Introduction: London in A.D. 60

An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in London, Volume 3, Roman London. Originally published by His Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1928.

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"Introduction: London in A.D. 60". An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in London, Volume 3, Roman London. (London, 1928), , British History Online. Web. 14 July 2024.

5. London in A.D. 60.

In the year 60, (fn. 1) the Roman armies were busy forging a frontier in the north-west, and the newly-developed cities of the south-east lay open to native vengeance. Boudicca and her Icenian tribesmen swept out of Norfolk and Suffolk, sacked the Roman colony of Colchester, scattered the 9th Legion which had marched against them, and carried the sword, the gibbet, fire and crucifixion—caedes, patibula, ignes, cruces—into London and Verulam. The three cities are said by Tacitus to have lost 70,000 citizens and "allies" in the slaughter. Be that as it may, it is reasonable to suppose that after the revolt London had substantially to begin afresh, and it is probable that few of the structures described below in the Inventory bear much relation to the earlier London.

Nevertheless, the hackneyed phrase of Tacitus which forms the first document in the written record of the city shows a London already grown and flourishing in the year 60. She was by then "thronged with great numbers of merchants and abundance of merchandize," and doubtless contributed her fair quota to the 70,000. It is sufficiently clear that her growth during the seventeen years following the conquest had possessed something of the dramatic suddenness which in modern times attended the consummation of cities such as Kansas or Nebraska on the opening-up of the Golden West. Regulated trade on an imperial scale, safe seas, adequate internal communications, and above all, the new needs of a relatively large foreign population of soldiers, officials and prospectors, which had scarcely yet settled into the countryside, must have combined to induce an almost instantaneous outburst of activity at the natural port of a Continental Britain. It is worth while to pause, therefore, on the eve of the destructive advance of Boudicca and her rebels to see how far archæology can supplement and localize the bare statement of the Roman historian.

The relevant evidence is in kind partly positive and partly negative. Positively, it consists in the first place of the potsherds which, whether accumulated in and around Roman buildings or thrown into adjacent rubbish-pits, indicate at least the proximity of habitation; whilst the negative evidence is that of the cemeteries which lay normally beyond the area of living occupation and so help us to delimit it. As always in dealing with Roman London, however, it is necessary to bear in mind the fortuitousness of our evidence. Thus, it so happens that in recent years far more extensive building-excavations have been carried out to the E. of the Walbrook than to the W. of it; and, had it not been for the exploration of the site of the Old General Post Office in St. Martin's-le-Grand during the years 1913 to 1914, our material would have been almost too one-sided to justify any general inference from its distribution. As it is, a comparative regional analysis may profitably be attempted, with the proviso that its numerical basis should not be over-emphasised.

It has been assumed that the crux of the problem is the Walbrook. The possible claims of the Southwark bank of the Thames are not indeed forgotten, and there is undoubted evidence of an early development of this district. But there is equally undoubted archæological evidence, and far greater geographical probability, that the rising ground on the northern bank held the nucleus of the settlement, and the primary problem is summed up in the question: was the earliest Roman London on the eastern or on the western of the twin hills which flanked the Walbrook? Both views have found their advocates, and it is not necessary in this context to recount the more or less ill-founded premises from which the older antiquaries argued. (fn. 2) Mr. Frank Lambert, however, in 1915, brought modern archæological methods to bear upon the problem, and sketched the distribution of early coins and certain types of pottery within the Roman enceinte. (fn. 3) His maps showed a wide distribution both of Claudian coins and of lst-century Samian pottery, but with a preponderance on the eastern side of the Walbrook. The inequality of his sources may be re-affirmed in this connection; nevertheless, his results were suggestive and may, as evidence accumulates throughout the area, prove to be representative. In the meantime, our increasing (though still very imperfect) knowledge of ceramic types may justify an attempt to define the material somewhat more closely and to attempt to isolate the distribution of those groups of pottery which may safely be ascribed to a period prior to A.D. 60. Afterwards, the burials will be discussed from an equivalent standpoint.

A. Pottery (other than that associated with burials) of date prior to A.D. 60.

Until the further excavation of Claudian sites (such as Richborough) has confirmed our dating of the earliest Roman pottery in this country, any detailed discussion of the coarse pottery which might be included under the present heading would be insecurely founded. It may be observed, however, that the distinctively early pedestal-pottery, described above in Section A, is derived partly from the western and partly from the eastern sides of the Walbrook, though the pieces from the eastern side are more than twice as numerous as those from the western. This proportion is in accordance with that of the more general evidence collected by Mr. Lambert, and is, on the whole, supported also by an examination of other published and unpublished pottery from the two regions. Some of the earliest coarse pottery yet found in London comes from the rubbish-pits found in the south-eastern quarter of the General Post Office site in St. Martin's-le-Grand, well to the W. of the Walbrook; (fn. 4) but similarly early pottery, although nowhere found in greater quantity at any one spot, has been identified from a larger number of sites E. of the stream. Once again it should be emphasised, however, that an unusual number of eastern sites (notably near King William and Fenchurch Streets) has been excavated in recent years and under partial supervision. The ratio may not, therefore, be representative.

Early pottery from Southwark, now mostly in the Guildhall Museum, is noteworthy, but is receding in importance as increasing quantities of wares at least as early in date are found on the northern bank.

If we turn to Samian pottery or terra sigillata, we are, chronologically, on somewhat surer ground. In a separate section (p. 179) Mr. Davies Pryce has described, and Dr. Felix Oswald has illustrated, a representative series of Samian sherds selected because, on dated Continental sites, their types occur principally in the period of Tiberius and Claudius. Since Claudius died in A.D. 54, a margin of safety is allowed if it be supposed that all these pieces are earlier than the year 60. Care has been taken to exclude any piece which might reasonably be ascribed to a later date.

An analysis of this early Samian pottery yields the following results. About 70 stamps of early potters are distributed widely over the walled area and Southwark; but more than half of the total number occurs E. of the Walbrook and N. of London Bridge. So, also, a reference to the map (Plate 64) shows that of 50 pieces of decorated Samian ware of the same period, 15 occur to the W. of the Walbrook and 31 to the E. of it. Again we have a wide distribution with an eastern predominance; but it is necessary once more to utter the warning that an apparently disproportionate number from recent excavations in King William Street may be due to the fact that there an exceptional effort has been made to salve Roman pottery.

It should be added that the Italic or Arretine ware, all of which may be assumed to be earlier than the year 60, is for the most part described merely as "from London," and therefore does not help in the present context. The four or five fragments of which the find-spot is approximately recorded are widely distributed, but are all either E. of the Walbrook or in Southwark (see map, Plate 64).

In summary, it is thus apparent that both "coarse " and Samian pottery, which may be ascribed with probability to a date prior to A.D. 60, tend to converge upon the area E. of the Walbrook and N. of London Bridge; but that there are also important and widely-distributed "outliers" both W. of the Walbrook and in Southwark.

B. Burials.

Although in the earliest times the Romans, like other primitive peoples in various parts of the world, appear to have buried their dead in their own houses or at any rate in the interior of the town, the Etruscan burial-grounds are constantly situated outside the settlement, and Roman laws of the classical period definitely affirm the same principle. The Twelve Tables decreed that it was "unlawful to bury or burn the dead within the city" (hominem mortuum in urbe ne sepelito neve urito), and the same injunction recurs more than once, as in the lex Coloniae Genetivae: "It is forbidden to bring the dead within the limits of a town or the formal boundary of a colony, or to bury or cremate there, or to set up a funeral monument" (Nequis intra fines oppidi coloniaeve, qua aratro circumductum erit, hominem mortuom inferto, neve ibi humato neve urito neve hominis mortui monimentum aedificato). At Rome, the only legal exceptions were those whereby the Vestals and a few specially honoured individuals were allowed burial within the walls. (fn. 5)

A law so insistent, however, implies contravention, and it is certain that in Ultima Thule its authority was not always respected. In Caerwent, for example, where the defences (in their original form) were contemporary with the founding of the township, at least nine Roman burials—one of them by inhumation—are known to have been found within the enceinte; (fn. 6) and two or three burials are recorded to have been discovered in the midst of Roman Colchester. (fn. 7) It is not unlikely that London, which grew up to some extent untrammelled by the restrictions of the Roman civic code ("cognomento coloniae non insigne") and must have included an unusually cosmopolitan population, was somewhat casual in matters of this kind. In considering the distribution of isolated burials within the inhabited area, therefore, it is advisable not to overestimate the possible historical significance of such burials in relation to the growth of the city.

This preliminary warning receives emphasis from some of the burials themselves. The region which has, on the whole, yielded more abundant evidence of pre-Flavian occupation than any other in the London district is that which adjoins King William Street, immediately to the N. of London Bridge. Yet, in the midst of this region, in Crooked Lane, has been found either one or two cremated burials associated with coins of the Flavian emperor Vespasian (p. 155). Reference to the catalogue of burials (pp. 153–169) will show that other burials in this district are not earlier than the end of the 1st century, and one of them is by inhumation and therefore probably at least a century later still. It is thus quite certain that in Roman London the dead were sometimes buried amongst the living; and it follows that isolated burials are of comparatively small importance to the historian.

Cemeteries, here denned as groups of three or more burials, are a different matter. Repeated burial in the same spot implies publicity and consequent regulation, and it is only reasonable to assume that in London, as elsewhere, the organized cemeteries were laid out in conformity with the Roman burial-laws—i.e. that they lay outside the main areas of habitation. Before turning to the evidence under this head, however, it is necessary to comment briefly on a point of chronological significance to which reference has already been made—the usage of the alternative rites of cremation and inhumation.

Prior to A.D. 150, cremation seems to have been universal. True, a skeleton found in 1839 in a grave in Bow Lane (p. 155) may have had a coin of Domitian (A.D. 81–96) in its mouth; but, although the possibility of an early date must be left open, the record is not clear, and in any case the survival of single coins is not infrequently erratic. By the 4th century, inhumation appears to have completely supplanted cremation; although here again London may have provided an exception in a cremation-burial from Shoe Lane (p. 165), where the urn has the spreading rim characteristic of the 4th-century type, but may be of somewhat earlier date—certainly the other burials from the same cemetery are very much earlier. Between 150 and 300 the rite of inhumation was introduced and gradually dominated the other, but no definite date can be assigned to the change. Perhaps the earliest inhumationburials known in Britain were those found in 1912 in the Infirmary Field at Chester. Here about thirty graves, some with remains of wooden coffins, most lying N. and S., were discovered outside the Roman fortress, and six coins ranging from A.D. 140 to 189 were found in them. For this and for other reasons the cemetery was thought by Haverfield to have been used during the second half of the 2nd century, and to have been closed by about the year 200. (fn. 8)

To turn now to the bearing of the London cemeteries upon the early extent of the city, the evidence is briefly this. The extra-mural cemeteries which lie almost continuously about the landward walls of the Roman town seem to have been in use throughout the occupation, but burials earlier than the last quarter of the 1st century are exceedingly rare in them. In Section B of the inventory of burials (p. 157), it will be found that not more than four or five burials from the whole of this series appear to be of pre-Flavian date, though it is clear that by the 2nd century these cemeteries were in full use. They may help, therefore, in dating the erection of the town-walls (see below, p. 76), but throw little light upon the limits of the pre-Flavian city.

Of the two cemeteries within the walls (see below, p. 153), that near Bishopsgate is known only from an 18th-century record. On the other hand, the large cemetery to the N. of St. Paul's Cathedral is well represented in the British and London Museums, and is almost consistently of early date. One urn contained an early coin of Claudius; of eight others from Warwick Square and St. Martin's-le-Grand, seven are almost certainly pre-Flavian, and the only serious intrusions are two inhumation burials (near St. Paul's and in Paternoster Row) which may not be Roman and cannot in any case be linked chronologically to the main bulk of the cemetery. It is clear that, so far as the present evidence goes, the principal burial-ground of pre-Flavian London lay along the northern side of the hill on which St. Paul's now stands, and the early burials in Shoe Lane, only 200 yards westwards across the Fleet (p. 165), support this inference.

We are now in a position—such position as the elusive records admit—to come to conclusions from our evidence as a whole. It is at once apparent how closely the negative evidence of the cemeteries supports the positive evidence of the occupationdébris previously considered. London in the year 60 was concentrated primarily on the eastern of the two hills, immediately to the northwards of the various adjacent sites which that determining factor, London Bridge, has occupied from early mediæval and doubtless from Roman times. The summit of the hill, the highest point in London, the place where the great mediæval market stood and its successor still stands, was the inevitable centre of the young merchant-city; and, as though to symbolize the fact, one of the few London examples of the Italic or Arretine ware, of which the find-spot is known, was found on the site of Leadenhall Market. No burials— not even those isolated burials which generally signify nothing but are always suspect —have been found here or hereabout. To the S. and E., near King William Street and Fenchurch Street, have been unearthed quantities of the pottery which must have been handled by some of the earliest inhabitants of the Roman city. To the N., the dwellings scarcely yet reached the subsequent line of the Roman town-wall, for a cemetery was laid out to the S. of that line near Bishopsgate. Westwards, the builders were already at work across the Walbrook on the slopes now crowned by St. Paul's; the site of the National Safe Deposit, off Queen Victoria Street, has produced some of the earliest Samian pottery found in London, and, farther W., the rubbish pits of the pre-Flavian householders honeycombed the site formerly occupied by the General Post Office in St. Martin-le-Grand. But in this direction the city petered out as it approached the hill-top, and the outlying houses must already have been close upon the graves of the cemetery which extended from St. Martin's-le-Grand to the banks of the Fleet and even beyond. Already the potters, who shared with the dead the purlieus of cities, may have been at work in those kilns which Wren found beneath his Cathedral. And, lastly, across the River in Southwark, the approaches to the bridge were flanked by a few houses set perhaps a little promiscuously amongst the graves which were beginning to appear alongside the road to Richborough and Dover.

This seems to have been the extent of the city, with its new and thriving population of Italian and Gaulish traders, money-lenders and prospectors, and its substratum of enterprising or enslaved Britons, to which Boudicca brought fire and crucifixion in the year 60. It is possible that in certain areas, mostly in the vicinity of London Bridge, actual traces of her handiwork have been correctly identified. Thus, in King William Street, Mr. Lambert has recorded that the most striking feature of sections cut there is "the burnt layer that occurs in all of them from 10 ft. to 13 ft. below the modern ground-level, and in nearly all cases resting on the original brick-earth .... It consists of burnt red clay, for the most part reduced to a coarse powder, containing charred fragments of wood, fragments of burnt roofing tiles, and here and there, a hard-baked piece of clay which still shows the impress of the flue-tile or wattle or laths against which it had once been pressed. Clearly an extensive fire, early in the Roman occupation, swept over this angle between the Walbrook and the Bridge, and reduced the clay-and-timber houses to a red dust." The stratum had already been noted on the top of a rubbish pit found previously near by, on the site of Phoenix House, and it had been "suggested that the conflagration that caused it had occurred at the end of the 1st century," for the burnt material covered lst-century objects. "At the same time an earlier date is possible. This is not by any means the first time that evidence of fire has been found at a considerable depth here (and indeed elsewhere) in London. As long ago as 1786 wood ashes were notified at a depth of 16 ft. in Lombard Street, overlying a tessellated pavement, and among them a gold coin of Galba. When the London Bridge Approach was built, ashes and burnt glass and Samian were found in Eastcheap, and a wall in which burnt Samian and coins of Claudius were imbedded. Recent observers have noticed the phenomenon of the red layer, and in connexion with it burnt objects of early date have been found. On the site of the Lloyds Bank, for instance, 17 burnt bronze coins of Claudius were found together, at a depth of about 15 ft., and burnt fragments of early Samian. Among burnt Samian discovered in Lombard Street, on a site W. of St. Edmund's church, was part of a bowl with the stamp of the Claudian potter Genialis. Both positive and negative evidence—the distribution of the earliest coins and of the burials—show that this corner was the earliest occupied part of Londinium, and that the town which was destroyed in A.D. 61 stood mainly between Gracechurch Street and the Walbrook. The wide distribution of the red layer over this early area, its occurrence in almost all cases immediately on the primeval surface, and the age of the burnt objects just noted, certainly suggest that we have here the traces of the work of Boadicea." (fn. 9)

It may be added that near by, on the site flanking Miles Lane, the ground-level immediately to the N. of the main line of timbering found there was first made up with masses of building-débris, together with some of the earliest Samian pottery found in London. This again indicates widespread destruction or demolition within a generation of the conquest, and seems to add substance to the words of Tacitus.


  • 1. This date is preferable to 61, which is more usually given. (See Henze in Pauly-Wissowa, RealEncyclopädie, III, 798, s.v. Boudicca; and bibliography there cited.)
  • 2. e.g. Arch., XI, 41 and Gents. Mag., 1842,1, 267.
  • 3. Arch.. LXVI. 269 ff.
  • 4. A few pieces from this site and ascribed to the period A.D. 50–80 are illustrated by Mr. Lambert, Arch., LXVI, 247 and 249, but many more of as early or earlier date, found subsequently, are stored in the Guildhall Museum.
  • 5. See Mommsen and Marquardt, Manuel des antiquites romaines (trans. Humbert), XIV, 422.
  • 6. Arch., LVIII, 151; LIX, 292; LX, 126; LXII, 414, 417, 421; and a cinerary urn, containing bones, now preserved in the parish church.
  • 7. Phil. Trans, 1761, 285–6; Morant, Colchester, I, 184; Journ. Brit. Arch. Assoc., V, 86.
  • 8. R. Newstead, Annals of Archæology and Anthropology, Liverpool, 1914, VI, 121; F. Haverfield, Rom. Brit, in 1913, 14, and Rom. Brit, in 1914, 41.
  • 9. Arch., LXXI, 57.