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London: A gift from the Romans

Updated Tuesday 1st August 2006

How Britain acquired its first city.

modern day London Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

London owes its origin to the Romans: there is no evidence of any permanent settlement in the area in pre-Roman times. But from AD 43, when the first buildings appeared, London has continued to grow and develop and a tremendous rate, meaning that much of Roman London is now buried up to twenty feet beneath the modern street level.

A bridge across the Thames was vital for the invading Roman army, as they moved north from their landing points on the south coast. The first London Bridge, close to the present one, is assumed to have been built in the year of the invasion, AD 43. But the Romans quickly grasped the trading potential of the site, as well as its military importance, and streets were soon laid out and substantial timber buildings put up. Docks were built on the banks of the river and London was linked to the rest of the province by great trunk roads which fanned out from the new city.

The Emperor Claudius had intended Colchester to be the capital of the new province, as it was the existing tribal power-base. But by around the year 60 the evidence suggests that London was chosen instead, presumably because of its much more advantageous location. The Roman historian Tacitus, who provides the first literary reference to London (Londinium),says that it was already packed with traders and a thriving commercial centre. However, the new city was short-lived. In AD 60 or 61 it was destroyed by Boudicca and her hordes, who burned it to the ground.

But London soon rose from the ashes, and an impressive building programme was embarked upon by the Romans. A Forum building was put up in around the year 80, only to be replaced in around AD 100 by one five times as big. By around AD 85 a Governor's palace had already been built. Then at the start of the second century a fort was constructed, whose garrison would have overseen the transportation of military supplies and acted as the governor's bodyguard. There was another great fire in around AD 125, and in the middle of the century some serious flooding. But London continued to grow, and at the end of the second century a wall was built around the city, parts of which can still be seen today. It enclosed an area of over three hundred acres, making London by far the biggest city in Britain, and the fourth largest ancient city north of the Alps.

Oxford Circus, London Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Museums in London

THE BRITISH MUSEUM

The British Museum contains some of the most spectacular treasures from Roman Britain, many of which were featured in the programme 'Coming of Age'. These spectacular hordes were stashed away in the dying days of Roman occupation, the owners presumably planning to return later to retrieve them. The remarkable late-fourth-century Thetford hoard was discovered in 1979, and contains some splendid gold jewellery (some of it unfinished), a set of thirty three silver spoons and a jewellery box made from shale. Perhaps the most breathtaking display is of the Mildenhall treasure, with its stunning silver-ware, including a silver dish two feet in diameter.

In the gallery you will also see the Classicianus tombstone (referred to in the programme 'Fact and Fable') and a selection of wooden writing tablets from Vindolanda Fort, near Hadrian's Wall. These were miraculously preserved in the water-logged soil, and are featured in the third programme about Hadrian's Wall.

There are many other displays, including jewellery, military artefacts and coins.

THE MUSEUM OF LONDON

The Roman galleries here provide an excellent introduction to Roman London. There are a number of models and reconstructions of the Roman city and of domestic interiors, many of which featured in the programme 'Coming of Age'. You can also see skulls thought to have been of victims of the Boudiccan massacre, and examples of the burnt remains found across London, conclusive proof of an enormous conflagration in around the year AD 60. The emphasis here is on placing the finds in context, so you get a very good idea of what life must have been like in the Roman City.

 

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