History of Londinium (Roman London)

A model of London in 85–90 on display in the Museum of London, depicting the first bridge over the Thames

Roman London, also known as Londinium, was Roman Britain’s capital city during most Roman rule.

 It was initially a settlement established on the City of London’s current site around 47–50CE. It sat at a critical crossing point over the River Thames, which turned the town into a major port and road nexus, serving as an important commercial center in Roman Britain until its abandonment in the 5th century CE.

Following the town’s foundation in the mid-1st century, early Londinium maintained a relatively small area of 0.5 sq mi (1.4 km2), approximately equivalent to the size of current-day Hyde Park. In the year 60CE, the Iceni rebellion under Boudica drove the Roman authorities to evacuate the settlement, which was later razed. Following the downfall of Boudica due to the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus an army installation was established, and the city was restored. It had probably recovered mainly within about nine years. During the later years of the 1st century, Londinium developed rapidly, becoming Britannia’s largest city, and it was equipped with large public buildings such as an amphitheater and forum.

By the end of the century, Londinium had developed to perhaps 30,000 or 60,000 people, almost unquestionably replacing Colchester (Camulodunum) as the rural capital, and in mid-2nd century, Londinium was at its best. Its forum-basilica was one of the largest north of the Alps when Emperor Hadrian visited Londinium in 122CE. Diggings have found evidence of a major fire that devastated much of the city shortly thereafter, but the town was again rebuilt. By the second half of the 2nd century, Londinium appears to have contracted in both population and size.

Although Londinium stayed relevant for the rest of the Roman period, no additional expansion occurred. Londinium established a smaller but stable settlement population as paleontologists have found that much of the town after this date was covered in dark earth—the by-product of ceramic tile, manure, urban household waste, and non-farm debris of settlement occupation, which expanded almost undisturbed for centuries. Sometime between 190 CE and 225CE, the Romans constructed a defensive wall around the town’s landward side. Along with the road network and Hadrian’s Wall, this wall was one of the largest development projects carried out in Roman Britain. The London Wall lasted for another 1,600 years and broadly represented the old City of London’s perimeter.


The site overlooked the Romans’ bridgehead on the Thames’ north bank and a significant road nexus shortly after the intrusion. It was centered on the River Walbrook and the Cornhill but spread east to Tower Hill and west to Ludgate Hill. 


Unlike many towns of Roman Britain, Londinium was not located on the Celtic oppidum site. Before the Roman legions’ arrival, the city was almost certainly lightly rolling open farmland crossed by many streams now underground. Ptolemy lists it as one of the towns of the Cantiacs, but Roman Canterbury (Durovernum) was their tribal civitas (capital). It is probable that a short-lived Roman military camp preceded the town, but the proof is limited, and this topic remains a matter of debate.

Archaeologist Lacey Wallace writes that “Because no LPRIA settlements or important domestic refuse have been found in London, despite widespread archaeological digging, evidence for a purely Roman foundation of London are now uncontroversial and common.”

The town’s Latin name seems to have originated from an originally Brittonic one. Significant pre-Roman finds in the Thames, particularly the Wandsworth Shield (perhaps 1st-century BC) and the Battersea Shield (Chelsea Bridge, perhaps 4th-century BC), both considered to be votive donations installed a couple of miles upstream of Londinium, propose the general area was important and busy. It has been recommended that the site was where several territories met.

There was probably a passage in that part of the river; other Celtic and Roman finds propose this was possibly where the opposed crossing Julius Caesar explains in 54 BCE took place.

Londinium grew up around the River Thames’ point, narrow enough to construct a Roman bridge but still wide enough to handle the era’s seagoing vessels. Its position on the Tideway allowed easier access for ships sailing upstream.

A large pier base for such a bridge was discovered in 1981, close by the current London Bridge.

Some Claudian-era camp ditches have been found, but archaeological diggings undertaken since the 1970s by the Department of Urban Archaeology at the Museum of London (now MOLAS) have submitted the early settlement was primarily the product of private enterprise.

A timber channel by the side of the main Roman road unearthed at No 1 Poultry has been dated by dendrochronology to 47 CE, likely to be the foundation date.

Following its establishment in the mid-1st century, early Roman London occupied a comparatively small area, about 1.4 km2 (350 acres) or approximately the present-day Hyde Park area. Paleontologists have uncovered various goods imported from across the Roman Empire in this era, implying that early Roman London was a highly cultured community of merchants from across the Empire. Local markets were established for such objects.

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