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 was founded by the Romans at the point where they could easily construct a bridge over the River Thames. The earliest settlement lasted only a few years but thereafter grew into a major town and the capital of the Roman province of Britannia.

 The first Roman invasions of Britain were by Julius Caesar in 55BC and 54BC, but they were short-lived. Thereafter the expansion of the empire under Caesar’s military leadership, north to the Rhine and west to the Atlantic coast of Gaul, became legendary. As time went on the Roman aristocracy longed for new glories and the overthrow of British barbarians seemed an easy solution. The pretext presented itself in the form of restoring the exiled and compliant British tribal leader Vericus, who had been forced out of his kingdom in what is now Sussex. In 43AD, during the time of Emperor Claudius, an invasion force led by the general Plautius crossed the sea from Gaul. This time the Romans stayed and for almost four hundred years England became the most north-western part of the Roman Empire.

As they headed north, Plautius and his army pursued and then fought the local tribes. They soon arrived at the wide river Caesar had first recorded as ‘Thamesis’. Prior to the invasion the river was the border between different warring tribes. The area, with its poor clay soil, remained forested and largely unpopulated, being far from each of the tribes’ main settlements and therefore too difficult to defend. It 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 of subduing the local tribes, the invaders needed to maintain a land supply route back to Rome via Gaul, so the temporary pontoon bridge military engineers had erected over the Thames stayed and was rebuilt. Such a strategic site needed a staff to protect and maintain it and a 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 formally 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 then 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.