Introduction: The status of Roman London

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: The status of Roman London". An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in London, Volume 3, Roman London. (London, 1928), , British History Online. Web. 20 July 2024.

7. The Status of Roman London.

From the time of Augustus, a new or newly-organized Roman province was normally identified in a formal manner with the Imperial Name by the installation of emperor-worship at some appropriate centre within the pacified territory. The practice was initiated at Tarragona, where, in B.C. 25, an altar was dedicated to Augustus in celebration of the recent advancement of that city to the premier position in the largest Spanish province. Shortly afterwards, in B.C. 12, the final consolidation of Gallia Comata was marked by the consecration of the famous altar to Rome and Augustus at Lyon; and a similar though less celebrated altar was set up in the capital city of Gallia Narbonensis. In the Rhineland another altar to Augustus was established amongst the Ubii as the intended nucleus of a Roman Germany that failed to mature after the defeat of Varus; and the nodal point of the campaigns whereby Vespasian annexed the Black Forest in or about A.D. 74 proclaims by its name—Arae Flaviae, now Rottweil—that the tradition was later renewed in the same provinces. So also in Britain. The established capital of the pre-Roman "King of the Britons" at Camulodunum (Colchester) was the inevitable goal of the invading legions in the year 43. And there in due course was set up the temple of the emperor Claudius, "quasi arx aeternae dominationis," together with the image of Victory, (fn. 1) which reminds us of the Victories that flanked the altar of the Gauls at Lyon. (fn. 2) Colchester was unquestionably ordained by Claudius to be the Little Rome, as Ausonius might have called it, of the new Britannic province.

How far, by the year 60, the secular administration had been definitely concentrated also at Colchester, it is impossible to say. During the busy seventeen years immediately following the Claudian invasion, conditions were scarcely yet favourable to the upgrowth of any very stabilized administrative headquarters, and the abuses which led to the Boudiccan revolt in East Anglia suggest rather an inadequately supervized local officialdom than a centralized and responsible authority at Colchester. Sooner or later it must have been intended to make Colchester, like Lyon, Narbonne and the rest, the meeting-place for a Council (concilium provinciae) of delegates sent periodically by the various cantons and municipalities of the province to discuss secular or religious affairs under the chairmanship of the high priest and in the chastening environment of the Imperial Cult. There is no hint, however, and little probability, that any such gathering was ever actually held beneath the ill-starred temple of Claudius.

It is likely enough therefore that, when the Boudiccan revolt cut across the normal development of the civil area of the province, Colchester had not progressed very far as an effective provincial administrative headquarters. It may indeed be asked whether her metropolitan prestige was then sufficiently secure to survive her signal failure in the time of need, or was it rather London that now emerged from the ashes to assume the dominant role which her geographical position had prescribed for her? The evidence is tenuous almost to vanishing-point, but, such as it is, it is worth a brief discussion.

London in the year 60, as outlined in the preceding section, seems to have occupied at least twice the area ever required by Roman Colchester. She must, moreover, already have been the main focus of the British road-system, for the early equivalents of the Great North and Great West Roads and the Watling Street had clearly been blazed or developed by the threefold army of Claudius. Size and situation must already therefore have begun to point her destiny. Only in rank did she fall short of the conventional requirements of a metropolis, and here it is necessary to pause to consider the status of the city in the hierarchy of Roman urban administration.

A town in Roman Britain might belong to one of four categories. It might in the first place be a colony (colonia) with a constitution of Italian type, founded either on a virgin site or (as at Colchester) in the midst of a pre-existing population by the process of transplanting to it a body of Roman citizens, normally time-expired soldiers, who would thus form a "bulwark of Roman rule" in a newly subjugated territory. Such, at least, was the original significance of the title, and in frontierprovinces such as Britain the military function of the colonial foundations under the Early Empire remains sufficiently obvious. The colony formed in effect the stationary rear-guard of the army, and the British colonies—Colchester, Lincoln, Gloucester and York—were stepping-stones in the progressive conquest of the island. Even as early as the time of Augustus, however, the title "colonia" was sometimes given merely as a mark of imperial favour to long-established cities in the older provinces, and, with the exception of two or three colonies founded by Septimius Severus in Africa and Syria, no Roman colony in the original semi-military sense was established after the time of Hadrian. (fn. 3)

Secondly, the Roman town might be a municipality (municipium), with constitution and privileges—notably, Roman citizenship—similar to those of a colony, but differing in origin. The municipal title was an honour bestowed, not on new and deliberate foundations, but on "pre-existing native towns which had reached by natural progress some size and some civilization of a Roman (or Italian) kind, and which seemed to merit from the central government the grant of a definite charter and of an urban constitution." (fn. 4) The only known municipality in Britain was the old tribal capital of Verulam, which had received the title before the Boudiccan revolt, perhaps as a counterpart to the colonial rank awarded to (or inflicted upon) Colchester.

A third category consisted of the cantons or "civitates," a word which originally referred rather to the body politic of a tribe than to an actual township. The development of agriculture and trade, however, had already tended to stabilize the native populations of Gaul and Southern Britain before the Roman conquest, and the process of Romanization and urbanization which followed the campaigns of Caesar and Claudius gradually identified the "civitas" with the principal township in its district. British towns of this type were Caerwent, Wroxeter, and probably Silchester, Winchester and seven or eight others. But by the 4th century the term "civitas" had lost all or most of its original denotation, and was applied in the general sense of the derivative word "city" to towns of various political origin and status.

Into a fourth category may be collected those towns, large and small, which were to be found throughout the provinces as markets, posting-stations, suburbs to frontier-forts and the like—towns which just "growed," and possessed no particular political distinction. They claim no special designation, but "urbs," "pagus," "vicus," "forum" and other terms are variously applied to them.

The position of London in regard to these four categories in the year 60 is clear enough. Tacitus states that it was not a "colonia," and, since he is careful in the same paragraph to give Verulam its title, implies that London was not a "municipium." "Civitas," in the sense in which Tacitus would have used the term, it certainly was not; and, if it existed at all before the Roman conquest, its pre-Roman status must have been inconsiderable. (The fact that London, like other cities, was called a "civitas" by writers of the 4th and 5th centuries has, as noted above, no bearing upon the present problem.) There remains the inglorious fourth category. To this must London be consigned; in origin a mere trading-station founded in or shortly before A.D. 43 on the spot determined by geography as the obvious point of disembarkation for the new Continental commerce. Her population was presumably of a cosmopolitan type which lacked the local traditions or the territorial ties requisite for or implied by the "municipium" and the "civitas." In this respect her position, at least during the earlier phases of her history, must have been somewhat similar to that of Lyon which, although of higher status as a "colonia" and a centre of the imperial cult, also owed her eminence in the first instance to her commanding site on the principal trade-route of Gaul. As the commercial clearing-house of the northern Gallic province Lyon flourished with hardly any territory or local responsibilities; (fn. 5) and though in the case of London our evidence for a similar detachment is less explicit, we can probably best envisage the economic and, in certain aspects, the political environment of the growing city by reference to the capital of Gallia Comata.

In certain aspects only. To complete the analogy of Boudiccan London with Lyon it is necessary to add to London the rank and imperial prestige of Colchester. Whether in fact London ever received any titular dignity under the early Empire we do not know. By the year 60 she lay far behind the military zone, and her opportunity for receiving a military colony had long gone by. The unqualified phrase of Tacitus perhaps in itself implies that when he wrote (in the time of Trajan) the city was still without rank. It is at least tolerably certain that, if London ever received colonial status, it was merely a title of the honorary type which was occasionally bestowed as late as the 4th century. (fn. 6) Sometime in that century, she received indeed the high-sounding epithet "Augusta" as a mark of imperial gratitude for services rendered during some such crisis as those which drew Constans to Britain in 343 or Theodosius the Elder in 368. (fn. 7) But that does not help in the present context, and we can only assume that under the Early Empire London boasted only such urban prestige as her outstanding size and wealth naturally gave her.

Nevertheless, the very detachment from local territorial commitments, which has been inferred for her above, may be thought to have strengthened her claim to metropolitan status. The sense of impersonality which such detachment implies must have favoured a position of suzerainty both in religious and in secular affairs. Unfortunately the evidence is meagre. A tantalizing fragment of an important inscription found long ago in the city (see p. 170) couples the Divinity of the Emperor with the Province of Britain and, however interpreted, indicates the presence of the imperial cult on a provincial scale in London. The inscription is apparently of 1st or 2nd-century date. (fn. 8) It suggests that London at some fairly early period replaced Colchester as the provincial headquarters of the cult, with the reasonable (though not quite certain) inference that London became the meeting-place of the Provincial Council. Consistent with this is the view that the epithet provinc (ialis), which a certain Anencletus seems to apply to himself in a memorial inscription of 1st or early 2nd-century date (p. 173, No. 16), may be equivalent to servus provinciae and may be supposed to imply that the dedicator was in the service of the Provincial Council in London. But it would be unwise to place too much weight on documents so slight. Hardly more determinate, perhaps, is the evidence on the purely secular side. The numerous bricks from London (and nowhere else) bearing the stamp P. PR. BR. or the like (see pp. 43 and 176) are interpreted with probability as referring to the portitores of the province, i.e. to the chief Customs officers of Britain. Their presence seems to indicate that London was a headquarters of one branch at least of the financial administration, although it confirms the view of London as the chief port rather than proves it the administrative capital. The date of the bricks is quite unknown, although the general character of the stamps suggests rather the earlier than the later half of the occupation.

In the 4th century, at any rate, the evidence for a financial department in London becomes unimpeachable, for, apart from the uncertain implication of an intermittent mint, to London, alone in Britain, the Notitia Dignitatum assigns a praepositus thesaurorum, described here as "of Augusta." The bestowal of this title, already noted, and the several possible occasions on which it could have been conferred, combine to show that London loomed large amongst the 4th-century cities of the north-western provinces. Whether Constans used the city in 343 we do not know, for the relevant book of Ammianus is lost; but in 360 Lupicinus, sent over in an emergency by Julian, went straight to London, as appears to have been the natural thing to do, there to "deliberate on the aspect of affairs." This implies that the principal government offices were here accessible, and the inference is confirmed by the fact that, in the further emergency of 368, Theodosius made the city his headquarters throughout the winter. And it is not irrelevant to recall that when, more than two centuries later, Pope Gregory instructed Augustine as to the ecclesiastical partitioning of Britain, it was London that instinctively presented itself to his mind as the proper archiepiscopal see for his missionary. It is pretty clear that Gregory's whole scheme was based upon a memory of the imperial province rather than upon any close knowledge of the state of affairs existing in the 6th century. York, designated as the second archiepiscopal see, was the only possible rival to London, but precedence was assured to London by reason of her relative proximity to the Roman world.

It is not to be inferred, however, that 4th-century London was in any complete sense the equivalent of the metropolitan London of the later Middle Ages. From the end of the 2nd century the province had ceased to exist as a single administrative unit. After his hard-fought victory over the British division at the battle of Lyon in 197, Septimius Severus had broken Britain into two provinces, "Lower" and "Upper," in order to minimize the risk of hostile concentrations of this kind. The exact line of the new internal frontier is in doubt, but the data are just sufficient to suggest certain possibilities to which future evidence may or may not lend support. It has long been known that York and apparently Aesica on Hadrian's Wall were in Lower Britain, whilst Chester and Caerleon were in Upper Britain. On this basis it was conjectured that the dividing line might have run from the Humber to the Solway, or from the Humber to the Lancashire coast. (fn. 9) These views are nullified, however, by the recently-discovered Bordeaux inscription, (fn. 10) which shows that Lincoln also was in Lower Britain. Between the two groups thus indicated—York and Lincoln on the one hand, and Chester and Caerleon on the other—there is no natural frontier, and the only obvious line of demarcation on the map of Roman Britain, as we know it, is the Watling Street. The association of a road with a frontier was natural to the Roman mind—indeed a Roman military frontier-line was primarily a road-clearing. Moreover, with Chester allotted to the south-western district, the Watling Street was just such a boundary as was most fully suited to the purpose which Severus had in view—the division of authority in the province; for it not only split the military command in such a way that the legions at Chester and Caerleon with the very few auxiliary troops then in Wales, were counterbalanced by the legion at York with the numerous auxiliary regiments along the Wall, but it also divided the civil area, i.e. the non-mountainous regions south of York, into two approximately equal parts. And, if need be, a wedge could be driven from without, from the Thames port, along the Watling Street between the two administrations. Indeed, the whole scheme is appropriate to the direct, military intelligence of the emperor who was the last and one of the most vigorous exponents of the older imperial school of field-warfare. Under such a scheme the position of London, at the nearer terminus of the new frontier, is not unlikely to have had a political as well as a military significance. Geographically neither in one province nor the other, the city may well have retained something of a metropolitan isolation; and the two provinces, converging upon her along the lines of their lateral and median roads, may still have looked to her as a centralizing authority between their own local ministries and Rome. Much new evidence, however, is required to raise this suggestion from the level of mere speculation. (fn. 11)

A century later, after the recovery of Britain by Constantius from the usurper Allectus, the two provinces were replaced by a system of four provinces, Prima, Secunda, Flavia Caesariensis and Maxima Caesariensis, whilst in 369 one of these districts was wholly or partly renamed Valentia after its recovery from barbarian invaders by Valentinian's general, Theodosius. The only definite evidence as to the position of these new provinces is the well-known inscription which shows that Cirencester was in Britannia Prima; but Haverfield was inclined provisionally to accept the statement of Giraldus Cambrensis, writing c. 1205, that London was the capital of Flavia Caesariensis; York being the centre of Maxima Caesariensis, and Prima and Secunda situated respectively in the west (as indeed the Cirencester inscription seems to indicate) and in Kent. (fn. 12) Once more, confirmatory evidence is admittedly required.

Whatever may have been the position of London after the first partition, it can only be supposed that in the 4th century she formed rather the gateway to a congeries of territorial "departments" and administrations than the actual working capital of the Britains. Indeed, it is likely enough that at this time the most active administrative centre was, more often than not, the great military headquarters at York. The situation at this time may, perhaps, be summed up best by saying that London was convenient but York was necessary; the difference being that the utility of a naturally convenient London was predestined to outlive the comparatively transient strategic necessity of a war-bitten York.

A general survey of the whole period of the occupation thus yields the following results. From 43 to 60 the position of Colchester as formal capital of the partiallyconquered province remained unchallenged. After the failure of Colchester in 60, the natural advantages and growing wealth of London gave her increasing prestige, and, though she was apparently without rank, the financial administration seems to have been quartered there, the headquarters of the provincial emperor-cult may have been transferred thither from Colchester, and inferentially the Council of the Province may have held its periodical meetings there. Her commercial origin (in which she resembled the great Gallic capital) and the fact that she was neither a municipality nor a "civitas" suggest a certain detachment from local territorial commitments which may have helped rather than hindered her provincial advancement. The subdivision of the province, first by Septimius Severus and later by Diocletian, may have impaired her formal responsibility in minor provincial administration, but it is clear that in the 4th century, though she shared with military York some of the responsibilities of leadership, she was recognised as the main nerve-centre of the province. Two centuries later, she still remained to the Roman mind the premier British city.


  • 1. Tacitus, Annals, XIV, 31–2.
  • 2. Well illustrated by coins; see A. Steyert, Histoire de Lyon, I, 209–10.
  • 3. See Kornemann in Pauly-Wissowa, IV, 566.
  • 4. F. Haverfield and G. Macdonald, The Roman Occupation of Britain, 188; see also J. S. Reid, The Municipalities of the Roman Empire, 7.
  • 5. See J. S. Reid, The Municipalities of the Roman Empire, 179.
  • 6. Kornemann, op. cit., 567.
  • 7. The name "Augusta" seems to occur as the mint-mark of coins struck by Magnus Maximus (383–388) and possibly by, or in the name of, Theodosius I (379–395), and it is mentioned twice by Ammianus Marcellinus, writing in the last quarter of the 4th century, in such a manner as to imply that it was then something of a novelty (see above, p. 6, and below, p. 188). The Notitia Dignitatum, the martyrology ascribed to St. Jerome, and the Ravenna Geographer all employ the term, but ignorance of their date or of that of their sources robs their evidence of some of its value. On the other hand, the coins struck by Constantine I at the London mint use only the old name, Londinium, and thus suggest an upper time-limit for the bestowal of the epithet.
  • 8. It was found re-used face-downwards in a wall almost certainly of Roman date at a depth of about 12 ft. in Nicholas Lane. This circumstance in itself implies a relatively early date for the stone in its original position.
  • 9. F. Haverfield, Archæologia Oxoniensis, 1892–95, 223.
  • 10. Journ. of Rom. Studies, XI. 101.
  • 11. cf. J. B. Bury, Camb. Hist. Journ., I, 1.
  • 12. De Invectionibus (Giraldus Cambrensis, Rolls Series, III, 45 and 170), cited by Haverfield, op. cit. "Flavia Caesariensis" was clearly connected with Flavius Constantius Chlorus, and may be a memorial of the rescue of the London district by Constantius from the mercenaries of Allectus in 296 (see pp. 3, 33).