Discovering Roman London

London Wall
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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.

Roman Wall, London
Fragment of Roman/medieval wall on Cooper’s Row

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.

Emperor Trajan and Roman wall, London
Pinnable image of the Emperor Trajan beside the Roman wall at Tower Hill

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.

Fish Street Hill, London
Fish Street Hill – this was once the main Roman road between the river and the forum

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.

Temple of Mithras, London
The Temple of Mithras, with the bull symbol that was characteristic of Mithraism

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.

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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.

London Amphitheatre
A light show augments the remains of the London Auditorium

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.

London Guildhall
The location of the amphitheatre is marked by a circle in the ground

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.

London Wall
A fragment of the wall near Tower Hill

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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10 thoughts on “Discovering Roman London”

  1. Great Post – London is a city rich in history, but its founding figures can sometimes be overlooked. We’re both interested in Roman history, wherever it may appear. It is a shame that so much of it is hidden, but as you say with a little imagination, you can see the tell-tale signs. If you take a stroll down Fish Street Hill to St Magnus the Martyr church, just outside is a piece of Roman wood, from the pilings of the Roman river wall.

    Thanks for sharing

    Gary

  2. I’d not heard of Londinium! I visited the Roman baths in Bath when I visited England years ago and saw other remnants of the Romans throughout the country so am not surprised there are bits of Roman civilization in the city as well. Interesting post!

  3. Thinking back, it makes sense that there would be Roman influence, but like you said..everything pretty much has been obliterated. Next visit, l intend to try and discover Roman London :-).

  4. Kristin Henning

    Interesting to hear that the Temple of Mithras as been redone. That will be on our next visit’s itinerary. Thanks!

  5. Very interesting. I found a little piece of Roman London that had been preserved years and years ago, so am pleased to see that their are a few more bits that have been found and saved. The sound and light shows sound like a fascinating way to bring the bit of ruins back to life. I’ll have to check those out on my next visit!

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About Karen

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren. I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 60 countries at the last count). I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica (I still hope to get there one day…), and my current favourite destinations are Italy, Spain and North America. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way.

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