Roman London

Londinium (London) was founded by the Romans around 47 or 50 AD, or at any rate, very soon after their 43 AD invasion of Britain.

Roman London
(map by Fremantleboy, CC BY 2.5)

They built their new city on the Thames, where the Walbrook – still a brook in those daysflowed into it, guaranteeing a supply of fresh water. The Walbrook is now an underground sewer, but a street along part of its course still bears its name. The site’s location on a navigable river (the Thames) made it handy as a port. A few hundred yards (or metres) downstream, with natural embankments on both sides of the River, the city’s founders built the original London Bridge.

Suetonius Paulinus
(photo by Ad Meskens,
CC BY-SA 3.0)

Barely ten years later, in 60 AD, a British uprising against the Romans, led by Boudica (Boadicea), the queen of the Iceni tribe, swept down from what’s now East Anglia. The Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, who was in Wales, hurried back to take a stand at Londinium, but realizing he couldn’t hold it, evacuated it and regrouped. Boudica’s forces burnt down the city and razed it. According to Roman sources (but probably true), they killed anyone who hadn’t left with Suetonius. He responded by drawing them back up Watling Street (the Edgware Road), and at an unknown location on the A5, defeated and slaughtered them.

Thomas Thornycroft’s
Boudica statue

According to tradition, that battle was at Battle Bridge, which is to say, King’s Cross, where Boudica’s head is buried under platform 9 (others say 8 or 10), while her body reposes under a tumulus on Parliament Hill. Sadly, archeologists and historians do not take any of that seriously. Nor do they think that her chariot really had knives on its wheels, as it does on Thomas Thornycroft’s Victorian statue of her at the western end of Westminster Bridge.

Pre-Roman tribes of southern Britain
(map by Nicholas W. Beeson, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Boudica’s tribe, the Iceni, were from the Norfolk area, and not the London region, which was contested by four British tribes: the Trinovantes, the Catuvellauni, the Regnenses, and the Cantiaci. Though some were recently of Belgian origin, they all spoke a Brittonic language, a forefather of modern Welsh. Rome’s victory confirmed its political dominance over them, but that wasn’t all bad. From 212 AD, for example, they had full Roman citizenship, and learning Latin gave them access to the trade, science and literature of the whole empire.

The Guildhall, site of the Roman amphitheatre

The Romans quickly rebuilt London. It wasn’t at first the capital of Roman Britain, but it was already a busy trading port even before Boudica’s attack. The forum (marketplace and main square) was on what’s now Gracechurch Street, with a huge basilica (a town hall, not a church) on its north side, of which bits still survive in the basement of a hairdresser in Leadenhall Market. There was an amphitheatre for watching sporting events, discovered in 1988 where the Guildhall now is (and normally open to the public by appointment).

The London Mithraeum (Mithras temple)

Other amenities included bathhouses (of which one, at Billingsgate, is open to the public), and temples, most notably a temple to Mithras – originally a Persian god but popular across the empire – on Walbrook under what’s now the Bloomberg HQ (likewise open to the public by appointment, but note that all of these sites are currently closed during the Covid crisis).

A piece of London’s city wall at Tower Hill
(the courses below the arrow are Roman)

Around 200 AD, the Romans built a wall to protect the city. Its gates, though many times rebuilt, existed in some form until the eighteenth century. Bits of the wall survive, and you can walk its course and see them today, with a big piece at Tower Hill, and others hidden away along (the street called) London Wall, including one in an underground car park. There was a barbican (fort) at the northwest corner of the wall, and suburbs to the west and across the River in Southwark. There was also a cemetery outside the walls to the east.

A piece of the wall in an underground car park

London’s inhabitants came from all over the Roman Empire and beyond – some had African and possibly even Chinese origins –  but most of its residents would have been local Britons (who could also of course themselves travel anywhere in the empire). They no doubt adopted some Roman habits while keeping some traditional ones. Perhaps they spoke Latin at work and Brittonic at home, in the same way that people now, in countries like India, may speak Hindi or English at work but their own language at home.

The Londoners stone

In any event, whatever their origin, ancestry and cultural mix, the people of London, by the end of the second century, were already known as Londinienses (Londoners). We know this because the possessive form of the word (Londiniensium) appears in an inscription on a marble plaque unearthed in 2002, which now resides in the Museum of London. So Londoners had their own distinct identity, even back in Roman times.

Roman mosaic from
under Bank of England
(photo Carole Raddato
CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Roman legions eventually left in 410 AD, heading home to defend Rome itself from invasion. They left behind a Romano-Celtic culture with international connections, and a city that would continue to evolve through the centuries. And we modern-day Londinienses still owe them one, big-time, because without the Romans, there would be no London, and that means no Londoners either.