Times Roman

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
London was a thriving centre of commerce, even 2,000 years ago. Evidence of its vibrant atmosphere and lifestyle lives on today, and has been gathered together in an exhibition called High Street Londinium. This gives a fascinating picture of how people used to live. Report: Dinah Starkey. Photos: Chris Knaggs

Noisy, smelly and dangerous - that's the picture of 1st-century Londinium conjured up by the exhibition at the Museum of London, which opened this summer.

Based on excavations at 1 Poultry - an archeological site in the heart of the City - High Street Londinium replicates a city that is a far cry from the images of spotless togas and stately buildings that we normally associate with the period. The exhibition, which runs until January 2001, offers a rare glimpse into the everyday lives of ordinary Londoners during Roman times, and dispels many stereotypes.

Londinium was a frontier town, teeming with people and riddled with tension. Business was booming and makeshift buildings of mud, brick and timber were being built on every spare bit of ground. The dig uncovered three town blocks, crowded with buildings. Artefacts found within suggest that they included a carpenter's workshop, a bakery and a shop selling quality pottery and tableware. All the evidence indicates that these shops were thriving in the first years of the Roman occupation, but in 54AD disaster struck.

Tensions between the native tribes and new Roman colonists had been growing and in that year the Iceni, led by their queen, Boudicca, ravaged the garrison town of Colchester and then fell on Londinium.

It looks as though most traders fled as few bodies have been discovered, but there is plenty of evidence that the Iceni devastated the town. Certainly, the unlucky pottery trader seems to have abandoned his stock of high-grade Samian ware and never returned to reclaim it. It was still lying in the ruins of his house when archaeologists excavated the site 1,800 years later.

High Street Londinium aims to recreate the sounds and smells of London at that time. Three of the buildings discovered on the site have been reconstructed and visitors will be able to walk through their rooms and courtyards before emerging to look at the actual Roman finds that were discovered on site.


Britain had been trading with the empire well before the conquest, exporting hunting dogs and woollen cloaks, and importing luxury goods from the Continent. By the end of 100AD, London was a thriving centre of commerce. Its forum and basilica (the market place and town hall) were the largest ever to be have been built north of the Alps. We know from surviving evidence that it was a cosmopolitan place where merchants from Gaul rubbed shoulders with backwoods tribesmen, Roman veterans and Irish slaves.


The area around the main road - the Via Decumana - was laid out in blocks, which were bound by a stream on one side and a main road on the other. In the early years, the houses were makeshift dwellings made of local timber and mud bricks. Wealthier citizens enjoyed spacious houses in the quieter areas, while those in the trading quarter were crammed together in dirty, unhygienic conditions where several occupants lived, slept and worked in a single room. Kitchens were a luxury and some people took their food to be cooked at the nearest bakery or bought fast food from the many roadside stalls.


First-century Londoners liked their food spicy and strongly flavoured. The fish sauce, called garum, was a favourite relish. To make it, the cook placed the entrails of a tunny fish together with its gills, juices and blood in a pot, added salt and left it to steep for two months. Then the pot was pierced and the juices, which trickled out, were used as seasoning. Most people lived on coarse bread and bean or pea pottage, with porridge. Grain was a staple and deposits found in the city include different kinds of wheat and barley. Traces of grain and flour discovered in one of the shops suggest that its occupant at the time of the Iceni revolt was a baker.

Not everyone had such a restricted diet, however. The Roman writer Apicius, who wrote a cookery book in the 1st century AD, offers recipes for the delicate and complex dishes enjoyed by the wealthy. Sweet-and-sour blends were popular. Oysters were cooked with pepper, lovage, egg yolk and vinegar and dressed with honey. Dormice were stuffed with pepper and pine kernels and moistened with fish sauce, before being placed on a tile and baked in the oven.


While the pottery discovered at the shop in the Via Decumana was high-quality Samian ware for the wealthy, ordinary Londoners made do with the coarser grey or black pottery which was produced locally.

By the 3rd century, large workshops were mass producing items such as jars, dishes and bowls for domestic use. The trade was highly standardised. Lamps, for example, were of a uniform size and shape across the Roman Empire - only the decoration was different. They were turned out by slaves and poorly paid freemen who, in spite of their skills, were considered the lowest of the low by other tradesmen.

How do we know?

Written information about everyday Roman life is scarce, but evidence from excavations helps to fill in the gaps. When the houses burnt down during the Boudiccan revolt, evidence was preserved which gives us a snapshot of life at that particular time. Rubbish tips containing seeds, fruits and bones provide clues to the diet of the people who lived there. Some of the artefacts, including a writing pad and stylus, hint at their lifestyle. The 800 coins, which were found together with shards of pottery, can be used to date each layer and provide information about trade routes.

There is much that we can never know, however, such as details of decoration and the exact nature of perishable articles. So, although we know a good deal about buildings, for information about costume we must rely on contemporary pictures and sculpture. We know what cooking pots looked like, but can only guess how the finished dishes were presented.

Finding out how archaeologists work helps children to understand the value and limitations of historical evidence. Here are some activities:

* Excavate a waste-paper basket from another classroom. From the evidence, can children guess which class it belonged to?

* Look at the contents of a supermarket shopping bag. Which items might be discovered by archaeologists 100 years from now? Which will have rotted away?

* Bury objects in a sand tray and get children to excavate them using teaspoons and paintbrushes. You could divide it into squares using string and get children to record finds on a grid.

For information on the High Street Londinium exhibition, telephone the Museum of London on 020 7600 3699; fax 020 7600 1058; visit: www.museumoflondon.org.uk or e-mail: info@museumoflondon.org.uk. Admission for school groups is free when booked in advance


A palatial residence at Fishbourne in Sussex points up the contrast between rich and poor. It dates from much the same period as the houses on the Via Decumana, between 75 and 100AD, but it gives a different picture of the Roman way of life.

The villa at Fishbourne was decorated with magnificent mosaic pavements and richly painted walls. It was built around a Mediterranean-style courtyard, which was laid out as a formal garden with fountains. Marble, imported from Turkey and the Pyrenees, under-floor heating and a splendid bath suite testify to the wealth and luxurious tastes of its unknown owner.

The palace was designed to impress. Surviving evidence suggests that new arrivals were led from the great entrance hall, through marble colonnades, to a domed audience chamber. The vaulted ceiling was painted blue and gilded with stars, the floor was a coloured mosaic of superb quality, and fragments of marble and bronze hint at the rich statuary which must once have adorned this palace.

But who was the owner? There are few clues. We can be pretty sure of his gender because no unattached woman of the period would have lived in this style. The many guest suites and reception rooms provided within the villa indicate that he may have held some official position.

One possible candidate is the local king Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, who was later honoured by Vespasian with the title of legatus augusti (legate to the emperor). Whatever his identity, his experiences must have been far removed from those of his contemporaries in 1st century Londinium.

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