In Brief – Roman London

A 1st or 2nd century mosaic featuring the Roman god Bacchus, found during construction work in Leadenhall Street in 1803 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

London began with a bridge. What we now call London Bridge was probably a temporary military pontoon structure, quickly constructed in 43AD by engineers of the invading army of the Roman Emperor Claudius. It provided a dry crossing over the River Thames on their journey to defeat the local Catuvellauni tribe at their capital of Colchester. It was not the first time the Romans had visited Britain. Julius Caesar had arrived almost a hundred years earlier but decided the place was not worth occupying.

Prior to the invasion by Claudius the Thames was the border between different warring tribes. The area, with its poor clay soil, remained forested and largely unpopulated, being far from each of their main settlements and therefore too difficult to defend. The river was wider than today, flowing around sand banks and islands and fed by many small streams, its edges marshy and tree-lined. The wide river and thick forests on each bank made it a natural barrier between the different groups of people but also an easier means of transport and trade than overland.

Having succeeded in their initial mission the invaders needed to maintain a land supply route back to Rome via Gaul so the bridge over the Thames stayed and was rebuilt. Such a strategic site needed a staff to protect and maintain it and a small settlement grew, becoming both a small port and the hub of the supply routes in the new Roman province. Four years after their arrival the Romans formerly decided to build a town to be known as Londinium.

In 60AD the native Iceni tribe in the northern half of East Anglia rebelled against the Romans. Led by the late king’s daughter Queen Boudicca, they rose up and, joining with others, destroyed the Roman provincial capital of Colchester. The main Roman army in Britannia was fighting in Anglesey. They marched south as fast as they could but did not have sufficient strength to take on Boudicca’s army. The rebels burnt Londinium to the ground, killing its entire population and then moved on to St.Albans, which was also destroyed. The rebellion was finally quashed by the Roman forces during a major battle in the Midlands.

The first Londinium had lasted a mere thirteen years but the Romans set about rebuilding the town. If the province was to grow into something similar to others such as Gaul somewhere more appropriate and accessible than Colchester was required as the capital. Londinium was the obvious choice. It was a useful place to cross the Thames and from there a network of roads could spread out to other towns. The Romans began enlarging the previously modest town as a local copy of Rome, with many grand buildings to house senior officials. A vast basilica was constructed in the centre as the town hall, as well as a large complex of buildings to accommodate the administration of the province. Following the rebellion the new Provincial Procurator based his permanent headquarters and civil service there.