London’s long history is one of its many attractions for visitors. Yet less is known of the city’s Roman past than of the Middle Ages or the colourful Tudor period. This is largely due to the fact that most of Roman London has been obliterated or obscured by later periods, and some sites have only become accessible relatively recently. However, with a bit of determination, and a dash of imagination, you can discover London as it would have been in Roman times.
The Origins of Roman London
The Romans first settled in Britain in AD 43. They built a bridge across the River Thames and founded a town which they called Londinium (in approximately the same location as the current City of London). This became a busy and important settlement with all the usual components of a Roman town, including a forum, amphitheatre and public baths. But centuries of building over the Roman city, combined with wartime damage, have meant that there is now little to see at ground level.
However, recent excavations at the Temple of Mithras and the London Amphitheatre mean that there is a little more to see than there was in the past. Elsewhere the odd bit of Roman stone or flooring helps to give an idea of the ancient city. We followed the Roads to Rome walk produced by the City of London, which takes in all the major sites, and puts the fragments into context. The walk ends at the Museum of London, with its Roman Gallery full of artefacts that have been uncovered during excavations.
The Temple of Mithras
The Temple of Mithras was discovered during digging on a bombsite during the 1950s. The remains were removed and an (inaccurate) reconstruction was built elsewhere. However, when the Bloomberg corporation acquired the site for its European headquarters in 2010, it set about returning the temple to its original location and making it accessible to the public. The new site opened at the end of 2017.
You can descend to the original Roman street level (two floors beneath the current surface) to see the remains of the temple. Although there isn’t much left, an impressive sound and light show gives you a good idea of how the temple would have looked and how it would have been used. A separate exhibition area has more information about the temple and the cult of Mithraism.
Entrance to the site is free, but numbers are limited. Visit the website to make an appointment.
The London Amphitheatre
The London Amphitheatre is a more recent discovery. Although it was obvious that a town the size of Londinium would have had an amphitheatre, no-one knew where it was until 1988. It was found by chance when the ground was being prepared for the construction of an art gallery next to London’s Guild Hall. All that is left is a few remains from the east entrance, but these are now preserved in their original location, and have been open to the public since 2002.
The amphitheatre is in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery (again, the street level was much lower in Roman times). It has been set out so that you can see where people would have entered the arena and where the spectators would have sat. There are information boards about the amphitheatre and its discovery. Entrance to the Art Gallery and the amphitheatre is free.
When you return to ground level look out for a large semi-circle marked out in the Guildhall Yard. This shows the original location and dimensions of the amphitheatre.
The Walls of Londinium
As you might expect, Roman London was surrounded by a defensive wall. It enclosed the city on three sides, the fourth being bounded by the River Thames. The wall was substantially rebuilt in the Middle Ages, and continued to guard the city until the 17th century.
Little remains of the wall today. The two best sections are near the Tower of London: one close to Tower Hill underground station, and the other behind the Grange Hotel on nearby Cooper’s Row. Much of what you see now is medieval, but the square stone blocks at the base, and the rows of red tiles, are Roman.
It was when I was looking at these sections of wall that I spotted an information board for the London Wall Walk, a self-guided trail around the line of the walls. That’s one for me to follow next time I go to London. And, who knows, some more Roman remains might have been unearthed by then!
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