Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.16

Lacey M. Wallace, The Origin of Roman London. Cambridge classical studies.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. xvi, 192.  ISBN 9781107047570.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Dallas DeForest, California State University, Chico (

[The reviewer apologizes for the delay in producing this review.]

In The Origin of Roman London, Lacey M. Wallace provides the first broad synthesis of the abundant archaeological evidence now available for the study of London’s pre-Boudican phase. She contends that this evidence provides the best hope for understanding London’s origins and its earliest history, a subject which remains hotly contested. Some scholars argue that London was created as a fort or supply base by the army itself (or under its direction) as part of the creation of the new province. As such, London was founded to meet the administrative needs of the new provincial government and to help control the surrounding territory. Wallace argues that scholars who support (various hypotheses related to) the military model often do so on the basis of “scant and selective evidence” and contends that this is flawed due to a lack of proper synthesis of available archaeological data. She prefers the civilian theory: that enterprising “foreign merchants, traders, and other civilians” (p. 19) founded London, which was in its earliest phases a “civilian trading outpost” (p. 18). Wallace notes that one variation of this model, which does not presuppose a completely independent civilian initiative, understands the creation of the trading outpost as occurring alongside the creation of the new province’s road and communication networks. In this scenario, the civilian population of early London benefited from its newfound position at the center of the new province’s road network, while the Thames granted easy access to continental trade markets and networks. Wallace provides a thorough historiographical overview of these competing arguments in chapter one, which also includes a discussion of southeast Britain in the century or so before the Claudian invasion as well as a helpful overview of her methodology.

In chapter two, Wallace discusses the “earliest intrusive and depositional contexts” (p. 34), chiefly land clearance, quarrying activity, and road construction. The evidence upon which the chapter is based is laid out helpfully in three tables, which allows readers to follow her (very) detailed discussion more easily. Wallace argues that the road network was constructed before the settlement itself was planned, noting that “those who designed the roads had little intention of planning for later structural development” (p. 45). She implies that the impetus for construction was rooted in the need to connect key centers in southeast England, especially Colonia Claudia Victricensis (Colchester), Rutupiae (Richborough), Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester), and Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). This, she notes, is one theory for the placement of a road network at the future site of Londinium, since it was a natural crossroads in relation to these settlements. She also notes that certain construction methods visible in the archaeological record (e.g., timber-lined drains) suggest that the imperial administration anticipated “intensive use” of the road network, or perhaps an eventual settlement at a future date.

Chapter three provides an overview of the first settled town, focusing on structures and deposits that post-date the initial land clearance and road building activities presented in chapter two but pre-dating features standing when the city was destroyed in 61. Key features noted in this chapter include extensive leveling operations undertaken in preparation for construction activity; the modification of the waterfront into a proper harbor for mooring or beaching boats; and the construction of two new roads, the so-called “proto-forum,” and 41 buildings. The buildings discussed in this chapter are the earliest known in the archaeological record, though all were replaced before the Boudican fire. Wallace says that “scant but reliable” (p. 47) evidence indicates that many (though not all) of the features date to between 51-54. Wallace also notes that scholars have often overlooked these early buildings, despite their potential to increase our understanding of the “way the settlers conceived of urbanism and how to create a town from nothing” (p. 47). At this time, it seems that Londinium was separated into three distinct communities, two of which stood on the edges of the (overall) settlement at Ludgate Hill and along Cornhill Road 2. Both of these communities seem to have developed organically, without much planning. The central Cornhill area, however, was quite different. It is here that the “proto-forum” was laid out and the buildings followed a general alignment to it and the surrounding road network. Wallace suggests, therefore, that an individual or small group must have exercised sufficient authority at this stage to secure such organized development, and she interprets this as the work of immigrants from the mainland “recreating the familiar,” or an indigenous elite adopting Roman urban customs, as was common in Gaul and elsewhere.

Chapter four details the city as it was when it burned to the ground during Boudica’s revolt in 61. Wallace provides a detailed discussion of the features across the site at this time (roads, ditches, burials, continued waterfront development, and buildings/structures) and notes that differences between the three areas of the settlement remained pronounced. Building methods varied considerably across the site, and builders employed both imported and indigenous construction techniques, mainly using locally available materials. Although the majority of the buildings were quite modest, they were diverse enough (in plan/size, materials, decoration) to make clear that Londinium maintained a “complex and stratified social structure” in its pre-Boudican phase. Wallace notes that no “lavish buildings”—those constructed of “opus caementicium, roofed with tiles, and embellished with floor mosaics” (p. 81)— existed at this time, though one would not expect such buildings at this date in England. Wallace also points to three unique buildings in the archaeological record, which were likely “public or high status” in nature due to their size, site placement, and/or construction techniques: the southern proto-forum building, an aisled hall (just across the road), and an apsidal masonry building (about which little may be said concerning its function). The first was used for a variety of functions, including grain storage. Wallace suggests that the community’s “administrative authority” (necessarily vague at this point) organized the purchase of grain and used this structure to store it before distributing it to the city’s population. The second was likely a public hall used for “display or communal gatherings” (p. 91). Based on assemblages of imported ceramic and glass vessels recovered from the aisled hall, Wallace indicates that it was used for dining, as well as administrative tasks (writing implements).

Wallace argues that the occupied urban area of Londinium on the eve of the destruction of the city was ca. 40 hectares in size, with a population of ca. 4,000 people, making it “equivalent in population to a secondary urban centre in Gaul” (p. 101). Previous scholarly estimates have posited a significantly larger population for the city (ca. 10,000-30,000), but Wallace argues that these figures are too large due to “back-conjecturing the Flavian occupied area” (p. 101). Since her reconstruction is based on the most complete synthesis of pre-Boudican evidence yet assembled, it seems sensible to utilize her figure moving forward, while accepting that this number could change based on population density estimates. Wallace, to her credit, provides a comprehensive overview of density equations used in previous scholarship to calculate London’s pre-Boudican population. These produce population estimates in the range of 1,987-11,352, using ca. 40 hectares as the estimated occupied area of the city.

Wallace offers a selective survey of pre-Boudican artefact assemblages in chapter five—noting that an entire monograph could be devoted to the study of this subject alone—in order to better understand the inhabitants of the early city and their activities within it. Wallace identifies numerous social groups (e.g., soldiers, bakers, gem cutters); offers detailed discussions of key artefact categories (e.g., coins, lamps,); and provides overviews of important social practices visible in the material record (dressing/modifying the body, food/drink preparation). She suggests that the economy of early London consisted primarily of “specialized workshops and skilled craftsmen living alongside general merchants trading in a variety of goods” (p. 144). She also affirms that early Londinium benefitted from a wide array of imported goods (e.g., coins, ceramics, glass, querns). Wallace concludes by noting that the artefactual evidence supports her contention that London was an agglomeration of distinct areas with a diverse population.

Although Wallace supports her argument thoroughly throughout the text, one is left with the impression that the current debate over the origins of Roman London has become a bit too polarized and might benefit from broader, more inclusive approaches and frameworks (beyond the military and civilian models noted above). One also might wonder if the artefact data would have been better presented in context throughout chapters 2-4 rather than separately in chapter 5. Regardless, Wallace should be commended for synthesizing such a broad array of complex archaeological data and placing the study of the earliest phases of Roman London on a new footing. This book, which is lavishly illustrated with color plans, will be essential for scholars studying the archaeology of the city and of interest to those approaching Roman urbanism more broadly.

Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Tables
Chapter 1, An Introduction
Chapter 2, The First Features
Chapter 3, The Early Town
Chapter 4, The Town in AD 60/61
Chapter 5, People, Activities, and Meaning
Chapter 6, Characterising Early Londinium
Appendix: Gazeteer of Sites
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