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History

London’s Roman Past: Rediscovery and Reconstruction

  • Craig Miller
  • |
  • April 14, 2023
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  • 7 minute read
  • |
London’s Roman Past: Rediscovery and Reconstruction
Key Takeaways
  • London's history dates back to Roman times when it was founded as a small settlement on the banks of the River Thames.
  • Remnants of London's Roman past can still be found scattered throughout the city, and the rediscovery of Vivius Marcianus' tombstone in 1669 was a significant moment in London's history.
  • Despite various depictions of the soldier, it remains difficult to determine with certainty the exact appearance and origins of Vivius Marcianus.
  • London was rebuilt by the Romans on a much larger scale, and by the end of the 1st century AD, it had become a thriving, bustling city with a population of around 60,000 people.
  • The decline of Londinium was hastened by the arrival of the Saxons in the 5th century AD, but the city began to grow again with the construction of a new castle on the site of the Roman fort in Londinium by William the Conqueror.
  • In the Middle Ages, London grew rapidly in size and importance, becoming a centre of trade and commerce, the seat of government, and home to many famous markets and buildings.
  • The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed much of the city, but led to the rebuilding of London with many new buildings and streets constructed, including St. Paul's Cathedral designed by Christopher Wren.

 

London’s history dates back to Roman times when it was founded as a small settlement on the banks of the River Thames.

While London has undergone numerous transformations over the centuries, remnants of its Roman past can still be found scattered throughout the city.

The aftermath of the Great Fire of London revealed some of these hidden gems, including the tombstone of Roman soldier Vivius Marcianus, discovered by Christopher Wren in 1669.

In this article, we will delve deeper into London’s Roman past, focusing on the rediscovery and reconstruction of its historic sites.

The Rediscovery of Vivius Marcianus’ Tombstone

The rediscovery of Vivius Marcianus’ tombstone in 1669 was a significant moment in London’s history.

The slab was used as building material during the construction of St Martin’s Church on Ludgate Hill, and it wasn’t until Christopher Wren uncovered it that its historical value was realized.

The tombstone served as a testament to London’s Roman past, as it commemorated a Roman soldier who was part of the 2nd Legion Augusta that arrived in Britain during the Claudian invasion of AD 43.

Despite the fact that the tombstone was over two meters high, it had remained hidden for hundreds of years.

The stone was transported to Oxford at the expense of the archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon, and it was displayed in the Garden of Antiquities next to the Sheldonian Theatre.

This area was designed to evoke a grand Roman atmosphere, with classical inscriptions from the collection of John Selden presented in alcoves built into the theatre’s enclosure wall.

Interpreting Vivius Marcianus’ Appearance

The figure carved into Vivius Marcianus’ tombstone is approximately three-quarters life-size and stands at around 1.3 meters tall.

He is represented wearing a short tunic, belt, and cloak, carrying a staff in his right hand and what appears to be a scroll in his left.

The wooden staff appears to mark him out as a centurion in the Roman army.

Interpretations of Vivius Marcianus’ appearance have varied throughout history.

Various depictions of the Roman soldier Vivius Marcianus have emerged over time, each with its own unique characteristics.

In 1709, Thomas Gale portrayed the soldier in his Antonini Iter Britanniarum as a figure with short hair, holding a sword and staff in a prepared stance.

In contrast, John Horsley’s Britannia Romana: or the Roman Antiquities of Britain of 1732 depicts the soldier with ringlets.

In 1813, George Alexander Cooke described the soldier as a prototype Highlander, wearing a plaid flung over his breast and holding a sword of vast length, similar to the claymore of the later Highlander.

Despite the various depictions of the soldier, many historians tended to rely solely on the depictions rather than the actual monument.

In 1790, Thomas Pennant proposed that the soldier’s long hair (as depicted in Prideaux’s reconstruction but not on the actual relief) indicated that Marcianus was a soldier of the cohors Britanorum and that he was “dressed and armed in the manner of the country.”

However, Charles Knight criticized this tendency of antiquarians to interpret Marcianus as a “British-born” soldier, noting that these interpretations were based mainly on inaccurate drawings.

Therefore, despite the various depictions of the soldier over time, it is difficult to determine with certainty the true appearance and origins of Vivius Marcianus.

Rebuilding Londinium

London was founded by the Romans at the point where they could easily construct a bridge over the River Thames.

The earliest settlement lasted only a few years but thereafter grew into a major town and the capital of the Roman province of Britannia.

The Romans decided to build a town in the area known as Londinium, a useful place to cross the Thames and from there a network of roads could spread out to other towns.

The first Londinium lasted a mere thirteen years, but the Romans set about rebuilding the town. 

They rebuilt Londinium on a much larger scale, with bigger and grander buildings, and by the end of the 1st century AD, it had become a thriving, bustling city with a population of around 60,000 people.

Londinium had become the most important city in Roman Britain, with a large port that was a gateway to the rest of the empire.

However, Londinium’s prosperity was not to last. In 410 AD, the Roman Empire began to withdraw its troops from Britain to deal with threats closer to home.

With the departure of the Romans, Londinium began to decline.

The city’s walls were neglected and fell into disrepair, and without the protection of the Roman army, the city was vulnerable to attack.

In 1790, Thomas Pennant proposed that the soldier’s long hair (as depicted in Prideaux’s reconstruction but not on the actual relief) indicated that Marcianus was a soldier of the cohors Britanorum and that he was “dressed and armed in the manner of the country.”

Saxons, Vikings, and Normans

The decline of Londinium was hastened by the arrival of the Saxons in the 5th century AD. The Saxons were a Germanic people who invaded Britain from the east and established their own kingdoms.

Londinium was captured by the Saxons in the early 6th century, and the city was largely abandoned.

In the 9th century, the Vikings began raiding and pillaging the east coast of Britain. They attacked Londinium in 842, and the city was again abandoned.

However, the Vikings did not settle in Londinium, and the city remained uninhabited for several decades.

In the late 10th century, the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, invaded England and conquered the country.

William ordered the construction of a new castle on the site of the Roman fort in Londinium, and the city began to grow again. However, it was not until the 12th century that Londinium became an important city again.

London in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, London grew rapidly in size and importance. The city was a centre of trade and commerce, with merchants from all over Europe coming to buy and sell goods.

The city was also the seat of government, with the king and his court residing in the Tower of London.

During the Middle Ages, many important buildings were constructed in London, including Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The city was also home to many famous markets, including the Smithfield Market, which was one of the largest meat markets in Europe.

Tudor London

In the 16th century, London continued to grow and prosper.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, the city became the cultural centre of England, with writers such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe making their names in the city’s theatres.

However, London was also a city of poverty and disease.

The streets were dirty and overcrowded, and outbreaks of plague were common. In 1665, London was hit by a major outbreak of the plague, which killed over 100,000 people.

Great Fire of London

Just one year after the plague, London was hit by another disaster: the Great Fire of London. The fire started in a bakery on Pudding Lane on 2 September 1666 and quickly spread, destroying much of the city.

The fire raged for four days, burning over 13,000 homes and 87 churches.

The fire was finally brought under control on 6 September, but much of the city was left in ruins. The disaster led to the rebuilding of London, with many new buildings and streets constructed.

One of the most famous architects of this period was Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral and many other important buildings.

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

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