As I explained in my introduction to the City of London, it was the Romans who first laid the foundation stones for the metropolis that we call London today.
After the failed attempts by Julius Caesar to conquer Britain in 55 and 54 BC, Emperor Claudius brought a larger army and made a successful invasion in 43 AD. He landed on the Kent coast near Richborough and headed towards the River Thames, where, after another successful battle, he was able to cross the river somewhere near Westminster.
It wouldn’t have taken him long to realise the strategic location of a place just downstream at where the river narrowed. Not only could the river be bridged, but it was also navigable up to this point, and so near to where London Bridge stands today, he set up camp on the north side of the river.
The location was also suitable for expanding a road system that could spread out across the country, and it wasn’t long before Londinium became an important trading post, both by road and by river. As the town grew though, so did the opposition to the conquerors and a revolt led by Boudicca left Londinium practically in ruins. However, there were very few casualties and the town was soon re-built.
The new town incorporated a forum, an amphitheatre and a fort, all of which was enclosed by a wall. Although only remnants of the wall remain, the boundary still represents, more or less, the City of London’s boundary today. It’s also worth noting that Roman London extended across to Southwark thanks to the first London Bridge, but all the main public buildings were located on the northern side of the river.
Roman Londinium probably peaked at around 200 AD, and then, for various reasons, started to decline until the Roman withdrawal from Britain around 410 AD. The town would have still continued to exist for a while but eventually it was totally abandoned.
Most of what’s left of Londinium lies buried underground, but there are still some remains that are worth checking out.
There are still parts of the Roman Wall that can be seen, most notably at Tower Hill. There are two sections to look out for here, the most obvious (and best one) being the one next to the Tower Hill underground station. In front of it is a bronze statue believed to be of Trajan, Roman Emperor between 98 and 117 AD. Before you get too excited it’s a 20th century copy of a marble statue in Naples, and was discovered in a scrap yard by ‘Tubby Clayton’, the founder of Toc H. The other section is in nearby Cooper’s Row behind the Grange City Hotel.
There are some more sections of the wall worth seeing in the north-western corner of the city, but before I go any further, it has to be pointed out that what remains of the Roman Wall has often been used as a base for building on top of it, such as in Noble St. Here you can see where the Roman Wall was used as the lower section of 19th century buildings that were reduced to rubble during the Blitz.
On the other side of the road called London Wall there are remains of what was originally the Roman Fort and you can see how it was converted to build towers during the Middle Ages.
While you’re around this area, it has to be worth paying a visit to the Museum of London which can not only tell the story of Roman London better than I can, but also has a collection of Roman objects that will bring Londinium to life.
Just a short distance away is Guildhall, where, prior to the construction of the Guildhall Art Gallery in 1988, excavations revealed part of the Amphitheatre, which is now open to visitors free of charge.
Talking of excavations, bomb damage from WWII left much of the City of London in ruins, and between 1952 and 1954 archaeologists unearthed some ruins of the Temple of Mithras in Walbrook. The problem London has with these sort of finds is that they get in the way of re-development, but in 2010 Bloomberg acquired the site and incorporated the temple into the design of their new European headquarters. Not only that, they allow the public to visit free of charge, providing you book in advance.
In all probability there are more undiscovered Roman remains lurking below the streets of London, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the areas was around Leadenhall Market. It’s intriguing to think that this area is where the Basilica (city hall) and Forum (market place) were located almost 2,000 years ago. It would have been the centre of public activity back then, and with the Royal Exchange, Mansion House, Bank of England and the modern skyscrapers of the financial institutions all close by, it seems as though it’s not that much different today.