No trace of any earlier occupation has ever been
found on the site that can be considered in any way a predecessor of the Roman town;
had there been any, the extensive excavations would have revealed it by now. In any case, the
few prehistoric finds are from scattered sites, and date from as early as the Bronze Age, long
before the Roman invasion.
The question of exactly how and when the town was created during those seventeen years
has been the source of much speculation, and until recently there have been almost no clues.
The Roman army swept across the English and Welsh country sides
during that time from their landing site in south east England, and by AD 60 they
had reached Anglesey. The origin of London is clearly linked with the early events of the
Roman invasion, and until recently the most popular assumption was that it began as a
Roman military fort and supply base guarding the river crossing, and that it was around this
that the town subsequently grew.' The latest discoveries, however, do not support this hypothesis
and it has been found necessary to re examine the early stages of the invasion to find out how the
new clues from London most easily fit into our knowledge of the Roman occupation of
In the spring of AD 43 the Roman invasion fleet landed, in part at least, at
the site of the former coastal promontory at Richborough near Sandwich, where
excavations in 1927 dis closed a broad Roman beachhead of the mid first century, defended by a
double ditch and rampart clearly representing the presence of 'a considerable military force.
Initially the commanding general, Aulus Plautius met no opposition, but soon he
found himself confronted by a force led by the brothers Caratacus and
Togodumnus, rulers of the Catuvellauni whose capital was Camulodunum
near modern Colchester.
History of London
The Roman invasion camp
There is one certain fact about the origin of London: it was founded by the
Romans sometime between AD 43, when they initiated their invasion, and AD 60, when
the earliest written record of the town tells us that it was destroyed in a British
uprising against Roman tyranny.
The Britons were routed in initial skirmishes and
retreated to assemble at the river Medway. A major battle lasting two days took place here,
perhaps in the Rochester area where there was already a native town and no doubt
a river crossing. A hard won Roman success, in which German auxiliary soldiers distinguished
themselves, forced Caratacus to flee westwards towards a place where he could cross the Thames.
And so it was that the pursuing Roman army first arrived near the site probably
to be occupied by London.
Assuming that this is the correct site, here they found the broad meandering river
Thames, clear and fast flowing to judge from the sands and gravels deposited in the
river bed at that period.' The tide had probably not yet reached the area as the sea level was
about 3 or 4 m lower than at present. The contemporary land surface around the south bank of
the Thames River has been identified in various excavations and geological
borings, and it was clearly very different from that of recent times. Flat semi marshland existed
in a broad strip up to half a mile wide alongside the river, and in it various meandering streams
and creeks flowed down to the low river bank.' The north bank to which the enemy was retreating was
different, for there lay what appeared to be several low flat topped hills up to 12 m high which
descended steeply to the river. In fact these were the remains of an ancient terrace of river
gravels and clays which had been eroded by streams and small rivers, like the Fleet and the
Walbrook, flowing into the Thames.
Cassius Dio, writing about a century and a half after the invasion but no doubt using official documents, described how the Britons retired to the river River Thames at a point near where it empties into the ocean and at flood tide forms a lake. This they easily crossed because they knew where the firm ground and the easy passages in this region were to be found;
but the Romans in attempting to follow them were not so successful. However, the Germans swam across again and some others got over by a bridge a little way upstream, after which they assailed the barbarians from several sides at once and cut down many of them. In pursuing the remainder incautiously, they got into swamps from which it was difficult to make their way out, and so lost a number of men.'
The Roman soldiers, especially the German auxiliaries who had been trained to swim in full equipment,
had probably crossed the Thames in various places, most of which were presumably fords.
One of these may have been at Fulham where the particularly fine sword of a Roman army
officer was found in the river, still in its sheath decorated with a scene depicting
Romulus and Remus. Another find, possibly from the river but from an unknown London site,
is a bronze legionary's helmet now preserved in the British Museum.
Aulus Plautius halted his army to await the arrival of Claudius so that the Emperor himself could take possession of Camulodunum. This pause lasted some weeks as Claudius and his retinue travelled from Rome. During that time Plautius consolidated his position on the banks of the Thames, and must have built a major fort there for the safety of his troops and equipment. It has been suggested that he built a bridge too, partly to occupy his troops, as this would explain the reference by Dio to a bridge apparently crossing the river. Since it is extremely unlikely that the Britons could have built such a major structure, it is possible that Dio, writing much later,
may have confused the subsequent London Bridge for a native one.
There is no reason to suppose that Plautius' camp lay actually at the future site of the Roman town of Londinium; it is far more likely that it was built close to an established Iron Age ford such as at Brentford, Fulham, Battersea or Westminster where concentrations of antiquities in the river bed show that fords probably existed.'
An absence of prehistoric finds in the river around London Bridge, however, suggests that there was no ford there, so building the camp in a position like that away from an established ford, and therefore away from the land routes leading to it, would have removed the advantage of their being able to police British movements during this critical phase of the invasion. Indeed, the suggestion that the camp lay elsewhere is supported by the study of the earliest stratified coins and imported samian ware from Gaul found in Southwark,
which indicates that Londinium was not established until about AD 50.
Until recently it was no more than guesswork to locate Plautius' camp, but new evidence from Southwark tentatively points to the Westminster region as a distinct possibility. It has long been recognized that the line of one of the earliest Roman roads, Watling Street, which led from the invasion base at Richborough in Kent to the Thames, surprisingly by passed London heading for a possible crossing at Westminster, where it was met on the north bank of the river by the line of a road leading north to Verulamium, a native town. It therefore seemed likely that these roads and the possible crossing at Westminster had been established before that of London Bridge. Until now the Westminster crossing was mere conjecture, but as at last its existence is indicated by the discovery at the south end of London Bridge of a Roman road, of mid first century date, heading directly towards the same place, it seems likely that there was a ford there and that the traces of Roman occupation found on the naturally defended site of Thorney Island at Westminster long ago, particularly under the Abbey, formed part of a small later riverside settlement at the ford."'
The presumably slightly later Roman roads leading to London from the south coast and from the north and west all seem to cut across the early line of Watling Street, and lead to a second and presumably later river crossing at London Bridge where the new Roman town was to be built. It has been suggested that traces of buildings found close to London Bridge in the areas of Cannon Street station and in Grace church Street might have been early Roman military ones; but this is unlikely on the present evidence, not enough of the plans of the Roman buildings having been found to enable their purpose to be identified. They could equally well have been houses,
shops or commercial warehouses in a civilian town."
A more valid clue is the undoubted trace of the formal planning of streets and buildings on the plateau overlooking the site of London Bridge, planning that occurred right at the beginning of Roman occupation in the area. In particular there is the major east west street that now lies beneath Lombard Street and the western end of Fenchurch Street." This degree of formal planning at the beginning of the Roman occupation of Britain must reflect the activity of Roman military officials, and so it is possible that this was the main street of Plautius' camp, retained when the civil town moved on to the site. It is equally possible, and in view of subsequent events perhaps more likely,
that the street was built for the new town that was named Londinium.
With the arrival of Claudius in the high summer of AD 43, accompanied by a troop of elephants to overawe the Britons, the initial phase of the conquest was brought to a satisfactory conclusion with a triumphal entry into Camulodunum. A fort for the XX Legion was erected near by while the main invasion force pushed northwards and westwards. Claudius stayed in Britain for only sixteen days, and after receiving
the surrender of various tribes at Camulodunum, he returned to Rome in triumph.
Extract from “Roman London”, written by Peter Marsden, Thames and Hudson, London, 1980.