Wandering around present-day London, it’s hard to imagine that this metropolis once started as a small Roman settlement. From 43AD until the 5th century, Londinium was one of Roman Britain’s most notable and significant trade cities. The city might have been only about one square mile in size (1.5 km2), but there are still numerous visible references to the time of the Roman occupants. Read this blog post if you want to know where to find historical Roman London sites!
1. Roman amphitheatre in London
I’m going to impress you by starting off my list of ancient Roman sites in London with the most spectacular one!
As a London history geek, it’s a mystery to me why I hadn’t heard of this place until last month. I was flabbergasted to find out you can visit the remains of a Roman amphitheatre in London!
Once the stage for gladiator combats, animals fights and public executions, this amazing archeological site lay hidden underground for centuries. Can you imagine a venue that housed over 7,000 spectators in its heyday – a third of the city’s total population at the time – now lies buried underground?
There had always been suspicions that a city the size of Londinium would have had an arena, but it wasn’t until 1988 they found proof of this. That’s when, hidden six metres below the pavement in the Guildhall Yard (below), archaeologists discovered this spectacular sight.
The black line in the courtyard, following the outline of the amphitheatre right underneath, gives you a good idea of its size. Can you even imagine the noise coming from such a massive venue right in the heart of The City?
How to visit the Roman amphitheatre in London
The amphitheatre is located underneath Guild Hall Art Gallery (London EC2V 5AE). Free entrance and no need to book beforehand.
The nearest station is Bank Tube station.
2. Remnants of the Roman Wall in London
In the 2nd century, the Romans built a defensive wall around London. In the centuries following the Romans’ retreat from Britain, the wall and its city gates were still being maintained and repaired by London’s new rulers. However, when the greater city of London started to expand, the ancient structure had to give way.
By the 19th century most of the wall had disappeared which is sad as the London Wall was one of the largest construction projects in Roman Britain. Fortunately, parts of the wall have been discovered again since then and there are several good places to see these Romain remains in London today. You can even follow a self-guided London Wall Walk as indicated in the plaque below.
One of the best places to see the Roman London wall is right next to Tower Hill Tube station. As you walk down the staircase towards the Tower of London, you will find a considerable chunk of the surviving Roman and Medieval Wall on your left. You’ll even see the statue of Roman Emperor Trajan, welcoming you to Londinium!
Not far from Guildhall, you’ll find a great section of the London Wall in St Alphage Garden. Part of the wall is older than the original Roman City Wall as there used to be a Roman fort on this site before the city wall was built. The Romans incorporated the northern wall of the fort into their defensive wall.
If you’re interested in walking the London City Wall Walk, scroll down to the bottom of this article to find the map. From the Tower of London, it is also possible to follow my self-guided historical walk along ‘secret’ London landmarks.
3. Leadenhall Market: built on the Roman Forum
Besides the amphitheatre, Londinium was also home to a Roman Basilica (city hall and courts) and Forum (market). The thriving market was significant and it’s believed it was the largest market North of the Alps.
However, unlike the amphitheatre, there isn’t much left of the original market and courts. But we do know where they roughly stood and that is on the location of the stunning Leadenhall Market.
Harry Potter fans might recognise the covered market as the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron on Diagon Alley (in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). In almost Harry Potter fashion, you can see part of the underground Roman Wall here, hiding behind a glass door on the lower floor of hairdresser’s Nicholson & Griffin. All you need to do is to ask the staff nicely if you can see it. (Just don’t cast any wizard spells if they’re too busy to accommodate you!)
How to get to Leadenhall Market
The market has are several entrances, but the main entrance is on Gracechurch Street.
The nearest Tube stations are Monument Station and Bank Station. From both stations it’s approximately a 5-minute walk.
Leadenhall Market is also one of the London sights that I pass on my Dutch-language Harry Potter tours.
4. London Bridge: London’s oldest bridge was built by the Romans
Tourists are often confused about London Bridge. As you can see in the photo below, this boring concrete bridge is not London’s most beautiful bridge. (Obviously the iconic Tower Bridge is London’s most beautiful bridge.) It might not win the prize in beauty pageants for bridges, but London Bridge does have the honour of being London’s oldest bridge!
London Bridge was originally a wooden construction, built by the Romans in 55AD. Leading from the heart of Londinium – roughly where the city centre’s skyscrapers are located – it was their only way across the Thames over to what was to become the settlement of Southwark.
Over its history, London Bridge has been destroyed many times, either by enemy attacks, numerous fires and even by the 1091 London tornado! You see that the famous nursery rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down isn’t that far-fetched after all!
Over the centuries, the bridge has transformed considerably. At a certain point it even had small shops and houses on it, comparable to the famous Ponte Vecchio in Florence. You get an idea of what 15th-century London Bridge looked like from the mosaic below.
5. Statue of Queen Boudica: leader of the uprising against the Romans
Right in the middle of Westminster Bridge stands an enormous statue of three figures on a war chariot. Despite its size and prominent location, hardly anyone actually takes notice of it. I guess most people only have eye for the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben right across the road from it and the London Eye just on the other side of the river.
But this statue represent a significant period in the history of Roman London. Depicted here are Queen Boudica of the British Celtic Iceni tribe with her two daughters. Unlike the fictional TV character Xena the warrior princess, Boudica was a real badass. Following her husband’s death and physical abuse by the Romans, the warrior queen led an uprising against the Roman invaders around 60AD. It’s believed between 70,000 and 80,000 Romans and Britain died during the revolt.
During the epic battles that took place across Britain, Boudica and her army razed Roman London to the ground. Yet, despite their great wins, Boudica was unsuccessful in overthrowing the Roman rule in Britain. Having failed her mission, it’s believed she poisoned herself in the end.
There are several theories about the whereabouts of her final resting place. Some think this could be somewhere between platforms 9 and 10 at Kings Cross train station. Could this be another connection between Roman London and Harry Potter? According to J.K. Rowling, she didn’t know about this theory until she had already chosen Platform 9 3/4 as the departure point for the Hogwarts Express. Personally, I like the idea of this mythical bond between one of Britain’s biggest national heroes and Britain’s most famous boy wizard!
6. Billingsgate Roman House and Baths
First discovered in 1848 during building work, the remains of the Billingsgate Roman House and Baths are now one of the most fascinating ancient ruins dating back to Roman London times. It’s believed the bathhouse was built in the 2nd century already and remained in use until the 5th century. It would have had a waterfront entrance, a courtyard and even underfloor heating!
You might not be able to dip your toes in the soothing water anymore, but it is possible to explore the Roman bathhouse during a 45-minute guided tour.
How to vist the Billingsgate Roman House and Baths
The bathhouse is located at 101 Lower Thames Street, EC3R 6DL. The nearest Tube stations are Monument and Tower Hill. From either of them, it’s approximately a 5-minute walk.
Public visits are available on Saturdays between April and November. Costs are approximately £10 and it is essential to book online. More about booking in the next information box underneath site 7.
7. The pagan Roman temple of Mithra
Discovered in 1954 following excavations after WWII which left parts of London in ruins, the Roman temple of Mithras, also called London Mithraeum, is one of the greatest archaeological sites in Britain. The site wasn’t only a true treasure trove containing hundreds of Roman artefacts within the rubble, but also provided insight into a Roman mystery religion.
Unlike the other Roman sites mentioned in this article, this temple was always meant to be underground. Worshippers who came here faced persecution as they were part of the mysterious cult of Mithras, a rival of early Christianity. Celebrating the god Mithras, originating from Iranian religion, disciples were therefore forced to gather in often private and obscured spaces. It is believed that also London Mithraeum was built by a private individual, a Roman Londoner in the 3rd century. The temple was originally located next to the river Walbrook, which is now one of London’s lost rivers.
How to visit London Mithraeum
You can visit London Mithraeum (12 Walbrook, EC4N 8AA) from Tuesday till Sunday. A self-guided tour of the museum takes approximately 1 hour. It is free to visit, but online booking is required. Click here to book your tickets for London Mithraeum and also the Billingsgate House and Baths.
The nearest Tube stations are Bank (2-minute walk) and St Paul’s (6-minute walk).
8. Museum of London
If you want to learn more about Londinium – Roman Britain’s most important international port – then a visit to the Museum of London is a real must! Their Roman collection consists of over 47,000 objects, reconstructing the lives of London’s earliest citizens. Artefacts vary from complete vessels to tools and jewellery and also a reconstruction of London Bridge in Roman times.
How to visit the Roman Gallery at the Museum of London
Like all permanent exhibitions at the Museum of London (150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN), entry to the Roman Gallery is for free. It is open daily with the exception of Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The nearest Tube stations are Barbican and St Paul’s. From both stations it’s a 5-minute walk to the station.
Want to retrace the steps of Roman Londoners?
Then simply download this self-guided Roman London city walk!
Does your town or city have any connections to Roman history? Tell me in a comment below! Being a sucker for ancient cultures, I’m always interested in learning more about this.
Thanks, Zarina xx
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