall was built are unknown, but have been linked with the coming invasion of northern Britain by the Picts (AD 180) or perhaps the political crisis experienced by Clodius Albinus (the then governor of Britain), during his claim to his right of succession as Roman Emperor.

By this time, London was home to around 45,000 inhabitants, Latin was the spoken language in London, but was probably not understood in other parts of Britain and togas were worn despite the cold weather!

By AD 410 the Roman Empire was at threat, with Rome itself being in pursuit of the Goths (Germanic tribes). A withdrawal from England followed and London was left to defend itself after 350 of Roman rule, and the result it a declining city...

Where to see Roman London today? - The Roman Wall, Tower Hill tube station - Amphitheatre, Guildhall Art Gallery - Temple of Mithras, Walbrook - Museum of London - Roman pavement, St Brides Church - Roman fort, Noble Street

Next up, Anglo-Saxon London