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Londinium by John Morris

Reblogged from Monkeypanic:
Londinium: London in the Roman Empire - John Robert Morris, Sarah Macready

(originally written March 2012)

 

The summer Olympics will be held in London this year, and no doubt the place will soon be a showcase for Europe’s most populous city and once the center of its own empire. This book explores the city’s humble beginnings as an outpost of the Roman empire, beginning first with Julius Caesar’s foray onto the island, and then more permanent encampments, followed by trading posts and eventually townships, beginning with Verulamium, which is now known as St.Albans… a town slightly northwest of metropolitan London.

 

map

 

Professor Morris explores some interesting aspects of early Roman London. One of my favorites was the Roman motivation to even expand into England:

 

In the first century A.D. the British isles were only very sparsely populated, with no real towns to speak of, minimal agriculture, and no finished goods that would interest the Romans. Julius Gaius Caesar’s efforts on Britain were mainly exploratory, and partly fueled by curiosity over the North Sea‘s "Bermuda Triangle" reputation among the ancients. Several Roman nautical expeditions had been launched from Gaul to explore the Northern Sea, and had never returned.

 

Julius Caesar made a cursory survey of southern England, as part of a tour of Gaul, but didn’t document very much about the trip, other than to say it was cold and heavily forested.Roman interests lay in the much more populous civilizations around the Mediterranean, so at first Britain was more of a curiosity than anything.

 

Emperors Augustus and Tiberius dabbled further with British exploration, after uncooperative Germans made northward expansion into central Europe more trouble than it was worth, namely after they devastated three entire legions at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest. It was only after England became known as a haven for criminals, dissidents, and slaves escaping from Gaul that the Romans decided to move in and take over.

 

Augustus established a permanent Roman base in Verulamium, just because it was a nice central location, and the local geography was conducive for construction (level, solid ground with easy access to building materials). Tiberius only saw Britain as an easy conquest, for the purposes of winning a victory parade back in Rome (always a political boon). Humorously, there was barely any local population to really fight, and no central authority to offer surrender, but Tiberius' supporters gave him a pass on this, and he got his parade.

 

Once a permanent Roman presence was established, trade with Gaul followed, and locals started taking part. Professor Morris discusses how progressive Roman policies integrated the British into their empire within just a generation or two. Roads were built connecting the future sites of Dover and Canterbury with Verulamium. Roman citizenship and all the rights it implied was held out as an incentive for indigenous persons to buy into the Roman way of life. As yet the new province had no administrative capital, and so London was conceived.

 

This puts London apart from all other European capital cities: that it was, from its very beginning, intended to be a center of government and a showcase of commerce and culture. Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and Rome itself all evolved organically from tiny towns to become metropoli. In this sense, London has more in common with more modern capitals like Canberra or Brasilia.

 

The Romans founded Londinium on a central location along the banks of the Thames, which could be easily supplied by shipping. The site of the city center was chosen because it was the best place to build a bridge... a particularly narrow section of river, with gently-sloping banks and firm ground. There’s a bit of Roman bridge-building history thrown in here, which I liked. Apparently bridging the Danube fifty years earlier had been a challenge for Roman engineers, because of that river’s swift current. They devised new techniques to overcome this, which were then implemented on the bridge across the Thames. Documentation of London’s earliest days is spotty, but we know that most of the population were Roman transplants, and that over the next century or so, quite a few locals were drawn in, but not all of them remained enamored with Roman rule.

 

There was an uprising in 58 A.D. One existing missive back to Rome describes how the riots were at first dealt with by the ruthless Cassius, but "[h]is severity proved intolerable, so at his own request, he was replaced by a milder Roman senator who restored harmony to the town with the aid of a battalion of guards and the execution of a few."

How nice for the Londoners that cooler heads prevailed.

 

Whoever was writing these reports back to Rome had a funny, understated humor. He later details an attack of locals on the budding township, in which "[t]hose who stayed, women, elderly people and people captivated by the delights of Londinium, were slaughtered by the enemy." Damn tourists; serves them right!  We see the reserved, dry-as-a-bone humor of the British seems to have existed at least as far back as the first century A.D. This somehow makes Monty Python’s Flying Circus seem more historic and educational to me.

 

In the context of the entire Roman Empire, Britain isn’t very big, so it’s a bit surprising Rome didn’t just completely overrun the entire British Isles? Morris explains that the relatively flat lowlands of England were well-suited for Romans to practice their favorite military techniques: large legions marching in formation. The locals never had a chance down there. In Caledonia (now Scotland), things were different... the topography of the highlands forced armies into narrow, easily-ambushed corridors, and prohibited large-scale head-on confrontations. Furthermore, the stony soil didn’t offer much vegetation for passing armies to live off. Add to this the fact that the geometry of the empire put Caledonia at the end of some very long and tenuous supply lines, which raised the cost and risk of military adventures north of Hadrian's Wall. History suggests the Romans certainly could have taken and held Caledonia, if sufficiently determined, but the fact is, there was no compelling strategic reason for them to spend resources in this way. The little-known countryside contained no resources and produced no finished products the Romans wanted.

 

As somebody with mixed Scottish and German heritage, I like to think of my ancient kin as having staved off the great empire of their day with their irrepressible fighting spirit, but Morris makes it clear that Caledonia remained out of Roman control mainly due to circumstances of geography. For the most part, Hadrian’s wall, and later Antonius’ wall were sufficient to secure the northern border, and that seems to be something both sides were willing to live with for the better part of 400 years.

 

map

 

wall

Hadrian's Wall

 

Unfortunately, around page 200, the book starts to get bogged down in what I consider to be excessive detail about what shards of pottery were found at specific locations around London, and what streets around town today correspond with various old Roman walls, ditches and thoroughfares.

 

coins

Roman pottery and coins discovered in Newport

 

The text assumes a lot of detailed knowledge about London geography and landmarks, because the book was assembled posthumously from Professor Morris’ lectures. He was an Ancient History lecturer at London University, so his presentations could safely assume his students knew where different main roads run, or where various well-known landmarks can be found. Unfortunately for a reader out in the American Pacific Northwest, the book was sorely lacking in maps to support the text. My eyes began to glaze over at this point, and I skimmed through about fifty pages or so before it got back on track with the bigger-picture history.

 

Over the last three hundred years of Roman rule, while much of the empire was embroiled in civil strife and war, Britain sat off on the fringes in relative peace. Okay, Picts from the North and Irish from the West would raid on occasion, and there was the infrequent uprising, but nothing compared to what Italy, Southern Germany and the Black Sea region were experiencing, where successive incursions by foreign invaders razed cities, raping and pillaging the population. As one of the more stable regions of the Roman world, the British economy boomed, largely owing to large government contracts for supplies in support of Roman troops in Gaul. Shipping goods from Londinium to the continental coast and then downriver to Cologne, Trier and the Rhineland was cheaper and less vulnerable than overland transport.

 

Thus, in a dynamic resembling Japan’s rapid postwar economic recovery supplying American forces in the Korean War, in less than two hundred years the British economy grew from practically nothing at all to the second largest commercial center in the Western empire. In its heyday (towards the end of the 2nd century), London was a showcase of merchant wealth, boasting some of the largest, and by all artistic accounts, most lavish mansions in all the Roman world.

 

mosaic

Mosaic floor remaining from a Roman villa at Littlecote

 

model

Model reconstruction of the Roman villa at Fishbourne

 

Alas, as empire came apart, Rome’s fiscal and political problems were inevitably felt in England. The defense spending which had propelled British commercial development dried up. Armies long stationed at Verulamium were deployed to the frontiers to fight the long losing struggle against the Goths and Huns, leaving Britain vulnerable to Pict and Irish raids.

 

Sometime between 350 and 400 A.D., Britain was politically cut loose from the empire to fend for itself. The era of local nobility, beginning with Vortigern, began and the Age of Londinium drew to a close. For various reasons Morris explores, the Christianity introduced by the Romans took root and persisted after Roman trade and political structures fell to ruin. The last twenty pages or so delve into the monastic movement, and the many complex ways Roman influence continued to be felt on into the Dark Ages. It strays a bit from the book’s focus, which is the city conceived and entirely constructed in an ancient forest, on the banks of an unknown river by Romans far from home, which endured twenty centuries as a cultural, political and commercial center, and which eventually became the nucleus of its own empire, some 1200 years after the last Romans had left.

 

I kind of painted all this with a broad brush. The book gets into a lot more specifics, so if you like more names and dates, you won’t be disappointed. I can never seem to remember all but the most repeated of these, so I don’t dwell on them. My only real complaint with the book is that it could have used a few more maps to support the text.