She goaded the Romans to invest
It must have happened about here, I reckon. It is a bright autumn day, and I have found what could well have been the heart of the earliest Roman settlement. It’s just up from London Bridge, at the junction between Gracechurch Street and Lombard Street, with Fenchurch Street running off to the right. There’s a Marks & Spencer and an Itsu restaurant ahead, but according to all my books the space I am interested in is in the middle of this intersection.
So I risk a few toots from the motorists by cycling onto the spot, and my mind empties as in a trance; I no longer see the shiny new banks and accountancy firms but half-built wooden homes, the smoke from a thousand new hearths shimmering over all and new unsurfaced roads and a forest in the distance; and just before I scoot away I imagine what it must have been like to be in the hobnailed sandals of poor exhausted Suetonius Paulinus, the governor of the new province.
He had just marched as fast as his troops could go, down what is now the A5 highway from North Wales, and now he stood on the patch of gravel that served as the marketplace for the very first London. Before him there was a collection of London merchants in a state of terror.
They knew what had happened to the people of Colchester in Essex— thousands of them sliced by sharp Celtic swords or skewered on pikes or burned alive in their wattle dwellings; the very temple of the deified Claudius sacked and burned to the ground, its occupants carbonised. They had heard all about the ferocity of the Iceni and their queen, Boudica. They had heard what a big and indignant woman she was, with her mane of red hair and her determination to avenge the rape of her daughters by Roman troops.
Help us, Suetonius, they begged the Roman general; and the miserable fellow shook his head. As he looked at early Londinium, he could see the ambition of the settlers everywhere. Colchester (Camulodunum) was officially the colonia, or capital, but London was already the most populous centre, an entrepôt town, as Tacitus describes it, swarming with business folk and travellers of all kinds.
If Suetonius looked to his right, down to the bridge, he could see ships tied up at the dock: unloading marble from Turkey to beautify the sprouting new homes, or olive oil from Provence or fish sauce from Spain. He could see ships loading the very first exports of this country—hunting dogs or tin or gold or depressed-looking slaves from the dank forests of Essex, stained blue with woad.
All around he could see the signs of the speculative money that had been poured into the town. Just in front of him, we now believe, was a new shopping mall with a portico 58 metres long, and he could see women with their heads covered, haggling by some scales, and pigs snuffling in rubbish. There were piles of fresh timbers being laid out, so that proper square Roman buildings could replace the primitive round huts of the earliest years. There were fresh hazel laths for the wattle, fresh clay for the daub. There were carpenters who had been hired for the work, not all of whom had been paid. The roads through London were already done to a professional Roman standard, 9 metres wide and constructed of hard-rammed gravel, cambered at the side to allow rainwater to drain off into ditches.
There were about thirty thousand of these Londoners in an area roughly the size of Hyde Park, and when I say Londoners I don’t mean cockneys, obviously. They weren’t Brits: indeed, they would have been pretty contemptuous of the “Britunculi”—the “Little Britons,” as one Roman legionary was later to call them.
They were Romans, Latin-speaking traders in togas or tunics, from what is now France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, the Balkans—from all over the empire. They had expensive Roman tastes, for wine and red terra sigillata crockery, with its pretty moulded reliefs. Even in this misty outpost, they liked to lie back on their couches and toast each other in gorgeous glass goblets from Syria.
It all cost money, and they had got badly into debt; and that, at root, was the cause of the disaster that was about to enfold them.
I’m sorry, Suetonius said to the hand-wringing deputation, we can’t stay; we can’t risk it. He just didn’t have the numbers. The Roman general’s troops were knackered, their feet flayed by the march from Wales. He could call upon a maximum force of about ten thousand from the whole island. Boudica and the Iceni already had about 120,000, and more were flocking to the banner of revolt.
From Johnson’s Life of London by Boris Johnson. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Boris Johnson, 2012
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