Excavating Londinium — London in the Roman World by Dominic Perring review

Dominic Perring provides a meticulous and exhilarating account of London’s early history, which often leaves the reader dazzled by the way the evidence for the life of the city has been brought together and presented to reveal its past.

Plan of Roman London
'Plan of Roman London', (1897). Credit: The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo.

‘Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ Samuel Johnson’s famous statement about eighteenth-century London certainly could not have been asserted of the site of the ancient town. It only sprang into existence after Roman imperial ambitions put Londinium on the map as a military settlement around the time of the invasion of Britain by the emperor Claudius in AD 43. Curiously, it’s not even known for certain how that Roman name of London was pronounced. The assumption has long been that it would have followed the Roman pronunciation of towns such as Corfīnium that were pronounced with a long medial ‘i’; but in fact the possible Celtic origin of the name (landa + onyo, the place of low-lying open land), and, one might argue, the weak last syllable in the eventual form of ‘London’ make a short ‘i’ much more likely.

The pronunciation of Londinium is not a question tackled (though the possible origin of the name is) in Dominic Perring’s superbly readable, up-to-date, comprehensive and beautifully illustrated account of the history of Roman London. Perring’s aim is to present the story of the city through archaeological evidence, much of which is very recent and vigorously ongoing. It’s easy to forget, as he reminds us, that London, whose area in ancient times was no bigger than that of Hyde Park and never contained more than 60,000 inhabitants, is one of the most intensely studied archaeological sites in the world today. Thousands of reports of new excavations, many still awaiting publication, have been produced in recent decades. Over this time archaeological science has made considerable progress, so that methods such as accurate tree-ring dating — dendrochronology — are able to provide a solid chronological basis for comparison with the textual record of events, notably that found in Tacitus’s resonant account of the life of his father-in-law Agricola, who served as Roman governor of Britain some two decades after the revolt led by Boudica

Many questions remain, and Perring is keen to ask them. ‘Only fourteen ancient texts mention the city, offering a thin and unreliable framework,’ Perring notes; sources that treat London as their subject are far later, with nothing published until the discovery of a Roman cemetery in 1576. The wealth of finds uncovered during the transformation of the City in the nineteenth century led to a renewed interest in London’s history. An enjoyable dimension of this book is its account of the sense of excitement people felt at rediscovering ancient Roman London in Victorian times. Perring also writes with expertise and perspicuity about the benefits and disadvantages of rescue archaeology, and of what can be known or surmised about pre-Roman London.

But how did the city come into being in the first place? It has traditionally, and reasonably, been supposed that London began life as a military site, but the dearth of finds of military equipment seems to tell against such a view. The theory that the city was created as a forward trading post that served Rome’s major Roman settlements inland such as the city of Camulodunum, modern-day Colchester, became popular in the 1980s; but in 2007 a team uncovered by chance the remains of Roman defensive ditch fortifications near Cannon Street and Cornhill, which now seem to prove that an enclosure was built, beginning around 43 BC, to house a force numbering around 20,000 men. 

The argument and topography are presented in this book with exemplary detail and care. We learn that within a mere decade this military encampment had turned into Britain’s largest settlement, with housing blocks, beaching facilities, granaries, bathhouses, temples, and a bustling forum (now Gracechurch Street) surrounded by stores, offices, and workshops. But aside from the evidence of archaeology, the narrative history of London, as told pre-eminently by Tacitus, begins only a decade after the establishment of the Roman settlement, with the bloody and dramatic events surrounding the revolt of Boudica. This arose after Prasutagus, a Roman puppet ruler and king of the Iceni tribe based in East Anglia, died in 60AD. Although he had taken the trouble to name the emperor Nero as his heir along with his daughters, Roman officials plundered his land and property, as well as those of his fellow-chiefs. Prasutagus’s wife Boudica objected; and her complaint was met, according to Tacitus, with awful and humiliating reprisals. She was flogged, her daughters were raped, and her kinsmen were enslaved. Boudica then incited her own and allied British tribes to overthrow Roman rule. After razing Camulodunum and annihilating the Ninth Legion in the process, she led her forces to Londinium. 

The Roman legionary commander Suetonius Paulinus, fresh from subduing the druids of Anglesey, headed south to discover the situation; but after assessing his chances of success, he chose to leave London to its fate. ‘The residents were allowed to accompany him,’ writes Tacitus, ‘but those who stayed because they were women, or old, or attached to the place, were slaughtered.’ A layer of red ash and soot confirms that the city, now home to a community of perhaps 15,000 soldiers, officials, and their families — Tacitus’s claim that 70,000 Romans and provincials were savagely slaughtered is an exaggeration — was burned to the ground. Excavations show that the conflag­ration was wholesale; and burnt deposits from the period extend as far as Putney and Staines, suggesting the victorious Britons forged onwards across the Thames towards Silchester. Paulinus returned with the Fourteenth Legion, and despite being heavily outnumbered, his disciplined Roman forces routed the Britons, killing tens of thousands of the tribespeople (again Tacitus’s figure of 80,000 seems heavily exaggerated).

Despite the evident hostility of the natives of Britain, the Romans clearly decided it was worth returning to restore London as a settlement. Perring details the significant works of reconstruction, made possible by feats of Roman military engineering, that archaeology shows to have been undertaken already in the 60s AD: massive quays, warehouses, wells, roadworks, and heated bathhouses have been uncovered from that decade. The following years saw the erection of London’s first amphitheatre, a venue both for gladiatorial entertainment and for public executions. New provincial governors were appointed, and were inclined to leave their own mark on the growing city. By the 80s AD it is possible to suppose that London was identified as Britain’s capital city (though the evidence for that formal status is not clearly indicated until the second century, perhaps by the time of the visit in 122 by the emperor Hadrian). 

London was to remain Roman Britain’s capital city through the four centuries that followed, during which the city’s fortunes ebbed and flowed. Perring offers a sure and fascinating a guide to those centuries, just as he does to the earliest, always basing his narrative on careful assessments and descrip­tions of the latest archaeological evidence. This book provides a meticulous and exhilarating account, which often leaves the reader dazzled by the way the evidence for the life of the city has been brought together and presented to reveal its history. We sense we have entered a Roman world that is irretrievably lost, but that comes to vibrant and tangible life as the secrets that lie beneath London’s streets continue to emerge into the light.

Author

Armand D'Angour