You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
Museum of London: pre-Roman shield and swords found in the River Thames
Whether the Romans founded Londinium as an entirely new town or developed an existing settlement is still a matter for debate. The finding of votive offerings of weapons in the river banks indicates that the area surrounding Londinium was intensely visited before their arrival. The Celts worshipped rivers and other elements of the landscape; in this they were not very dissimilar from the Romans who believed in the existence of genius loci, the protective spirit of a place. It appears that the Thames acted as a natural frontier between the Trinobantes who had their capital at Camulodunum (Colchester) and the Cantii (after whom Kent is named) whose capital was Durovernum (Canterbury).
Battersea Shield: (left) copy at the Museum of London; (right) detail from the original at the British Museum
Perhaps the finest example of Celtic metalworking, this shield was found at Battersea, west of Londinium on the southern bank of the Thames. Its dating varies from the IVth century BC to the Augustan age. Its symmetrical and neat design shows familiarity with classical decorative patterns, but these could have been known prior to the first contact with the Romans which occurred during Julius Caesar's expeditions in Britain in 54 and 53 BC. The shield is too thin to have actually been used in combat, which suggests it was made for parades or directly for a votive offering. You may wish to see the Waterloo Helmet in the introductory page, another Celtic votive offering which was found in the Thames.
London Bridge on approximately the site of the Roman bridge across the River Thames
The development of the town was most likely due to its being located at a point where the River Thames was fordable or its banks were suitable for some sort of ferry service. The town stood on the northern bank; the Romans initially built a pontoon bridge to facilitate the movement of their legions and later on a permanent timber bridge supported by piles. An outpost on the southern bank protected the access to the bridge.
Roman wall with medieval additions near the Tower of London with a XXth century statue of Emperor Trajan
The wall near the Tower of London marked the eastern limit of Londinium, which became an important Roman town shortly after the invasion of Britain ordered by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. The Romans needed a safe place where their legions could cross the Thames. It is likely that initially Londinium was protected by wooden palisades.
Roman wall with medieval additions at Cooper's Row
The books by Cornelius Tacitus provide a rather detailed account of the first period of the Roman rule in England. He wrote them in ca 100, but he could count on a reliable source of information being the son-in-law of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a general who was governor of Britain in 77-81. Tacitus described Londinium on the eve of its destruction by Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, who promoted a widespread revolt against the Romans in 60 AD.
Suetonius Paulinus (the Roman military commander in Britain) marched straight through the midst of the enemy upon London; which, though not distinguished by the title of colony, was none the less a busy centre, chiefly through its crowd of merchants and stores. Once there, he felt some doubt whether to choose it as a base of operations; but, on considering the fewness of his troops (..) he determined to save the country as a whole at the cost of one town. The laments and tears of the inhabitants, as they implored his protection, found him inflexible: he gave the signal for departure, and embodied in the column those capable of accompanying the march: all who had been detained by the disabilities of sex, by the lassitude of age, or by local attachment, fell into the hands of the enemy. A similar catastrophe was reserved for the municipality of Verulamium (St. Albans); as the natives, with their delight in plunder and their distaste for exertion, left the forts and garrison-posts on one side, and made for the point which offered the richest material for the pillager and was unsafe for a defending force. It is established that close upon seventy thousand Roman citizens and allies fell in the places mentioned. For the enemy neither took captive nor sold into captivity.
Tacitus - Annals - Book XIV - Loeb Edition
Tomb of Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus: (left) cast of inscriptions which were reused in the walls near Cooper's Row; (right) British Museum: reconstructed tomb
Classicianus was procurator (officer in charge of financial affairs) of Roman Britain from 61 to his death in 65. According to Tacitus he suggested Emperor Nero that it would be well to wait for a new legate (to replace Suetonius Paulinus); who, lacking the bitterness of an enemy and the arrogance of a conqueror, would show consideration to those who surrendered. Classicianus resided in Londinium and promoted its reconstruction. His funerary monument was erected by his wife Julia Pacata, daughter of Julius Indus from Augusta Treverorum (Trier), the founder of Ala Gallorum Indiana, an auxiliary unit of cavalrymen from Gaul. The reference shows the importance of non-Roman auxiliary troops stationed on the Rhine border in the conquest of Britain.
The lettering of the inscriptions is very fine; the upper part of the decoration of the reconstructed tomb brings to mind those at Pompeii.
Tower of a small Roman fort near the Museum of London
The sections of Roman walls upon which the medieval ones were built are dated the end of the IInd century AD, whereas a small fort at the north-western end of the enclosure was most likely built at the suggestion of Emperor Hadrian who visited Britain in 122 AD. The fort housed soldiers at the order of the Roman civilian officers of Londinium. The image used as background for this page shows a cast of a bronze head of Emperor Hadrian at the Museum of London; it was found near London Bridge.
Museum of London: (left) tombstone of Vivius Marcianus a member of Legio II Augusta; (right) relief of a soldier with a short sword and a studded strap, probably from a tombstone
Londinium did not house a large military garrison and therefore a limited number of tombstones related to soldiers and officers were found in its vicinity. Legio II Augusta took part in the conquest of Britain by Claudius. It was stationed for a long time at Isca Augusta (Caerleon) in order to control the tribes living in the mountains of Wales. Vivius Marcianus was most likely an officer of a vexillatio, a detached regiment.
British Museum: sarcophagus found at Haydon Square, not far from Cooper's Row; it contained a lead coffin with the skeleton of a boy of ten or twelve years who presumably was portrayed on the box
Sarcophagi were widely used in the Roman Empire, especially after the Ist century AD, but they have been rarely found north of the Alps or in peripheral provinces of the Empire, e.g. Morocco. That shown above was made using a local sandstone by a sculptor who was familiar with typical features of Roman sarcophagi, i.e. the portrait of the dead in a central medallion (clipeus - round shield) and a decorative pattern based on strigiles, scrapers with a curved blade used to remove sweat or oil from the skin.
Ruins of the amphitheatre beneath Guildhall Yard
In 1988 evidence of an amphitheatre was discovered within the Roman city walls. It is dated early IInd century AD, so it could have been built at the time of Hadrian's visit. We know that his journeys were the occasion for the construction of public facilities and monuments in many towns of the Empire, e.g. Pergamum, Jerash and Leptis Magna. Some of them were meant to celebrate his visit, others were ordered by him. The amphitheatre of Londinium could house an audience of 6,000 and it testifies to the importance achieved by the town. It must be noted that gladiatorial combats were rarely depicted in mosaics and reliefs found in Britain, which suggests they were not as popular as in other provinces of the Empire, including Germany (see the mosaics at Nennig and at Bad Kreuznach).
|Other ancient amphitheatres in this web site:|
The Colosseo of Rome
The Amphitheatre of Albano
The Amphitheatre of Capua
The Amphitheatre of Catania
The Amphitheatre of Pompeii
The Amphitheatre of Syracuse
The Amphitheatre of Sutri
The Amphitheatre of Urbs Salvia (Urbisaglia)
The Amphitheatre of Pola in Istria
The Amphitheatre of Salona in Dalmatia
The Amphitheatre of Arles in France
The Amphitheatre of Nīmes in France
The Amphitheatre of Trier in Germany
The Amphitheatre of Caerleon in Wales
The Amphitheatre of Italica in Spain
The Amphitheatre of Merida in Spain
The Amphitheatre of Tarragona in Spain
The Amphitheatre of Caesarea Maritima in Israel
The Amphitheatre of Mactaris (Makhtar) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Thysdrus (El Djem) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Uthina (Oudna) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Leptis Magna in Libya
Virtual reconstruction of the amphitheatre
Tacitus provided us with a lot of information on the events of the Ist century AD, but written sources for other periods of the history of Roman Britain are rather scarce. We know that in ca 296 Londinium was punished by Constantius Chlorus, one of the Tetrarchs, for having supported the attempts by Carausius and Allectus to establish a separate empire in Britain and Gaul. This might have led to the destruction of the Forum of the town. The base of an arch of the basilica of the Forum was found in the 1880s during the construction of Leadenhall Market.
Londinium recovered at least in part its importance and coins of the time of Emperor Valentinian I (ca 368) show that it was renamed Augusta, a sign of the favour it enjoyed at the imperial court.
Museum of London: relief with four goddesses which was reused as building material in the riverside wall at Blackfriars (IIIrd century)
The worship of three mother goddesses (matres or matrones in Latin) was widespread among the Celts and it continued after the Roman conquest as attested by their depiction on many votive altars. Reliefs portraying three seated goddesses symbolizing fertility can be seen in Germany, France and at Cirencester. In the relief found in London they are four, perhaps an indication that their worship was merged with that of the personified Four Seasons who also were regarded as a symbol of fertility.
Londinium was a cosmopolitan town; initially because the Roman legionaries and the civilians who followed them came from many parts of the Empire; later on because its location along a key road (today known as Watling Street) which linked the ports in Kent with Central England and a wealthy economy attracted merchants and skilled workers. In 212 the concession of Roman citizenship to all free men of the Empire by Emperor Caracalla facilitated this trend. The newcomers brought their religious practices with them.
Museum of London: statues of Mithra, Minerva and Mercury which were found in the area of the mithraeum
The worship of Mithra is clearly due to military or civilian immigrants, those of Minerva and Mercury are more likely the result of a merger between local deities and those of the Greek/Roman pantheon. At Bath, Sulis, a local goddess protecting a thermal spring, was renamed Sulis Minerva and a similar event might have occurred at Londinium. Mercury was associated with a Celtic horned god which explains why he was portrayed next to a ram: this can be observed also in reliefs in Germany and France.
(left) Museum of London: statue of Bacchus/Dionysus found in the area of the mithraeum; (right) British Museum: mosaic portraying Bacchus/Dionysus (found in Leadenhall Street in 1803, highly restored)
Wine was a very expensive commodity for the inhabitants of Londinium, but towards the end of the IIIrd century they had more opportunities to indulge in the pleasure of drinking; this because viticulture was introduced in the valleys of the Rivers Mosel and Rhine and from there barrels of wine could easily reach Britain on board of ships.
Museum of London: floor mosaics: (left) from Watling Court (ca 100); (right) from Milk Street (IInd century)
Floor mosaics are the element of a Roman building which have best withstood the ravages of time, because of the effective technique which was employed in laying them down. Decoration came as a consequence, but was not the key objective of the floor mosaic. That at Watling Court with its simple black and white pattern reflected the fashion which prevailed in Rome, even in the houses of the very wealthy, e.g. at Villa di Livia. The use of a more complex coloured decoration is typical of provincial towns.
Museum of London: reconstruction of a Roman room of ca 300 AD based on the Bucklersbury mosaic; some of its decorative elements bring to mind the floor mosaic of the "lararium" of Villa dei Volusii near Rome
This floor mosaic was unearthed while undertaking work at Bucklersbury (near the Mansion House), while building Queen Victoria Street in 1869. During the excavations the mosaic was on view to the public for three days, during which time it was apparently seen by about 50,000 people. The finding showed that the area of the ancient Roman town had the potential for becoming an archaeological one. Authorities were not able to stop the construction of new buildings in this highly-prized area of the City, yet some care was paid when laying down their foundations in order to identify reliefs, statues and other remains of Londinium.
The wicker armchairs in the reconstruction of a room at the Museum of London are based on reliefs found at Trier which provide interesting details on the life in a rich Roman house in a northern province of the Empire.
British Museum: bronze small statue of an archer, perhaps Hercules in his Sixth Labour while shooting at the Stymphalian birds, found in 1842 at Cheapside
The classical subject and the fine execution of this small statue suggest it was made outside Britain, possibly in Athens or another Mediterranean location which shipped these luxury objects to the other parts of the Empire. Wrecks carrying similar small bronze statues have been found at Mahdia in Tunisia (it opens in another window) and near Marseille.
Minor ancient materials which were found during the excavations of the mithraeum in 1954
The prosperity of Londinium was based on its providing a bridge, not only in material sense, between the territories south of the Thames and those north of it. The Saxon kingdoms which were established in the VIth century in most of England broke the unity of the country and Londinium returned to be a frontier town; its remaining inhabitants lived to the west of the Roman town. Lundenburg (medieval London) was founded in ca 880 within the Roman walls by Alfred the Great, King of Wessex who is regarded as the first King of England.
Occasionally some archaeological findings in London were not related to Londinium, but to forgotten collections of antiquities, in this case that gathered by Thomas Howard, second Earl of Arundel (1585-1641).
Plan of this section:
Aquae Sulis (Bath Spa)
Isca Augusta (Caerleon)
Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester) and nearby Fishbourne Palace
Portus Adurni (Portchester)
Venta Belgarum (Winchester)
Verulamium (St. Albans)
Roman Villas on Vectis (Isle of Wight)
Roman Villa of Lullingstone
Roman Villa of Bignor
Roman Villas in Dorset/Somerset