Londinium was a settlement established on the current site of the City of London around AD 50. It served as a major commercial centre for the Roman Empire until its abandonment during the 5th century. Following its foundation in the mid-1st century, early Roman London occupied a relatively small area, roughly equivalent in size to Hyde Park at 350 acres (1.4 km2). The 19th-century antiquarian Roach Smith estimated its length from the Tower of London west to Ludgate at about one mile (1.6 km); and from London Wall in the north to the Thames bank around half a mile.
In around AD 60, about ten years after Londinium was founded, it was sacked by the Iceni led by their queen Boudica. Excavation has revealed extensive evidence of destruction by fire in the form of a layer of red ash beneath the city at this date. The city was rebuilt as a planned Roman town and recovered after perhaps ten years. During the later decades of the 1st century, Londinium expanded rapidly and quickly became Roman Britain's largest city. By the end of the 1st century, Londinium had replaced Camulodunum (modern Colchester) as the capital of Roman Britain. During the 2nd century, Londinium was at its height. Emperor Hadrian visited in 122, and probably as a result a number of impressive public buildings were constructed. At some point soon afterwards, a major fire destroyed much of the city. In the second half of the 2nd century, Londinium appears to have shrunk in both size and population. Although Londinium remained important for the rest of the Roman period, it appears never to have recovered fully from this slump, as archaeologists have found that much of the city after this date was covered in dark earth, which remained undisturbed for centuries.
Some time between 190 and 225, the Romans built the London Wall, a defensive wall around the landward side of the city. Along with Hadrian's Wall and the road network, the London Wall was one of the largest construction projects carried out in Roman Britain. The wall was about 5 km (3 mi) long, 6 metres (20 feet) high, and 2.5 metres (8 feet 2 inches) thick. The wall would survive for another 1,600 years and define the City of London's perimeters for centuries to come. The perimeters of the present City are roughly defined by the line of the ancient wall.
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- 1 Name
- 2 Foundation
- 3 Status of Londinium
- 4 History and development
- 5 Important buildings
- 6 The port of Londinium
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
The etymology of the name Londinium is unknown, but probably based on a pre-existing local toponym Londinion. Morphologically, this points to a structure of two suffixes, -in-jo-. However, this Londinium cannot be the immediate source of English London (Old English Lunden), as via i-mutation the name would have had to become Lyndon, pointing to an alternative British form Londonion;  alternatively, the local pronunciation by the Sub-Roman period may have changed pronunciation of Londinium to Lundeiniu, Lundein, avoiding i-mutation after the adoption of this name into Anglo-Saxon. Regardless of suffix structure, the root Lund- or Lond- remains without a widely accepted etymology. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae derives it from the name of an eponymous founder, King Lud.
Londinium was established as a town by the Romans after the invasion of 43 led by the Roman Emperor Claudius, most likely as a civilian settlement or civitas by c. AD 50. A wooden drain by the side of the main Roman road excavated at No 1 Poultry has been dated by dendrochronology to 47, which is likely to be the foundation date.
Prior to the arrival of the Roman legions, the area was almost certainly lightly rolling open countryside traversed by streams such as Walbrook. Londinium was established at the point where the Thames was narrow enough to build a bridge, but deep enough to handle seagoing marine vessels. Remains of a massive Roman pier base for a bridge were found in 1981, close to the modern London Bridge.
Archaeological excavation undertaken since the 1970s by the Department of Urban Archaeology of the Museum of London, now called MOLAS, has failed to unearth any convincing traces of military occupation on the site, so many archaeologists now believe that Londinium was the product of private enterprise. Its site on a busy river-crossing made it a perfect place for traders from across the Roman Empire to set up business.
Status of Londinium
The status of Londinium is uncertain. It was not the capital of a civitas, though Ptolemy lists it as one of the cities of the Cantiaci. Starting as a small fort guarding the northern end of the new bridge across the River Thames, it grew to become an important port for trade between Roman Britain and the Roman provinces on the continent. The lack of private Roman villas (plentiful elsewhere) suggests military or even Imperial ownership. At the time of the uprising of Boudica, Tacitus writes that "Londinium ... though undistinguished by the name of a colonia, was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels." In the years after the uprising, the provincial administration of Britain moved from Camulodunum (modern Colchester in Essex) to Londinium. The time of the move is not recorded, though 2nd century roofing tiles have been found marked P.PR.BR.LON – "The provincial procurator of Britain, at Londinium". Londinium is not recorded as being called the 'capital city' of Britain, but there are several strong indications for this proposition, such as the building of a Roman Governor's palace, the building of a military camp at the beginning of the 2nd century  and several tombstones belonging to members of a governor's staff. It has been assumed that the city became a colonia, as the early 4th century Verona List describes a bishop Adelphius as Adelphius episcopus de civitate colonia Londiniensium. In the 4th century, the Londinium received the title Augusta. Perhaps the town was promoted to a colonia.
History and development
Following its foundation in the mid-1st century, early Roman London occupied a relatively small area, roughly equivalent in size to Hyde Park at 350 acres (1.4 km2). The 19th-century antiquarian Roach Smith estimated its length from the Tower west to Ludgate at about one mile (1.6 km); and from London Wall in the north to the Thames bank around half a mile.
Archeologists have uncovered numerous goods imported from across the Roman Empire in this period, suggesting that early Roman London was a highly cosmopolitan community of merchants from across the Empire and implying that there was a local market for such objects.
In around 60, little more than ten years after Londinium was founded, it was sacked by the Iceni led by their queen Boudica. Excavation has revealed extensive evidence of destruction by fire in the form of a layer of red ash beneath the city at this date.
Boudica's forces, rebelling against Roman rule, first destroyed Camulodunum and then defeated the Roman legion sent from Lindum (Lincoln) to retrieve the city. They then turned their attention towards Londinium. The Roman general Gaius Suetonius Paulinus managed to send some troops to London before Boudica's much larger forces arrived. What happened next was recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus, in what was the first written record of London.
At first, he [Gaius Suetonius Paulinus] hesitated as to whether to stand and fight there [Londinium]. Eventually, his numerical inferiority – and the price only too clearly paid by the divisional commander's rashness – decided him to sacrifice the single city of Londinium to save the province as a whole. Unmoved by lamentations and appeals, Suetonius gave the signal for departure. The inhabitants were allowed to accompany him. But those who stayed because they were women, or old, or attached to the place, were slaughtered by the enemy.
Tacitus then states that the Romans responded to Boudica's attack by slaughtering as many as 70,000 Britons in the Battle of Watling Street. There is a longstanding folklore belief that this battle took place at King’s Cross, simply because as a medieval village it was known as Battle Bridge; Tacitus describes the site: "Suetonius chose a place with narrow jaws, backed by a forest" but does not mention the River Fleet, which flowed here.
After being sacked, the city was quickly rebuilt as a planned Roman town and recovered after perhaps ten years. During the later decades of the 1st century, Londinium expanded rapidly and quickly became Roman Britain's largest city. By the end of the 1st century, Londinium had replaced Colchester as the capital of Roman Britain.
2nd and 3rd centuries
During the 2nd century, Londinium was at its height. Emperor Hadrian visited in 122, and probably as a result a number of impressive public buildings were constructed. At some point soon afterwards, a major fire destroyed much of the city. Archeologists have discovered significant amounts of burnt debris from this period, although there is no mention of a fire by any classical writers.
Londinium appears to have recovered, however, and by about 140, it had reached its estimated population height of around 45,000 to 60,000 inhabitants. By the middle of the century it boasted major public buildings, including the largest basilica north of the Alps, a governor's palace, temples, bath houses, and a large fort for the city garrison.
Excavations during the 1980s uncovered a large Roman port complex near the present-day London Bridge as well as on the other side of the river at Southwark, confirming that, during this period, Londinium was an important commercial and trading centre.
In the second half of the 2nd century, Londinium appears to have shrunk in both size and population. The cause is unknown, but plague is considered a likely culprit, as it is known that between 165 and 190 the so-called Antonine Plague severely affected Western Europe. Another explanation put forward is that Emperor Hadrian's decision not to extend the empire any further may have caused London merchants to lose valuable contracts, causing the economy to slump.
Although Londinium remained important for the rest of the Roman period, it appears never to have recovered fully from this slump, as archeologists have found that much of the city after this date was covered in dark earth, which remained undisturbed for centuries.
Some time between 190 and 225, the Romans built the London Wall, a defensive wall around the landward side of the city. Along with Hadrian's Wall and the road network, the London Wall was one of the largest construction projects carried out in Roman Britain. The wall was about 5 km (3 mi) long, 6 metres (20 feet) high, and 2.5 metres (8 feet 2 inches) thick.
Although the exact reason for the wall's construction is unknown, it may have been connected with the invasion of northern Britain by Picts, who overran Hadrian's Wall in the 180s. Alternatively, many historians link the building of London Wall with the political crisis that had emerged in the 190s when two men—Septimius Severus, and the governor of Britain (and usurper) Clodius Albinus—both claimed the right to succeed as Emperor. The wall may have been constructed in the 190s on the orders of Albinus, who, in a power struggle with his rival, may have felt the need to protect his capital. Septimius eventually defeated his rival in 197.
The economic stimulus provided by the Wall and Septimius's campaigns of conquest in Caledonia appear to have revived London's fortunes somewhat in the early 3rd century. Archeological evidence points to renewed construction activity from this period. One of the reforms introduced by Severus in around 200 was the division of Roman Britain into two provinces: Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior, or Upper and Lower Britain. Londinium remained the capital of Britannia Superior, while Eboracum (York) became capital of Britannia Inferior.
The wall would survive for another 1,600 years and define the City of London's perimeters for centuries to come. The perimeters of the present City are roughly defined by the line of the ancient wall.
In 286 the usurper Carausius rebelled against Rome's rule and declared himself the Emperor of Roman Britain. His rule lasted for seven years before he was murdered by his treasurer Allectus, who assumed his position.
In 296 the general Constantius Chlorus invaded Britain to reclaim Britain for Rome. At this point, Frankish mercenaries employed by Allectus started to sack Londinium. They were interrupted in this task when a flotilla of Roman warships sailed up the Thames. According to the 4th century writer Eumenius "the ships reached London, found survivors of the barbarian mercenaries plundering the city, and when these began to seek flight, landed and slew them in the street".
The event was commemorated by a gold medallion known as the Trier medallion, which shows Constantius Chlorus on one side and on the other side a woman kneeling at the city wall welcoming a mounted Roman soldier. The medallion is so named because it was minted at Trier in what is now Germany. It was discovered in Arras in France in the 1920s.
Another memorial to the return of Londinium to Roman control was the construction of a new set of Forum baths, ca 300. Recognised only recently as bath structures, the buildings are thought to have been instrumental in restoring peace to the area. The scale of the building was not very grand, but it incorporated many elaborate and luxurious necessities of bath structures. The favoured room in the bath is the frigidarium which has two southern pools, and an Eastern natatio.
The first half of the 4th century appears to have been a prosperous time for Britain, for the villa estates surrounding London appear to have flourished during this period. It is certain that a Christian metropolitan bishop was seated in the city by this time. The asserted antiquity of the see of London depends upon the traditional names of sixteen archbishops listed in the 12th century by Jocelyne of Furness in his work Bishops, the sole source of these names; however, the earlier of the two bishops named Restitutus in Jocelyne's list is known to have existed, as he is named as attending the Council of Arles in 314.
By the middle of the century, however, Britain had become increasingly troubled by the incursions of barbarian invaders. From 340 onwards, northern Britain was attacked by Picts and Scots. In 360 a large-scale attack forced the Emperor Julian the Apostate to send troops to deal with the problem. In London at about this time, large efforts were made to improve the city's defences. At least twenty bastions were added to the city walls.
In 367 the Great Conspiracy – another large scale invasion by Picts, Scots and Saxons – occurred. This time the commander Count Theodosius was sent to deal with the problem and restore order, using Londinium as his base. In around 368 Londinium was renamed as Augusta. In the same century, Roman Britain was divided again, and Londinium became the capital of the province of Maxima Caesariensis.
However, the troubles in the empire continued, and in 382 British troops rebelled and elected their own "emperor", Magnus Maximus. He soon gathered all of the British-based troops he could and crossed the channel. He gained control of the western part of the empire before being defeated by Theodosius I in 388 at the Battle of the Save. Unfortunately this left few troops remaining to defend Britain.
By the end of the 4th century, many Romano-British towns, including London, were in decline. Evidence shows that many of London's public buildings had fallen into disrepair by this point.
Decline and abandonment
During the early 5th century, the Roman Empire continued its decline. Between 407 and 409 large numbers of barbarians penetrated Gaul and Spain and seriously weakened communication between Rome and Britain, on the western edge of the Empire. British troops elected their own leaders – the last of these, Constantine III, declared himself to be emperor of the Western Roman Empire and took an expeditionary force across the Channel, leaving Britain short of troops. In 410, the Romano-British authorities dropped their allegiance to Constantine and appealed to Emperor Honorius for help. He told them that the Britons would have to look after their own defences, meaning effectively that the Roman occupation of Britain officially came to an end (see End of Roman rule in Britain).
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Britain became increasingly vulnerable to attack by Germanic invaders, namely Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisii. There is very little evidence – either historical or archaeological – of what happened to London in this sub-Roman period. However, chaos in the collapsing Western Roman Empire and Roman Britain meant that long distance trade broke down, wages of Imperial officials were not paid, and London declined drastically.
According to early historians such as the Venerable Bede and Gildas, whose writings were later brought together in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 449 Angles, Saxons and Jutes were invited to Britain by King Vortigern as mercenaries to help defend Britain against Picts and Scots. Bede, writing in the 8th century, stated that Jutes settled in Kent, and in 457, led by brothers Hengist and Horsa, turned against the Britons who had invited them and defeated them at the Battle of Crecganford (Crecganford is thought to be modern Crayford) and the Britons fled to London in terror. After this, it is very unclear as to what happened to London, as the historical records are very patchy.
Archeologists have found evidence that a small number of wealthy families managed to maintain a Roman lifestyle until the middle of the 5th century, inhabiting villas in the southeastern corner of the city. By the end of the 5th century, however, the city was largely an uninhabited ruin.
The city limits
The Roman city covered about the area of the City of London. In the east from the London Tower to Ludgate (about Ludgate Hill in modern London) in the west, being around 1.5 kilometres (1,600 yd) along the Thames. In the north the city limits were at Bishopsgate and Cripplegate (near the Museum of London). The modern street London Wall marks that site. Outside the limits of the city wall there were suburbs and cemeteries. South of the river there was a substantial suburb at Southwark.
Around the area of modern day Cannon Street station, the remains of a large building have been found, often assumed to be the palace of the governor (praetorium). It had a garden, water pools and several large halls, some of them decorated with mosaic floors. The plan of the building is only partly preserved. The building was erected in the second part of the 1st century and was in use until around 300. It was rebuilt and renovated several times. Part of this structure, perhaps a portion the main entrance, is speculated to be the origin of the London Stone.
In the middle of the Roman town, the Forum was the largest marketplace building north of the Alps, measuring an almost perfect square 168 x 167 m. Two main building phases have been distinguished. The early forum, built after the time of the rebellion of Boudicca, had an open courtyard and several shops around it. The identification of this building as a forum has been disputed, and it has been argued that these were merely large warehouses. At the beginning of the 2nd century the complex was significantly enlarged. The forum still had an open courtyard with shops around, but also a large Basilica. The forum was in use until around 300.
In the north of the city remains of the amphitheatre have been found, some still visible under the modern Guildhall. Roman London had several bath houses or Thermae. It is often unclear whether the remains found belonged to public baths or private houses. A well-preserved public bath was excavated at Huggin Hill (near the Thames). It dates into the second part of the 1st century and was demolished around 200.
The city had several important temples. The restoration of a Jupiter temple is mentioned in an inscription, although this building has not yet been identified. Inscriptions mentioning a temple of Isis were found in Southwark. Temple buildings have been excavated near the oldest forum, a round temple west of the city, and perhaps at Peter's Hill, where strong foundations typical of temple buildings were found. The name of a god did not survive in any of these buildings. The only exception is the Temple of Mithras found in 1954 which still contains many high quality miniature votive sculptures.
In the 1st century, most houses of the city were built of wood; only in the 2nd century were they partly replaced by stone buildings. In the 2nd century, the city reached its highpoint; parts of Roman London were packed with dwellings such as Domus or townhouses. At the end of the 2nd century when many buildings were made of stone, the building density became lower. Instead of many small wooden houses, there were big, well-equipped stone buildings in at least some parts of the city. Excavations have shown that many of the buildings were richly adorned with wall paintings, floor mosaics and sub-floor hypocausts, demonstrating the wealth of the elite. The Roman house at Billingsgate was built next to the waterfront and had its own bath.
The port of Londinium
Construction of the port
The bulk of the Roman port was rebuilt after Boudicca’s rebellion when the waterfront was extended using gravel to allow a sturdy wharf to be built perpendicular to the shore. The port was built in four sections, starting upstream of the London Bridge and working down towards the Walbrook. The waterfront was constructed in three main phases, from the 1st to the 3rd century. Armor scraps, leather straps and military stamps on building timbers suggest that the site was constructed using military labor (Brigham).
Londinium was a prosperous community that relied heavily on its trade networks to support the lavish lifestyles of its inhabitants. Imports of fine pottery, jewelry and wine were in high demand because of the lack of native craftsmanship and materials for these goods (Hall & Merrifield). Only two large ancient buildings discovered at the waterfront are known to be warehouse structures. This find encourages the idea that Londinium was a large trade center, rather than a distribution center with holding areas like Ostia. Instead, goods moved in and out quickly and nothing needing to be stored (Brigham).
The first extensive archaeological review of the Roman city of London was done in the 17th century after the Great fire of 1666. The extensive rebuilding of London in the 19th century which continued into the 20th century allowed for large parts of the old London to be recorded and preserved while modern updates were made. Major finds from Roman London, including mosaics, wall fragments, and old buildings, have been housed in the British Museum and the Guildhall Museum (Hall & Merrifield). In the 1970s archaeologists began the first intensive excavation of the waterfront sites of Roman London. Their discoveries revealed that the port was built and expanded rapidly, flourished, and quickly declined in the 5th century (Milne). What was not found during this time has been built over making it very difficult to study or discover anything new (Haverfield).
- This etymology was first suggested in 1899 by d'Arbois de Jubainville and was generally accepted (as by F. Haverfield, "Roman London" in The Journal of Roman Studies, 1 (1911:141–172) p. 145
- this is the argument made by Jackson, Kenneth H. (1938). "Nennius and the 28 cities of Britain". Antiquity 12: 44–55., and accepted by Coates, Richard (1998). "A new explanation of the name of London". Transactions of the Philological Society 96 (2): 203–229. doi:10.1111/1467-968X.00027.
- Peter Schrijver, Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages (2013), p. 57.
- Summary of the excavation reveals much about the planning of Londinium[dead link]
- See Subterranean rivers of London
- Wacher, Towns of Roman Britain, 88–90
- Wacher, Towns of Roman Britain, p. 85
- Wacher: The Towns of Roman Britain, 108
- The tradition is not supported by any historical evidence and is rejected by modern historians: see 'Highbury, Upper Holloway and King's Cross', Old and New London: Volume 2 (1878:273–279). Date accessed: 26 December 2007.
- The archeologists' 'Hadrianic fire'
- "Timeline of Romans in Britain". Channel4.com. Retrieved 2012-08-24.
- Previously the remains were supposed to have been part of the forum and market.
- The status of Roman London www.jim-riddell.com (web.archive.org)
- Museum of London – Roman London: A Brief History www.museumoflondon.org.uk
- P. Marsden, The Excavation of a Roman Palace Site in London, In: Trans. London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 1961–71, 26 (1975:1–102).
- P. Marsden, The Roman Forum Site in London. Discoveries before 1985, London 1987 ISBN 0-11-290442-4
- Billings, Malcolm (1994), London: a companion to its history and archaeology, ISBN 1-85626-153-0
- Brigham, Trevor. 1998. “The Port of Roman London.” In Roman London Recent Archeological Work, edited by B. Watson, 23–34. Michigan: Cushing–Malloy Inc. Paper read at a seminar held at The Museum of London, 16 November.
- Hall, Jenny, and Ralph Merrifield. Roman London. London: HMSO Publications, 1986.
- Haverfield, F. "Roman London." The Journal of Roman Studies 1 (1911): 141–72.
- Inwood, Stephen. A History of London (1998) ISBN 0-333-67153-8
- John Wacher: The Towns of Roman Britain, London/New York 1997, p. 88–111. ISBN 0-415-17041-9
- Gordon Home: Roman London: A.D. 43–457 Illustrated with black and white plates of artefacts. diagrams and plans. Published by Eyre and Spottiswoode (London) in 1948 with no ISBN.
- Milne, Gustav. The Port of Roman London. London: B.T. Batsford, 1985.
- John Timbs (1867), "Roman London", Curiosities of London (2nd ed.), London: J.C. Hotten, OCLC 12878129
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Londinium.|
-  – From Roman London, History of World Cities
- Roman London – From Britannia.com
- The eastern cemetery of Roman London: excavations 1983–1990 Museum of London Archive