Once upon a time – and certainly before the Roman conquest – Britain was ruled by good King Lud. According to the utterly unreliable History of the Kings of Britain by the 12th-century Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, Lud rebuilt the walls of London, ‘encircling it with countless towers. He also commanded the citizens to construct houses … so that no city in all the surrounding kingdoms (some far distant) could boast finer residences.’ London was Lud’s favourite place. Indeed, it was named for him. In Geoffrey’s risible philology, ‘the city was called Kaer-lud, and then by corruption of the name, Kaer-london; and again by a shift of languages over the course of time, London.’
For all its flaws, Geoffrey’s history is a clever counter to the Roman imperial master narrative, which reworked conquest as the legitimate pacification of savage natives and the imposition of a foreign culture as the advance of civilisation and the rule of law. In the Aeneid, Virgil – the Rudyard Kipling of the Roman world – aimed to encapsulate an imperial mission statement for the Roman Empire. In the Underworld, the poem’s hero, Aeneas, receives a prophecy of Rome’s greatness from his father’s ghost: ‘Roman … your arts are to be these: to pacify and impose the rule of law; to spare the conquered and battle down the proud.’ Aeneas, fleeing the sack of Troy by the Greeks, and delayed by a dalliance with Dido in Carthage, finally made it to Italy. Here he backed the winning side in a local conflict, successfully settled the Trojan refugees, and established a royal line that would in time include Romulus and Remus.
Meanwhile – to continue with Geoffrey of Monmouth – long before Romulus murdered his twin and founded Rome, Aeneas’ great-grandson Brutus took possession of an island kingdom known as Albion, at that time inhabited by giants. There he settled a band of soldiers descended from Trojans who didn’t make it to Italy. Albion was renamed Britain (after Brutus, obviously), and its capital established at Troia Nova (New Troy). Geoffrey pushes ‘Troia Nova’ into ‘Trinovantes’, the British Celtic people who had opposed Julius Caesar’s brief and inconclusive campaigns in southern Britain in 55 and 54 BC. It is Brutus’s city of Troia Nova, then Trinovantum, which after Lud was known as Kaer-lud and then London.
These stories of Brutus and Lud are charming fictions, as unconvincing as Geoffrey’s etymologies. But they do make the case that Britain was civilised long before the Romans arrived. The claim of a thriving kingdom with an impressive walled capital was also attractive to Protestant reformers in the 16th century eager to emphasise their own independence from a now papal Rome. In 1586, the Ludgate (on Ludgate Hill, today the site of St Paul’s Cathedral) was rebuilt, and decorated with life-size statues of Elizabeth I and Lud. Here was a London anchored to a past that was demonstrably not Roman. (At the risk of causing disappointment, it ought to be added that the most likely origin of ‘Ludgate’ is the Old English hlid-geat: ‘postern’ or ‘swing-gate’. King Lud fades as a philological fabrication. The tattered statues of Lud and his sons, most likely those from the Ludgate, may be seen today in the porch of St Dunstan-in-the-West, just off Fleet Street.)
No respectable history of Roman Britain now begins with Brutus or Lud. No one takes the inventive word games (Brutus → Britain; Troia Nova → Trinovantes; Lud → London) seriously. The persistent failure to locate any archaeological evidence for a pre-Roman British Celtic settlement in what is now arguably the most extensively excavated provincial capital in the Roman Empire makes it likely that before the Romans the Thames estuary was a political and economic backwater. One possible etymology for London is from the (plausibly reconstructed, but unattested) British Celtic word landa: ‘low-lying, open land’.
There is no pre-Roman London to be located. Any argument for sophisticated pre-Roman polities in Britain must look elsewhere: the Roman towns of Colchester, St Albans, Chichester and Silchester were all built over important Celtic settlements. Here agreement ends. There is no settled understanding of the rapid growth of the new foundation. London was a greenfield site in 43 AD, when the Roman army under the emperor Claudius opened its campaign in southern Britain. Less than two decades later in 60 AD it was a prosperous city burned to the ground by a rebel army (if you are Roman) or liberating force (if you are British) under Boudica (if you are British) or Boadicea (if you are Roman).
Dominic Perring’s refreshing new account of Roman London starts with a radical rebuttal of the now conventional view that the city was kick-started by merchants and shippers. He argues that the site was first exploited by the Roman army. The V-shaped ditches uncovered in a rescue dig in 2007 before the construction of the Walbrook Building (an office complex across from Cannon Street Station) are, he suggests, those of a marching camp, constructed by a Roman invasion force which landed on the Kent coast, marched to the Thames, secured the river crossing and waited a few weeks for Claudius to arrive.
The Romans then conquered southern Britain. Claudius stayed sixteen days, long enough to claim credit for the victory and add the honorific ‘Britannicus’ to his son’s imperial titles. In 47-48 AD, London was designated the main supply base for projected offensives in the Midlands and Wales. By the late 50s, this bridgehead settlement was remodelled as ‘an operational base for Britain’s colonial government’, with a forum, street grid, granaries, bath houses, temples and residential districts. In a newly imperial landscape, investing in London made strategic sense: the city was at the hub of a developing network of roads; was situated at the tidal head of the Thames estuary, an ideal place for a fixed crossing; and had easily navigable connections both upriver and across the North Sea to the Rhine delta.
With an initial population of perhaps ten or fifteen thousand, London was the largest settlement in Britain, ‘home to an immigrant community of soldiers and officials working for the provincial administration’. Perring doesn’t downplay London’s commercial, industrial or retail sectors (their activities sometimes indistinguishable from military or official business), but he is firm in claiming that army and government intervention was the ‘driving force’ behind the foundation and expansion of London after 43 AD. Trade followed the flag – at a distance.
‘There may be no more contentious issue to be tackled in this book,’ Perring writes, ‘than the story of London’s origin.’ For Geoffrey of Monmouth and the architects of the Ludgate, tall tales of Brutus and King Lud buttressed a larger claim to London’s position as a beacon of British civilisation from time immemorial. Similarly, those seeking to represent London as a city whose growth has always been sustained by private enterprise will emphasise its commercial beginnings. It is a story attractive to developers, legally required to pay for archaeological rescue digs, who can connect their office blocks and skyscrapers to a two-thousand-year-old history of a business-savvy London. By contrast, Perring’s London is a state-sponsored and state-funded foundation, the product of ‘a powerful, organised and avaricious’ imperial government, a London whose creation owes more to a top-down command economy than it does to market-driven entrepreneurial initiative.
The theme of an aggressively interventionist imperial state shapes Perring’s account of London over the next three centuries. Under Nero, the city recovered quickly from its destruction by Boudica’s forces in 60 AD. It grew under the Flavian emperors of 69-96, who were committed to completing the conquest of Britain; they improved its port facilities and built a seven-thousand-seat wooden amphitheatre at Guildhall Yard. It boomed under Hadrian, who visited in summer 122, with the completion of a massive forum complex (near the Lloyd’s Building at One Lime Street) and an improved ten-thousand-seat masonry amphitheatre. The city was swiftly rebuilt after a fire in the mid 120s with a well-defended fort at its core (near Cripplegate). And it benefited from emperor Septimius Severus’ expeditions in northern Britain and Scotland (208-211 AD), with further investment in its waterfront.
Perring dates the building of London’s impressive walls to the years following 211 when campaigning was halted after Severus’ brief illness and death in York. ‘London’s town wall wasn’t built in hurried response to political crisis, but confidently enclosed a larger area than necessary and left the riverfront undefended.’ The downturn in the middle of the third century, and the demolition of the decaying port, reflected wider political and economic stress across the empire’s frontier provinces. Similarly, the retreat of Roman rule from the north-western provinces in the late fourth and early fifth centuries ad meant that London became ‘both unnecessary and unsustainable’ in an increasingly post-imperial world.
This is a forcefully argued account of Roman London marked by an impressive mastery of a complex and fragmented archaeology. Perring makes a convincing case for the city’s military origins and the continuing importance of the state in financing its urban infrastructure (particularly such large-scale projects as the post-Hadrianic fort or the city walls). But it’s difficult to shake the suspicion that Perring has, like many of his predecessors, allowed his foundation story to frame his narrative. Officials and traders, in Perring’s view, ‘enjoyed fewer ties to the land, and were naturally transient … If London came into being without the involvement of a resident, land-owning elite society this helps to explain the later vulnerability of the site to cyclical growth and contraction.’
There are signs here of a good argument pushed too far – a reluctance to leave behind an innovative and persuasive account of London’s origins and early growth. The unavoidably patchy picture of the city’s Roman past ought perhaps to admit a greater possibility of private patronage and initiative than Perring allows. The building of the wooden Flavian amphitheatre (and its second-century masonry upgrade) might, as Perring suggests, have been the result of official impetus and state resources. There are a couple of isolated examples of troops constructing (probably temporary) amphitheatres in northern Italian towns, but the normal provincial pattern was for wealthy members of the local elite, often acting as a group, to cover the cost of construction. Similarly, imperial munificence might launch a project such as a new forum, but it also offered attractive opportunities for others, individually or corporately, to be associated with a generous emperor by funding grand civic buildings.
Perring may be too hasty in inferring that the owners of the prosperous country estates west of the Medway (Lullingstone, Crofton and Keston) were not drawn to London. It’s true that no commemorative inscriptions have been associated with the civic buildings excavated in London; but only a handful survive from Roman Britain altogether, including from those towns founded over old Celtic settlements. Perhaps local elites in Britain and more broadly across the north-western provinces – unlike their peers around the Mediterranean – did not choose to engage with imperial power by funding civic buildings and advertising their munificence. Or perhaps, as Perring concludes, these wealthy landowning elites were reticent and disengaged: London remained a well-defended imperial enclave in a sullenly uncooperative territory. If so, it would make the relationship between the locally powerful and the provincial capital strikingly different from such relationships elsewhere in the Roman Empire.
To compare London with other cities across Britain and the Roman Empire isn’t to undermine Perring’s view of London in the Roman world – or not necessarily. But it does expose the extent to which his account presents London as an outlier with a history markedly different from that of most cities in the empire. That difference might prompt further discussion; or it might indicate that more explanatory space should be given to London’s commercial and industrial sectors and to private patronage, and rather less to an insistence on the continuing constraints of the circumstances of the city’s foundation. That would still leave plenty of room for Perring’s emphasis on state intervention as the driving force. Most important, it would still persuasively counter a history of Roman London as a scaled-down version of the City or as a mini-Rome on the Thames, imagined by Victorian antiquarians as the forerunner of their own 19th-century world metropolis. There is certainly no place here for King Lud or other pre-Roman fantasies. For British nationalists and imperialists, it has always been uncomfortable to think of Roman London as a medium-sized provincial capital on the periphery of someone else’s empire. It’s even worse to think of it as dependent on state subsidies from a Roman (read: European) superpower; or to face up to the city’s decline in the fifth century following the dissolution of imperial infrastructure and the final withdrawal of troops to the Continent – a kind of enforced Brexit.
In many ways this is old news. The conquest of Britain by Claudius in the mid first century AD was not greeted with universal applause. The Roman army mustered in northern France is reported to have mutinied at the prospect of campaigning ‘beyond the bounds of the known world’. Yet it was precisely the aim to push Roman rule to the ends of the earth that made expeditions to Britain attractive to Claudius and his imperial successors. In the event, Britain was never finally secured, despite the building of Hadrian’s Wall (122-28 AD). It remained the most militarised province in the empire, absorbing in peacetime (at a very crude estimate) some 10-15 per cent of the Roman state’s defence budget and manpower. Twenty years before Claudius’ invasion, the geographer Strabo completed a detailed description of the world. His cursory survey of Britain concluded that it wasn’t worth conquering. ‘For although they could have held Britain, the Romans dismissed the idea because they recognised that … they would derive no advantage from occupation … once the costs incurred in maintaining an army to secure the island and collect tribute were deducted.’
London in the Roman World, with its emphasis on state intervention and continual subsidy, might profitably be read as supporting Strabo’s contention that Britain should never have been part of the Roman world. Pacifying the new province, committing to maintaining its security and financing the construction and improvement of a new capital (even allowing for the support of local elites), was a significant drain on resources. Given the costs, it might fairly be reckoned that the annexation of Britain and the foundation of London was in great part an imperial vanity project. An accountant would have stopped the Roman Empire at the Channel.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.