Londinium, the capital of Britannia

Two sections of Roman pavement, including this one, were discovered in 1841 at about 12 to 14 feet in depth when the French Protestant Church in Threadneedle Street was being demolished. Coins depicting Agrippa, Claudius, Domitian, Marcus Aurelius and the Constantines, together with fragments of frescoes were also found. These pavements are now preserved in the British Museum.

The Roman towns of Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Londinium were all destroyed during Boudicca’s rebellion of 60AD. Camulodunum was the original Roman capital of Britannia but it was inconveniently situated. By contrast, Londinium was strategically sited: a network of roads spread out in all directions from either end of its bridge over the Thames, and ships brought goods to its port. The necessity to rebuild the three towns provided the opportunity to move the capital of Britannia to Londinium. The previously modest settlement was to become a local copy of Rome, with many grand buildings to house the senior officials and provincial administrative offices.

It was rare for an important city in the Roman Empire to not be a caput civitatis – chief town – of its respective area. Camulodunum and Verulamium were ancient settlements, pre-dating the Romans, that each governed their local areas. Londinium was unique in the Roman Empire: it was an entirely new town that had not existed before their arrival and therefore had no region to govern. Yet after the rebellion it was to be rebuilt as the colonia (capital) of the new province of Britannia. The first settlement had been so completely destroyed in the rebellion that new streets had to be laid out, and they were on different alignments to what had existed before. The two exceptions were the two roads that formed a cross through the centre: the modern-day Cheapside, and Bishopsgate. At some time between 85 and 90AD a new bridge was built across the Thames, constructed of wood, and located approximately one hundred metres east of the current London Bridge.

New timber quays were constructed along the north riverbank to the east and west of London Bridge, forming wharves that were gradually lined by parallel warehouses. Trade flourished, with manufactured goods and Mediterranean foods imported from all parts of the Empire. Although the continuing military campaigns in the distant parts of Britain were far away, many of the supplies for the army from the Continent were channelled through Londinium, arriving either by ship or across the bridge. The town and its port were kept busy and wealthy.

The rebuilding of Londinium into a grand city did not happen quickly. Buildings were erected in the 60s and 70s, then replaced in the following decades and by later generations, particularly during the last decades of the 1st century and first decades of the next. In the period 80-100 many of the previously simple structures were upgraded. Public buildings were built in Kentish ragstone, brought by boat from a quarry at the River Medway near Maidstone. The previous timber-framed wattle and daub thatched cottages were replaced by others of plasterwork and tiled roofs. A defensive mound was created around the outside of the town. By 100AD Londinium was beginning to look like the type of Roman town we would normally imagine.

A large complex of grand government buildings covering five acres around a central courtyard were gradually constructed from around 70AD until the end of the century. It seems to have started as simple administrative offices, located above a goldsmith’s workshop. Over time it grew into a series of buildings and courtyards taking up a large block of the town where Cannon Street railway station now stands, with the Londinium to Westminster road along its northern side. Its southern side fronted on to the river, allowing the arrival of visitors and goods directly from ships.

The government buildings were probably the headquarters of the Provincial Consul of Britannia, the Provincial Procurator and treasury, the traffic prefect, and the postal service, together with the offices of the various administrative staff of each department. The imperial postal service was responsible for organising the delivery of urgent government communications by horse messenger relays or carriages, as well as less urgent or bulkier traffic carried by ox- or mule-pulled wagons. The traffic prefect controlled the maintenance of the provincial road network.

The basilica – the city hall – was the administrative centre of each Roman town, dealing with the local issues, as opposed to the wider government of the civitates or province as a whole. A vast three-story basilica was constructed in the centre of Londinium on the site of the modern-day Leadenhall Market. Work began in around 90AD and took 30 years to complete. Larger in area than the present St. Paul’s Cathedral it was the biggest north of the Alps, dominating the skyline of the town. Londinium was clearly being planned at that time as one of the greatest cities of the empire.

Larger towns such as Londinium were sub-divided into smaller administrative wards known as vicinia, with members known as vicini, headed by a magister who chaired a local committee. The town council, or ordo, consisted of a citizen assembly of at least a hundred free-born adult males and their role was to elect magistrates, or duumviri. Assembly councillors were unpaid for the time spent in carrying out their duties. Only those with sufficient wealth or income were eligible to become duumviri, with a qualification set according to the size of the candidate’s property, possibly measured by the number of roof tiles. Wealth was necessary because they were obliged to provide entertainment of gladiatorial games, horse racing, and theatrical performances for the town’s population from their own pocket. In addition to overseeing the welfare of the town and providing for certain services and entertainment the magistrates acted as judges in criminal cases of civil disputes between the town’s citizens.

The various officials and administrators overseeing the organisation and public works of Londinium were based in the basilica. There was the treasury and office of the police chief, various officials responsible for public baths, streets, aqueducts and water supply, markets, temples, wharves and shipping. Lawyers drew up contracts and represented the town in disputes with contractors. The frumentarii were responsible for ensuring there was a ready supply of corn, and olearii of oil. Inspectors were responsible for ensuring that bread and other foodstuffs were of the correct weight and quality. In some cases these tasks were dealt with by council members and in others by full-time civil servants. Much of the work, such as the upkeep and management of public buildings, was given over to sub-contractors. The town authorities also provided a health service in the form of public doctors, as did some temples for the poor, although the wealthier citizens employed their own.