Roman London

Old and New London: Volume 1. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Walter Thornbury, 'Roman London', in Old and New London: Volume 1, (London, 1878) pp. 16-22. British History Online [accessed 28 May 2024].

Walter Thornbury. "Roman London", in Old and New London: Volume 1, (London, 1878) 16-22. British History Online, accessed May 28, 2024,

Thornbury, Walter. "Roman London", Old and New London: Volume 1, (London, 1878). 16-22. British History Online. Web. 28 May 2024,

In this section



Buried London—Our Early Relations—The Founder of London—A distinguished Visitor at Romney Marsh—Cæsar re-visits the "Town on the Lake"—The Borders of Old London—Cæsar fails to make much out of the Britons—King Brown—The Derivation of the name of London —The Queen of the Iceni—London Stone and London Roads—London's Earlier and Newer Walls—The Site of St.Paul's—Fabulous Claims to Idolatrous Renown—Existing Relics of Roman London—Treasures from the Bed of the Thames—What we Tread underfoot in London —A vast Field of Story.

Eighteen feet below the level of Cheapside lies hidden Roman London, and deeper even than that is buried the earlier London of those savage charioteers who, long ages ago, bravely confronted the legions of Rome. In nearly all parts of the City there have been discovered tesselated pavements, Roman tombs, lamps, vases, sandals, keys, ornaments, weapons, coins, and statues of the ancient Roman gods. So the present has grown up upon the ashes of the past.

Trees that are to live long grow slowly. Slow and stately as an oak London grew and grew, till now nearly four million souls represent its leaves. Our London is very old. Centuries before Christ there probably came the first few half-naked fishermen and hunters, who reared, with flint axes and such rude tools, some miserable huts on the rising ground that, forming the north bank of the Thames, slopes to the river some sixty miles from where it joins the sea. According to some, the river spread out like a vast lake between the Surrey and the Essex hills in those times when the half-savage first settlers found the low slopes of the future London places of health and defence amid a vast and dismal region of fen, swamp, and forest. The heroism and the cruelties, the hopes and fears of those poor barbarians, darkness never to be removed has hidden from us for ever. In later days monkish historians, whom Milton afterwards followed, ignored these poor early relations of ours and invented, as a more fitting ancestor of Englishmen, Brute, a fugitive nephew of Æneas of Troy. But, stroll on where we will, the pertinacious savage, with his limbs stained blue and his flint axe red with blood, is a ghost not easily to be exorcised from the banks of the Thames, and in some Welsh veins his blood no doubt flows at this very day. The founder of London had no historian to record his hopes—a place where big salmon were to be found, and plenty of wild boars were to be met with, was probably his highest ambition. How he bartered with Phænicians or Gauls for amber or iron no Druid has recorded. How he slew the foraging Belgæ, or was slain by them and dispossessed, no bard has sung. Whether he was generous and heroic as the New Zealander, or apelike and thievish as the Bushman, no ethnologist has yet proved. The very ashes of the founder of London have long since turned to earth, air, and water.

No doubt the few huts that formed early London were fought for over and over again, as wolves wrangle round a carcass. On Cornhill there probably dwelt petty kings who warred with the kings of Ludgate; and in Southwark there lurked or burrowed other chiefs who, perhaps by intrigue or force, struggled for centuries to get a foothold in Thames Street. But of such infusoria History (glorying only in offenders, criminals, and robbers on the largest scale) justly pays no heed. This alone we know, that the early rulers of London before the Christian era passed away like the wild beasts they fought and slew, and their very names have perished. One line of an old blind Greek poet might have immortalised them among the motley nations that crowded into Troy or swarmed under its walls; but, alas for them, that line was never written! No, Founder of London! thy name was written on fluid ooze of the marsh, and the first tide that washed over it from the Nore obliterated it for ever. Yet, perhaps even now thou sleepest as quietly fathoms deep in soft mud, in some still nook of Barking Creek, as if all the world was ringing with thy glory.

But descending quick to the lower but safer and firmer ground of fact, let us cautiously drive our first pile into the shaky morass of early London history.

A learned modern antiquary, Thomas Lewin, Esq., has proved, as nearly as such things can be proved, that Julius Cæsar and 8,000 men, who had sailed from Boulogne, landed near Romney Marsh about half-past five o'clock on Sunday the 27th of August, 55 years before the birth of our Saviour. Centuries before that very remarkable August day on which the brave standard-bearer of Cæsar's Tenth Legion sprang from his gilt galley into the sea and, eagle in hand, advanced against the javelins of the painted Britons who lined the shore, there is now no doubt London was already existing as a British town of some importance, and known to the fishermen and merchants of the Gauls and Belgians. Strabo, a Greek geographer who flourished in the reign of Augustus, speaks of British merchants as bringing to the Seine and the Rhine shiploads of corn, cattle, iron, hides, slaves, and dogs, and taking back brass, ivory, amber ornaments, and vessels of glass. By these merchants the desirability of such a depôt as London, with its great and always navigable river, could not have been long overlooked.

In Cæsar's second and longer invasion in the next year (54 B.C.), when his 28 many-oared triremes and 560 transports, &c., in all 800, poured on the same Kentish coast 21,000 legionaries and 2,000 cavalry, there is little doubt that his strong foot left its imprint near that cluster of stockaded huts (more resembling a New Zealand pah than a modern English town) perhaps already called London—Llyn-don, the "town on the lake." After a battle at Challock Wood, Cæsar and his men crossed the Thames, as is supposed, at Coway Stakes, an ancient ford a little above Walton and below Weybridge. Cassivellaunus, King of Hertfordshire and Middlesex, had just slain in war Immanuent, King of Essex, and had driven out his son Mandubert. The Trinobantes, Mandubert's subjects, joined the Roman spearmen against the 4,000 scythed chariots of Cassivellaunus and the Catyeuchlani. Straight as the flight of an arrow was Cæsar's march upon the capital of Cassivellaunus, a city the barbarie name of which he either forgot or disregarded, but which he merely says was "protected by woods and marshes." This place north of the Thames has usually been thought to be Verulamium (St. Alban's); but it was far more likely London, as the Cassi, whose capital Verulamium was, were among the traitorous tribes who joined Cæsar against their oppressor Cassivellaunus. Moreover, Cæsar's brief description of the spot perfectly applies to Roman London, for ages protected on the north by a vast forest, full of deer and wild boars, and which, even as late as the reign of Henry II., covered a great region, and has now shrunk into the not very wild districts of St. John's Wood and Caen Wood. On the north the town found a natural moat in the broad fens of Moorfields, Finsbury, and Houndsditch, while on the south ran the Fleet and the Old Bourne. Indeed, according to that credulous old enthusiast Stukeley, Cæsar, marching from Staines to London, encamped on the site of Old St. Pancras Church, round which edifice Stukeley found evident traces of a great Prætorian camp. However, whether Cassivellaunus, the King of Middlesex and Hertfordshire, had his capital at London or St. Alban's, this much at least is certain, that the legionaries carried their eagles swiftly over his stockades of earth and fallen trees, drove off the blue-stained warriors, and swept off the half-wild cattle stored up by the Britons. Shortly after, Cæsar returned to Gaul, having heard while in Britain of the death of his favourite daughter Julia, the wife of Pompey, his great rival. His camp at Richborough or Sandwich was far distant, the dreaded equinoctial gales were at hand, and Gaul, he knew, might at any moment of his absence start into a flame. His inglorious campaign had lasted just four months and a half— his first had been far shorter. As Cæsar himself wrote to Cicero, our rude island was defended by stupendous rocks, there was not a scrap of the gold that had been reported, and the only prospect of booty was in slaves, from whom there could be expected neither "skill in letters nor in music" In sober truth, all Cæsar had won from the people of Kent and Hertfordshire had been blows and buffets, for there were men in Britain even then. The prowess of the British charioteers became a standing joke in Rome against the soldiers of Cæsar. Horace and Tibullus both speak of the Briton as unconquered. The steel bow the strong Roman hand had for a moment bent, quickly relapsed to its old shape the moment Cæsar, mounting his tall galley, turned his eyes towards Gaul.

Ancient Roman pavement found in Threadneedle Street, 1841 (see page 21).

The Mandubert who sought Cæsar's help is by some thought to be the son of the semi-fabulous King Lud (King Brown), the mythical founder of London, and, according to Milton, who, as we have said, follows the old historians, a descendant of Brute of Troy. The successor of the warlike Cassivellaunus had his capital at St. Alban's; his son Cunobelin (Shakespeare's Cymbeline)—a name which seems to glow with perpetual sunshine as we write it—had a palace at Colchester; and the son of Cunobelin was the famed Caradoc, or Caractacus, that hero of the Silures, who struggled bravely for nine long years against the generals of Rome.

Part of old London Wall, near Falcon Square (see page 21).

Celtic etymologists differ, as etymologists usually do, about the derivation of the name of London. Lon, or Long, meant, they say, either a lake, a wood, a populous place, a plain, or a ship-town. This last conjecture is, however, now the most generally received, as it at once gives the modern, pronunciation, to which Llyn-don would never have assimilated. The first British town was indeed a simple Celtic hill fortress, formed first on Tower Hill, and afterwards continued to Cornhill and Ludgate. It was moated on the south by the river, which it controlled; by fens on the north; and on the east by the marshy low ground of Wapping. It was a high, dry, and fortified point of communication between the river and the inland country of Essex and Hertfordshire, a safe sixty miles from the sea, and central as a depôt and meeting-place for the tribes of Kent and Middlesex.

Hitherto the London about which we have been conjecturing has been a mere cloud city. The first mention of real London is by Tacitus, who, writing in the reign of Nero (A.D. 62, more than a century after the landing of Cæsar), in that style of his so full of vigour and so sharp in outline, that it seems fit rather to be engraved on steel than written on perishable paper, says that Londinium, though not, indeed, dignified with the name of colony, was a place highly celebrated for the number of its merchants and the confluence of traffic. In the year 62 London was probably still without walls, and its inhabitants were not Roman citizens, like those of Verulamium (St. Alban's). When the Britons, roused by the wrongs of the fierce Boadicea (Queen of the Iceni, the people of Norfolk and Suffolk), bore down on London, her back still "bleeding from the Roman rods," she slew in London and Verulamium alone 70,000 citizens and allies of Rome; impaling many beautiful and well-born women, amid revelling sacrifices, in the grove of Andate, the British Goddess of Victory. It is supposed that after this reckless slaughter the tigress and her savage followers burned the cluster of wooden houses that then formed London to the ground. Certain it is, that when deep sections were made for a sewer in Lombard Street in 1786, the lowest stratum consisted of tesselated Roman pavements, their coloured dice laying scattered like flower leaves, and above that of a thick layer of wood ashes, as of the débris of charred wooden buildings. This ruin the Romans avenged by the slaughter of 80,000 Britons in a butchering fight, generally believed to have taken place at King's Cross (otherwise Battle Bridge), after which the fugitive Boadicea, in rage and despair, took poison and perished.

London probably soon sprang, phœnix-like, from the fire, though history leaves it in darkness to enjoy a lull of 200 years. In the early part of the second century Ptolemy, the geographer, speaks of it as a city of the Kentish people; but Mr. Craik very ingeniously conjectures that the Greek writer took his information from Phæician works descriptive of Britain, written before even the invasion of Cæsar. Theodosius, a general of the Emperor Valentinian, who saved London from gathered hordes of Scots, Picts, Franks, and Saxons, is supposed to have repaired the walls of London, which had been first built by the Emperor Constantine early in the fourth century. In the reign of Theodosius, London, now called Augusta, became one of the chief, if not the chief, of the seventy Roman cities in Britain. In the famous "Itinerary" of Antoninus (about the end of the third century) London stands as the goal or starting-point of seven out of the fifteen great central Roman roads in England. Camden considers the London Stone, now enshrined in the south wall of St. Swithin's Church, Cannon Street, to have been the central milestone of Roman England, from which all the chief roads radiated, and by which the distances were reckoned. Wren supposed that Watling Street, of which Cannon Street is a part, was the High Street of Roman London. Another street ran west along Holborn from Cheapside, and from Cheapside probably north. A northern road ran by Aldgate, and probably Bishopsgate. The road from Dover came either over a bridge near the site of the present London Bridge, or higher up at Dowgate, from Stoney Street on the Surrey side.

Early Roman London was scarcely larger than Hyde Park. Mr. Roach Smith, the best of all authorities on the subject, gives its length from the Tower to Ludgate, east and west, at about a mile; and north and south, that is from London Wall to the Thames, at about half a mile. The earliest Roman city was even smaller, for Roman sepulchres have been found in Bow Lane, Moorgate Street, Bishopsgate Within, which must at that time have been beyond the walls. The Roman cemeteries of Smithfield, St. Paul's, Whitechapel, the Minories, and Spitalfields, are of later dates, and are in all cases beyond the old line of circumvallation, according to the sound Roman custom fixed by law. The earlier London Mr. Roach Smith describes as an irregular space, the five main gates corresponding with Bridgegate, Ludgate, Bishopsgate, Aldersgate, and Aldgate. The north wall followed for some part the course of Cornhill and Leadenhall Street; the eastern Billiter Street and Mark Lane; the southern Thames Street; and the western the east side of Walbrook. Of the larger Roman wall, there were within the memory of man huge, shapeless masses, with trees growing upon them, opposite what is now Finsbury Circus. In 1852 a piece of Roman wall on Tower Hill was rescued from the improvers, and built into some stables and outhouses; but not before a careful sketch had been effected by the late Mr. Fairholt, one of the best of our antiquarian draughtsmen. The later Roman London was in general outline the same in shape and size as the London of the Saxons and Normans. The newer walls Pennant calculates at 3 miles 165 feet in circumference, they were 22 feet high, and guarded with forty lofty towers. At the end of the last century large portions of the old Roman wall were traceable in many places, but time has devoured almost the last morsels of that great pièce de résistance. In 1763 Mr. Gough made a drawing of a square Roman tower (one of three) then standing in Houndsditch. It was built in alternate layers of massive square stones and red tiles. The old loophole for the sentinel had been enlarged into a square latticed window. In 1857. while digging foundations for houses on the northeast side of Aldermanbury Postern, the workmen came on a portion of the Roman wall strengthened by blind arches. All that now substantially remains of the old fortification is a bastion in St. Giles's Church, Cripplegate; a fragment in St. Martin's Court, off Ludgate Hill; another portion exists in the Old Bailey, concealed behind houses; and a fourth, near George Street, Tower Hill. Portions of the wall have, however, been also broached in Falcon Square (one of which we have engraved), Bush Lane, Scott's Yard, and Cornhill, and others built in cellars and warehouses from opposite the Tower and Cripplegate.

The line of the Roman walls ran from the Tower straight to Aldgate; there making an angle, it continued to Bishopsgate. From there it turned eastward to St. Giles's Churchyard, where it veered south to Falcon Square. At this point it continued west to Aldersgate, running under Christ's Hospital, and onward to Giltspur Street. There forming an angle, it proceeded directly to Ludgate towards the Thames, passing to the south of St. Andrew's Church. The wall then crossed Addle Street, and took a course along Upper and Lower Thames Street towards the Tower. In Thames Street the wall has been found built on oaken piles; on these was laid a stratum of chalk and stones, and over this a course of large, hewn sandstones, cemented with quicklime, sand, and pounded tile. The body of the wall was constructed of ragstone, flint, and lime, bonded at intervals with courses of plain and curve-edged tiles.

That Roman London grew slowly there is abundant proof. In building the new Exchange, the workmen came on a gravel-pit full of oystershells, cattle bones, old sandals, and shattered pottery. No coin found there being later than Severus indicates that this ground was bare waste outside the original city until at least the latter part of the third century. How far Roman London eventually spread its advancing waves of houses may be seen from the fact that Roman wall-paintings, indicating villas of men of wealth and position, have been found on both sides of High Street, Southwark, almost up to St. George's Church; while one of the outlying Roman cemeteries bordered the Kent Road.

From the horns of cattle having been dug up in St. Paul's Churchyard, the monks, ever eager to discover traces of that Paganism with which they amalgamated Christianity, conjectured that a temple of Diana once stood on the site of St. Paul's. A stone altar, with a rude figure of the amazon goddess sculptured upon it, was indeed discovered in making the foundations for Goldsmiths' Hall, Cheapside; but this was a mere votive or private altar, and proves nothing; and the ox bones, if any, found at St. Paul's, were merely refuse thrown into a rubbish-heap outside the old walls. As to the Temple of Apollo, supposed to have been replaced by Westminster Abbey, that is merely an invention of rival monks to glorify Thorney Island, and to render its antiquity equal to the fabulous claims of St. Paul's. Nor is there any positive proof that shrines to British gods ever stood on either place, though that they may have done so is not at all improbable.

The existing relics of Roman London are far more valuable and more numerous than is generally supposed. Innumerable tesselated pavements, masterpieces of artistic industry and taste, have been found in the City. A few of these should be noted. In 1854 part of the pavement of a room, twenty-eight feet square, was discovered, when the Excise Office was pulled down, between Bishopsgate Street and Broad Street. The central subject was supposed to be the Rape of Europa. A few years before another pavement was met with near the same spot. In 1841 two pavements were dug up under the French Protestant Church in Threadneedle Street. The best of these we have engraved. In 1792 a circular pavement was found in the same locality; and there has also been dug up in the same street a curious female head, the size of life, formed of coloured stones and glass. In 1805 a beautiful Roman pavement was disinterred on the south-west angle of the Bank of England, near the gate opening into Lothbury, and is now in the British Museum. In 1803 a fine specimen of pavement was found in front of the East-India House, Leadenhall Street, the central design being Bacchus reclining on a panther. In this pavement twenty distinct tints had been successfully used. Other pavements have been cut through in Crosby Square, Bartholemew Lane, Fenchurch Street, and College Street. The soil, according to Mr. Roach Smith, seems to have risen over them at the rate of nearly a foot a century.

The statuary found in London should also not be forgotten. One of the most remarkable pieces was a colossal bronze head of the Emperor Hadrian, dredged up from the Thames a little below London Bridge. It is now in the British Museum. A colossal bronze hand, thirteen inches long, was also found in Thames Street, near the Tower. In 1857, near London Bridge, the dredgers found a beautiful bronze Apollino, a Mercury of exquisite design, a priest of Cybele, and a figure supposed to be Jupiter. The Apollino and Mercury are masterpieces of ideal beauty and grace. In 1842 a chef d'æuvre was dug out near the old Roman wall in Queen Street, Cheapside. It was the bronze stooping figure of an archer. It has silver eyes; and the perfect expression and anatomy display the highest art.

In 1825 a graceful little silver figure of the child Harpocrates, the God of Silence, looped with a gold chain, was found in the Thames, and is now in the British Museum. In 1839 a pair of gold armlets were dug up in Queen Street, Cheapside. In a kiln in St. Paul's Churchyard, in 1677, there were found lamps, bottles, urns, and dishes. Among other relics of Roman London drifted down by time we may instance articles of red glazed pottery, tiles, glass cups, window glass, bath scrapers, gold hairpins, enamelled clasps, sandals, writing tablets, bronze spoons, forks, distaffs, bells, dice, and millstones. As for coins, which the Romans seem to have hid in every conceivable nook, Mr. Roach Smith says that within twenty years upwards of 2,000 were, to his own knowledge, found in London, chiefly in the bed of the Thames. Only one Greek coin, as far as we know, has ever been met with in London excavations.

The Romans left deep footprints wherever they trod. Many of our London streets still follow the lines they first laid down. The river bank still heaves beneath the ruins of their palaces. London Stone, as we have already shown, still stands to mark the starting-point of the great roads that they designed. In a lane out of the Strand there still exists a bath where their sinewy youth laved their limbs, dusty from the chariot races at the Campus Martius at Finsbury. The pavements trodden by the feet of Hadrian and Constantine still lie buried under the restless wheels that roll over our City streets. The ramparts the legionaries guarded have not yet quite crumbled to dust, though the rude people they conquered have themselves long since grown into conquerors. Roman London now exists only in fragments, invisible save to the prying antiquary. As the seed is to be found hanging to the root of the ripe wheat, so some filaments of the first germ of London, of the British hut and the Roman villa, still exist hidden under the foundations of the busy city that now teems with thousands of inhabitants. We tread under foot daily the pride of our old oppressors.