ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 43, April 1999


From frontier town to stately capital

John Schofield looks at new evidence for Roman London, in the first of three articles on the archaeology of London

London was one of the great cities of the Roman Empire, and no city of Roman Britain has been so intensively researched. The most important recent fieldwork has included the excavation of the Roman port, the uncovering of several public and monumental complexes (including the forum and the amphitheatre), and, perhaps as telling, the recording of timber houses, shops and workshops on many sites.

Over a dozen parts of Roman London are now so well explored that it is possible to draw house-by-house plans of small localities, allowing us an extraordinary insight into the city nearly 2,000 years ago.

In the 1st century, Roman London developed on two previously unoccupied hills - Cornhill and Ludgate Hill, where St Paul's Cathedral now stands. Between the two ran a stream, the Walbrook. London quickly grew, however, and before long filled out much of the area of the present-day City of London, with an important outer district in Southwark. The town north of the Thames was contained within city walls in about AD200. It contained a mixture of monumental stone structures - public buildings and temples - and larger numbers of single-storey and two-storey buildings made of materials other than stone.

Most streets probably contained both housing and shops, although from excavated remains it is often hard to distinguish the two. Many Roman streets underlie modern streets, but today's are wider, with the result that the fronts of Roman buildings - from which it would be easier to tell a shop from a dwelling - have either been destroyed, or lie under present pavements and are rarely excavated. One possible shop was found under the forum, however, with a stock of grain, while a butcher's shop has recently been claimed in Southwark at a site on the Jubilee Line extension.

Throughout its history London has owed much to the road system which converged on the port, near the present-day London Bridge. Here goods and people came and went; and, then as now, there was a bridge across the Thames. What is probably part of a timber pier of the first bridge was seen at the foot of Fish Street Hill in 1981. Roman coins from under the bridge, found in river-dredgings, all predate about AD330, suggesting perhaps that the bridge no longer existed after that date.

The earliest revetment, at Regis House immediately west of the bridge on the north bank, dates to AD52. This was discovered in 1994 and is thought to be the earliest accurately-dated Roman structure in Britain. The Neronian quay which succeeded it consisted of a wall of timbers braced back into the riverbank, extending a considerable distance on either side of the bridge. This formed the basis of a monumental terracing of the slope. In the 120s, the whole waterfront downstream of the Walbrook was rebuilt considerably further out into the river. The latest extensions to the quays date from the 240s.

The Roman port, now excavated on many sites on the north bank, served as a distribution point into the province for foreign goods as well as for items from other parts of Britain. Among the numerous finds are crateloads of red samian pottery, amphorae containing fish products, oil and wine, figures of Venus from France, Carrara marble and stone artefacts from the Mediterranean, in addition to less expected finds such as a 3rd century seed fromBritain's earliest-known cucumber. From elsewhere in Britain came roof-slates from Wales, jet pins from Whitby and coal from Durham.

Behind the port, excavations have revealed that in the 1st century sections of several streets were so packed that the buildings were arranged with their thin ends to the street. Others had elaborate ranges of domestic and service rooms, with more refined decoration and corridors or verandahs; some probably also had upper floors. Occasionally buildings had cellars, in one case with scoops in the floor where wine jars once stood.

Some of the grandest structures, however, judging from their decoration, lay south of the river. Buildings of the late 1st century with wall plaster decorated in styles parallelled in Ostia and Rome have been excavated on the Winchester Palace site near Southwark Cathedral. Taken with discoveries of substantial stone buildings nearby and evidence of military occupation, these findings challenge the traditional interpretation of Southwark as a low status suburb. They suggest that at least parts of the civil and military administration were sited on the south bank.

London's growing status in the late 1st century was emphasised by the construction of a first forum on what is now Cornhill, and what has been interpreted as a palace (traditionally, the provincial governor's) now underneath Cannon Street railway station. During the early 2nd century a fort was established on the northwestern edge of the town, near the modern Barbican, perhaps for the bodyguard and staff of the governor. The second forum, four times the size of the first, was placed on the site of its predecessor.

Excavations in the 1980s established that the basilica (a kind of town hall), lying along one side of the forum, was the largest Roman building north of the Alps, measuring some 182yds by 60yds (167m by 54m). Along the other three sides lay colonnaded ranges.

An amphitheatre, provisionally of late 1st century date in timber and early 2nd century date in masonry, was discovered in 1987 south-east of the fort. The estimated dimensions of the arena are similar to the great amphitheatre at Caerleon, with an area of 7,200yds2 (6,000m2).

During the 3rd and 4th centuries, the evidence for life in London is fascinating but ambiguous. A monumental complex, never finished, which began to be constructed on the slope south of what is now St Paul's in the 290s was perhaps intended to be a palace for the usurper `emperor' Allectus, whose power base was in Britain. London's riverside city wall (as well as the Saxon shore forts around south-eastern Britain) may have been built at this period to further the secessionist cause.

London's quayside silted up during the 3rd century and evidence suggests that the flow of imports slowed down dramatically. This suggests that London had ceased being a major commercial centre. Also, many areas of 1st and 2nd century buildings are covered by `dark earth' of this date which denotes open space. This used to be thought to show that London was in decline. However, within these open spaces the city still retained a number of large buildings with mosaic floors; and one interpretation is that London became a kind of stately capital (like modern Canberra or Brasilia) with government and cultural functions, but little commerce. Southwark continued to thrive, perhaps more so than the city on the north bank.

Almost every week, some further detail is added by excavation ahead of development. At the same time, environmental archaeology is being employed to understand the nature of life in London. A study of the flora, sediments, molluscs and insects of the upper Walbrook valley, for example, showed how the earliest stages of the Roman settlement had an effect on the landscape. The water itself became more polluted and life-forms more tolerant of pollution multiplied. A number of plants appear that were hitherto unknown suggesting, perhaps, that they were introduced as part of the colonisation process, either deliberately or by accident.

Human skeletal evidence from London's Roman cemeteries is also beginning to be informative. On the whole, Roman Londoners were a little shorter than modern Britons and quite robust. A small proportion were involved in heavy physical labour from an early age. There may also be evidence for horse-riding and the equivalent of today's repetitive strain injuries. The population as a whole did not appear to have borne marks of violence. London, first a frontier town, then a great commercial centre, seems to have provided a secure and peaceful place for its citizens to live in for most of the first 400 years of its long history.

John Schofield works in the Department of Early London History and Collections of the Museum of London

NEXT MONTH: Saxon London

The 700 excavations in the Roman and later City of London, and over 2,000 excavations and observations in the Greater London area, are described in a series of three Archive Guides, published in 1998 by the Museum of London. The Museum is setting up the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, which will eventually be made accessible via the Internet. Further details:

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1999