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Londinium: A Biography. Roman London from Its Origins to the Fifth Century

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

Londinium: A Biography. Roman London from Its Origins to the Fifth Century

By Richard Hingley. Pp. xvi + 383. Bloomsbury Academic, London 2018. $34.95. ISBN 978-1-3500-4729-7 (paper).

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London is one of the most intensively excavated cities in the Roman world, yet three decades have passed since the last major syntheses were published (D. Perring, Roman London, [Abingdon, U.K. 1991]; R. Merrifield, London: City of the Romans [London 1983]). In that time, major new excavations have taken place (and older ones have been published), including the discovery of the monumental Late Roman basilica at Colchester House, the Bloomsburg excavations with all their writing tablets, a new fortlet at Plantation Place, major new cemeteries, and also a multitude of smaller interventions. Almost 40% of the excavations listed in the appendix postdate Perring’s book. New techniques have also opened up the world of understanding mobility through isotopic analysis of human remains. Wrapping around all this, approaches to narratives about Roman Britain have also adjusted and changed. A major new synthesis is very timely.

Hingley’s title pays homage to Ackroyd’s London: The Biography [London 2000] which was a wonderful evocation of the heartbeat of the city from its origins to the present day, following a thematic approach to life in the city. However, Hingley’s Londinium: A Biography is by comparison far more traditional in its structure. It is ruthlessly chronological, from the city’s origins through to its transition into the ruinous backdrop to Middle-Saxon Lundenwic. Each section is clearly structured, first introducing evidence relating to individual named people, but then geographically scoping the physical remains; this essentially makes it an easy book to dip in and out of, rather than the flowing evocation of Ackroyd. It is also a little more limited in scope in that it focuses very much on the structural remains and burial landscape and the writing tablets, but draws in little of the broader material evidence that is the bread and butter of archaeology—the craft tools, the animal and environmental remains, the detritus of life that tells us so much of people’s passage through life. 

The scene is set well, reflecting on the geography of the early Thames flowing through London, unconstrained by its later banks and wharves. Hingley maps the pre-Roman material from the city and Southwark within this waterscape, revealing a surprisingly large quantity, especially considering the site of the later city is often described as having been founded almost in a void. However, Hingley does surprisingly neglect to mention a very important site just downriver under Woolwich Power Station, where a Late Iron Age enclosure with massive defences was discovered in the 1980s. While initially it was kept under wraps because of fears of looting. This potential oppidum really does now need to be built into narratives of London.

Within this landscape, London emerged in the late 40s C.E. Its origin is highly contested; debate especially surrounds the role of the military in its foundation, with some interpreting every V-shaped ditch as proof-positive of an early fort (never backed up with internal buildings or a complete plan), and others emphasizing traders and supply lines and how the crossing point combined with the tidal reach at London made an ideal site to berth and offload. Hingley evaluates the evidence in a reasonably balanced way, urging the reader not to underestimate the abilities and resources of the traders arriving to settle and do things, without everything requiring military assistance, while at the same time reminding us how close the military supply and long-distance trade nexus was (54).

As the author works through the centuries, charting the growth of the town, he describes the excavations and principal buildings, and he supplies copious endnotes plus an appendix of sites that provides directions to the original reports and archive repositories. One of the themes that runs richly through the volume concerns the mortuary rites in and around the city. Hingley successfully pulls together the rich and exceptionally varied evidence, not only from the peripheral cremation or inhumation cemeteries but also from the distribution of crania and other human remains in varied contexts across the city and Southwark. He plays with interpretation here: for example, many young male crania with head wounds were found from the Upper Walbrook valley (162), and Hingley reflects on the diverse possibilities, from military headhunting to gladiatorial combats.

But elsewhere he is more assertive in his interpretation, relating the discovery of partial “irregular” remains to continuing Iron Age practices, especially ones involving exposure of corpses on the edge of the Thames or other water margins. I think there is an important area for study here, and he cites more material than I was aware of from the city. At times, his interpretation is a little stretched for my personal Roman-world view. From the Upper Walbrook cemetery some bodies were discovered in ditches, half rotten, potentially eroded seasonally by water, potentially visible to visitors passing the cemetery (161). For him the practice and location represents continuity of Iron Age rites, while to me it is a reminder of Rome’s puticuli, where the urban poor were unceremoniously dumped in suburban ditches. But it is from the accumulation of the detailed evidence and repeated patterning that such world views change, so we will see where this debate goes.

The themes above are where Hingley most expresses his own views, making a contribution beyond simply collating information from the plethora of excavations. However, in some other sections, where he runs through the new discoveries, he does seem to report more than evaluate. Did he really believe the shattered consignment of samian pottery dumped into the infill of the new quayside was a ritual deposit as suggested by Adam Rogers(178)? I was left at times wondering what he actually thought. 

For a reader not well versed in the history and archaeology of Roman Britain more generally, the book may be a minor struggle, as knowledge of the broader events and archaeology of the province is taken for granted; indeed a brief historical setting for each chapter would have paid dividends. Nonetheless, this book will become the go-to book for researching Roman London, to anchor and orientate, and to point toward the archives and publications. It is not perhaps the flowing evocation of Ackroyd or the more popular, accessible account of Merrifield, but it is the essential collation of recent research that London has been crying out for. As a biography, we see Londinium’s birth and questionable parentage, its troubled Boudican infancy, then its maturity, and finally its economic wobbles as age sets in.

John Creighton
University of Reading

Book Review of Londinium: A Biography. Roman London from Its Origins to the Fifth Century, by Richard Hingley

Reviewed by John Creighton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.creighton

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