Londinium: A Biography: Roman London from its Origin to the Fifth Century
Richard Hingley
Bloomsbury Academic
383 pages, 75 black-and-white illustrations
Paperback, £27

At the start of the millennium I lived on the top floor of a tower-block near the Palace of Westminster. From our balconies I could monitor the shifting fabric of London. The number of cranes – always a forest – was a guide to the pace of change. One of London's most distinguished recorders, Peter Ackroyd, wrote in London: The Biography, published in 2000, 'London seems to invite fire and destruction, from the attack of Boadicea to those of the IRA'.

The old music-hall song described 'one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit'. Londoners have never needed Cromwell – they constantly knock the place down themselves. Last week I crossed Waterloo Bridge for the first time in a couple of years and would hardly have recognised the view if it had not been for the familiar dome of St Paul's among the proliferation of glass towers: the Gherkin, the Walkie-talkie, the Cheese-grater – Londoners love to give pet-names to their new protuberances.

Yet St Paul's is, itself, a relatively recent arrival – replacing, in 1697, the ancient cathedral destroyed in the Great Fire: 'These Flames Impartial were, and mow'd down all' (from The Misfortunes of St Paul's Cathedral, 1678). While working on the project, Sir Christopher Wren and his colleagues noted the archaeological deposits visible in their building site. It was a hesitant start to the archaeological exploration of the city, which has burgeoned in recent decades. Thanks to London's fondness for renewing itself, archaeologists have had ample opportunity to investigate the deeply buried cities beneath their feet. It is sometimes said, with justification, that it is the most archaeologically explored city in the world.

The result is that the shelves of academic libraries are groaning with London's archaeological excavation reports – but these can be difficult to penetrate. The reports themselves need to be mined and quarried to construct London's past, for the devil – or the story – is in the detail.

Professor Richard Hingley, of Durham University, has bravely attempted to make sense of this plethora of data, in order to reconstruct Roman London – Britannia's largest settlement. It is not easy. There has been a huge number (and still growing) of excavations, but each is a key-hole into a shifting, three-dimensional kaleidoscope.
Unlike Pompeii or Silchester, Londinium cannot easily be exposed. The virtue of Hingley's book is that it brings together a vast quantity of information (the appendix of excavation names, notes, bibliography and index runs to 134 pages). This is valuable for enthusiasts but does not make for an easy read. Nor is the author helped by his publisher's parsimonious attitude to illustrations and the absence of colour images – this is a book crying out for more vivid pictures – which are available on the Museum of London's superb photograph archive.

Hingley expresses concern that London's specialist archaeologists will criticise his book as a premature attempt at synthesis. But he need not worry: his task is a vital aspect of archaeology, without which we remain mere parochial antiquarians or technicians. Hingley puts Londinium into a wider context – that of native Britain, as
part of the archaeology of the Thames Valley and as the major city of Britannia within the Roman empire.

Now we can see how London emerged and developed: its streets, drains, shops, houses, religious and public buildings and cemeteries. And how the young city survived its most destructive visitor – Boadicea (Boudicca) Queen of the Iceni. Roman London is a city in transformation, surrounded by water, a cosmopolitan trading centre, a cross between Singapore and Venice, with ritual, ceremony, craft and commerce side by side: noisy, smelly, venal and exciting.

Richard Hingley is to be congratulated: not for writing the biography of Londinium, but for posing the right questions and, hopefully, for enabling other authors and excavators to stand on his shoulders, providing them with a clearer view from the data mountain.

David Miles

 

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