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Rome’s legacy: How the Roman Empire shaped Britain


As you exit Tower Hill tube station in the City of London, to the left stands the largest surviving section of Roman London’s land wall. Over 10m in height, it soars enigmatically over commuters and tourists, many of whom pass by oblivious to its unlikely story.

The wall, one of the few constants in an ever-changing city, is built from courses of grey-green Kentish ragstone blocks. These were quarried 127km away to the east in the upper Medway Valley by the Classis Britannica Roman navy before being transported down the Medway and up the Thames. Every few courses the grey-green stones are interrupted by striking bonding layers of flat orange tile. These were designed by the Romans to give the wall flex in case of an earthquake.

Few think it beautiful, but I do. Even fewer know it dates back to the great warrior Emperor Septimius Severus. Hacking his way to power in the ‘Year of the Five Emperors’ in ad 193, he soon had to fight off the challenge of the usurping British governor, Clodius Albinus. The pair clashed at the titanic Battle of Lugdunum (modern Lyon) in Gaul in ad 197. This was the largest recorded civil war battle in Roman history, with 200,000 men engaged.

Severus won, only just, after two days of brutal fighting. Albinus was beheaded, his body trampled by Severus on his stallion. The emperor’s next action was to send military inspectors to Britain to bring the recalcitrant province back into the imperial fold. Their first act was to build the enormous land walls of London. This took over 420,000 man-days to complete, needing 45,000 tonnes of ragstone for the facing alone.1

They were designed not to keep out an external threat, but to send the elites and citizens of the provincial capital a blunt message: behave or else. Such is a prime example of the legacy of Rome in this farthest north-western corner of empire, the wall circuit that defines the City of London – the Square Mile – to this very day. A relic to a failed usurper.

There are many examples of the Roman legacy in Britain, some visible above the surface, some below it, and some purely cultural. Rome’s legacy here actually manifests in three very specific ways. First, much of the modern built environment and transport infrastructure is a direct result of the Roman occupation. Think of the provincial capital London with the striking Severan example above, the many towns and cities that were originally the site of a Roman fortress or fort, and the pre-motorway trunk road network. This is specifically linked to the laborious and lengthy campaigns of conquest here that lasted over forty years, far longer than in other parts of the empire.

Second, as part of this process the far north and Ireland were never conquered, despite at least two intense efforts regarding the former. This set in place the political settlement of the islands of Britain that exists to this day. Third, the catastrophic way the later diocese of Britannia left the empire in the early fifth century ad. Today, many believe Britain a place of difference in Europe, as evidenced by the fierce debate when Britain exited the European Union. Few realise this sense of variance dates back directly to the end of Roman rule in Britain.

Extracted from The Legacy of Rome by Simon Elliott

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