I don’t know exactly when the realisation dawned upon me, but for most of its history, London was really, just the “square mile”, the City of London. That City is a Roman creation, and still is very much Roman. The present boundary of it mirrors the Roman town, Londinium. But I am thinking of this in more than just the geographical terms. It is Roman in spirit as well. This spirit springs out of trade.
Most settlements are established through practicality, the main driver being the demands to sustain life. Water, shelter and food. Think of Maslow’s Pyramid and what is needed before people can move onto the next level. You don’t really find, on the whole, settlements on the top of wind-blown, arid, rocky mountains. There are hillforts, such as those from the Iron Age, but these are not mountains and not far from a water supply. The most batty I have been to is Mam Tor in the Peak District. Why would anyone want to live on top of that hill? For most of the year it is windy, wet and cold. Saying that, it does command a powerful position over the Hope Valley and the route connecting east and west; a trade route.
Once life is secured, the need is economic security. A good place to trade from, close to routes and networks where business would thrive. Many of these, say market towns, grew out of a local supply of what was being traded. A balance between large farms providing grain or wool, and rivers or roads leading to other trade centres and countries.
Some places such as Colchester had developed as a trading centres with networks to the Empire, before AD 43, the (successful) invasion. Whereas London, up until around AD 50, was a series of gravel islands, reeds, marshland, tributaries and was subject to the vagaries of flooding by the River Thames. No doubt there were midges there as well. Not the most inviting of places to settle.
There is much resistance to London being purely a Roman creation, and not without reason. Evidence of prehistoric human activity in the “inner” London area is plentiful. Often the Battersea shield is cited as proof of the pre-Roman origins of London, but this is not the City of London.
There are tantalising traces of the prehistoric world in the City area. Recent excavations have brought up pottery sherds from c. 5,500 years ago. Two skeletons dating from the Iron Age were uncovered in the Tower of London. There were crossing points that traversed the Thames from the south to the north. The Thames must have represented a huge barrier, which I like to think, was a boundary between peoples north and south of the River Thames. The marshland and gravel islands represented a neutral zone between the two. There is still a division between the north and south of the Thames today. Are you north, or south London? I am definitely south.
If the London area was a borderland, and I am really conjecting now, how superstitious were people about it? Was it a religious place and not for habitation? For the prehistoric peoples, water often represented a way to another world, where the ancestors lived. Those two Iron Age skeletons. Was there a connection between their death, burial and the River Thames?
It wasn’t long after the conquest in AD 43 that settlement took hold. The earliest evidence of this is from around AD 50. Who were these people, the settlers? They were traders. Writing tablets from the AD 50s – 80s have been uncovered and translated; they relate to trade. It is generally believed that these traders were Gaulish, who had been trading with Briton before the conquest, so already had the established networks. It’s interesting they chose these islands to establish themselves on and not, say, Colchester. Perhaps it was because the area was already neutral. No one owned the land. No-one to turf-off. Briton was about to go through a huge upheaval in society, and in the medium term this land was available. Londinium was established.
Although not a traditional place for settlement, Londinium was an amazing strategic location. The Thames led out into the North Sea. Go south and you would find yourself on the north coast of Gaul and the Rhine, which had further networks to central and southern Europe. Go north and you would reach northern Briton quite quickly. York and Lincoln were becoming Roman centres of trade, and there were small ports along the coast, such as north Norfolk. From here raw materials and food can be sent southwards to Londinium and the Empire.
Londinium was also a good crossing point on the Thames, and early on, around AD 50, a bridge had been built that joined with the south east of Briton. From Londinium roads were built. Stane Street running down to the south and Chichester, Portway going to the west, Wattling Street (the A5), went up to Anglesey but also ran to Dover, and Ermine Street (the A10) heading up to the north east. This was a military network and the bridge was probably built by army engineers.
Over a short period of time, people settled and lived in Londinium. It became a thriving centre with dense occupation in the centre. The people were mainly Britons, but being a Roman town, there was everyone from the Empire, including Spain, northern Africa, eastern Mediterranean and central Europe. Roman lifestyle was adopted. The fashions, buildings, food, and religion. Although, being a pagan religion, often the local deities were adapted with the Roman.
We have a perception today that the Roman way of life was imposed upon a people. It was aspirational and certainly the Romans saw themselves as “civilised”. The food of Roman Britain was imported. There was wine, olives, garum, as opposed to the Iron Age ale, broad beans and mutton. The south east of Briton had already been trading with the Roman Empire before the invasion and there is the evidence of wine, etcetera, being very much part of the culture in the late Iron Age. This “south-east” culture can arguably be reflected into modern Britain.
Early on, the famous Boudican revolt raised Londinium to the ground. The Roman forces strategically withdrew from the City, leaving it to the Britons. The revolt was later put down and the supporters decimated. Londinium was re-built and Rome made its mark. Right in the middle of the City, a monumental forum and basilica was built. Supposedly, it was the largest basilica north of the Alps. The forum is the marketplace. An amphitheatre and road system was in place by the end of the 1st century AD. As the years went by other buildings sprang up as Londinium expanded. A wall was built around AD 200. Settlement was fuelled by trade and vice versa. Londinium became wealthy, but also mirrored the economic rises and falls of the Empire.
By the 350s, Londinium was very much on the downturn and famously, the “Romans” left in 410. When we say the “Romans left”, we mean the military support and administration. The actual people, the “Londinium-ers”, had nowhere to go back to, although the population of Londinium had already plummeted by then. With the invading “Saxons”, most of the population dispersed and Londinium suffered a few centuries of non-habitation.
From the late Saxon period, London re-established itself, trade continued and for the next 1000 years the City boomed. People re-settled in the Square Mile and a London that we would recognise appeared. The Medieval period saw the establishment of the City’s wealthy worshipful companies, the most powerful of which are the Mercers (traders). In the 16th century, a break from the Catholic church meant networks with the New World had to be made. From the 18th century huge docks were built east of the City that catered for world travel and transport. Companies based in the City, turned huge profits, exploited countries controlled their markets, and traded enslaved people. Fortunes were made.
It is still a centre for trade and the only reason for the City existing, is trade. It is not physical, there are no ports and goods being exchanged. Trade happens via the virtual world. International business and people from all over the world, are there for opportunity. No-one lives in the City, but 400,000 people work there, commuting in and out everyday. At least they did until March 2020.
This Roman spirit remains deep in the psyche of the City, and it is built into the very fabric; the classical buildings and pseudo temples. Many of these are left-overs from the 19th century. There was a flurry of grand monumental, statement-making, classical buildings being constructed during this time. Stand in the middle of Bank Junction (you can do this on Google), slowly turn on the spot and enjoy the classicism: Mansion House, the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England. They all imitate temples, raised above the pavements, higher than the masses. Just down the road, 81 King William Street is a 1920s classical building. Billingsgate Market has Britannia adorning it on the top. The Bank of England has its very own Tivoli temple of stuck on the back.
An excellent example of this is the 1850s Coal Exchange that was on Lower Thames Street. It was built to a very Classical design and the property developers even preserved the Roman remains discovered during construction. Victorian builders would usually have just taken out any antiquities that stood in the way. This was no ordinary building. Coal was the very thing the industrial revolution was being fuelled by. That in turn fuelled Britain and its Empire. The 1840s were by far the biggest decade for railway growth. Internationally, steam powered ships were joining up the world. The first screw-driven propeller steamship introduced in America was built by Thomas Clyde in 1844. Many more ships and routes followed. The factories, the mills, let alone the domestic heating was all powered by coal. For the City coal was profitable and the centre of the coal market was a classical building.
It is obvious to make the connection between the British Empire and Roman Empire. The Victorians did. Although, these two empires are completely different.
The modern Roman
Today, building in the Classical style is seen as a bit passé, lazy, not challenging. Perhaps the perpetual domestic and business use of classism in the 1980s resulted in that. Modern trade doesn’t need columns and pediments. Huge buildings have gone up, making bold international corporate statements. The higher they are, the more powerful they be. A highly fuelled competition of international organisations gaining, literally, the higher ground, and innovative ways of working and living. If you work for us, you work here, reach into the skies, are close to the gods. Glassy escalators take you up to the first, second and third floors straight from street level. The views from on high gives an enormous sense of power. Detached from and looking down upon the masses. There are the onsite restaurants and “pantries”, the Duck and Waffle, Kenzo. In this setting, they are exclusive, not attainable anywhere else. And don’t forget the integrated car melting spectral ray guns.
The shape and form has changed, but the cause, activity and intent of the building remains every bit Roman. Remember the largest brick and limestone structure north of the Alps. A forum to trade and the place to get the freshest specialities straight off the boat, to give you that international, cultured lifestyle.
I am being simplistic here. There was much more to being a Roman than just trade, people travelling around the world and a “civilised” aspiration. But my point is, London only exists because of the Romans and it only still exists because of that trade that first started in AD 50, 7 years after the Roman invasion and established by international (Gaulish) traders.
But the future
I started writing this some time ago. I always keep a pile of half written articles in my back pocket. I was driven to finish this now as the news this week was about the City not having access to the EU markets from January 2021.
So, I have ask, where is the City of London going? I can’t answer this, but am fascinated. In this pandemic, we realise that we do not need to go to an office to trade. It can be done anywhere. At home, in a local hub or the cafe. People are saving £100s a month on rail tickets and 15 – 20 hours a week in time. The companies can save huge amounts of money on rent. Will there be a need to work in the City? This is on top of the impact from the UK leaving the EU.
People believe, with blind faith, in a resilience of the City of London. They will cite Boudica, the “Dark Age” period of de-habitation, the Great Fire of London and the Blitz. There are many other fires, plagues and events the City has survived and “risen from the ashes” of. But it has done so because of the need that the City provided for. The geography and physicality of bringing people together to trade. That still exists, but not necessarily in one location.
There are two extremes it could go in. With extremes, truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. It could return to the pre-March 2020 activity, with a booming non-EU aligned economy and intense trade. A 24-hour city trading with the world. Usually, it takes a generation to restructure an economy, so this wouldn’t happen anytime soon. Alternatively, it will turn into a heritage theme park, as many post-trade and industrial places have done. Actors will be employed to walk about with bowler hats, full-length umbrellas and the most up to date I-Phones. This might sound a bit odd and even ridiculous to think this may happen. But then, think of Venice: a once great, powerful, rich, city state based on marshes and trade, and now a tourist attraction.