Wednesday 20 September 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 1 - "London," by Edward Rutherfurd

Although English Medieval historians, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace, liked to believe that London was founded by refugees from the fall of Troy, modern historians and archaeologists are, for the most part, in agreement, that, as a city, it owes its existence to the Romans. Even in prehistoric times, however, the River Thames formed a natural frontier between the often warring tribes of Iron Age Britain: the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes to the north; the Atrebates and Regnenses to the south. When Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 54 BC, he seems to have been using a well established stratagem of playing one tribe against another (backing the Trinovantes against the Catuvellauni); and, when the Emperor Claudius invaded in 43 AD, he probably took a similar approach (in this case supporting the Atrebates and Regnenses against the more powerful Catuvellauni).

This helmet, found in the Thames at Waterloo, may date to the time of Julius Caesar's invasion, but would have been of little use in battle, and was probably parade armour. British Museum. Photo: Ealdgyth (licensed under CCA).

The Meyrick Helmet, probably from northern England, is of a type more likely to have been worn by British Warriors in battle. British Museum. Photo: Geni (GFDL CC-BY-SA).

Claudius and his General, Aulus Plautius, almost certainly established at least a temporary bridge across the Thames, somewhere between the current London Bridge and Westminster Bridge, and merchants, whether Roman, Gaullish, or British (of various tribes) soon took advantage of this to establish a thriving port.

London (or Londinium) was, along with Colchester (Camulodunum) and Saint Alban's (Verulamium), destroyed in the Boudiccan Revolt of 60/61 AD (Boudicca's tribe, the Iceni of Norfolk, were in alliance with the Trinovantes of Essex against the more Romanised Catuvellauni, whose cities were burned). Southwark, however, was already a flourishing suburb before the revolt, and, although there is some evidence of fire-damage there, most of it seems to have survived.

Roman mural, from a house in Southwark, Museum of London. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU). Elaborate decorations on walls and floors testify to the prosperity of Roman London's mercantile community.  

At London itself (what is today the City), there is evidence for renewed Roman military, and perhaps also mercantile) activity as early as 64 AD, probably under the supervision of the newly appointed Procurator (finance minister) of Britannia, Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, a man who seems to have done much to assuage the divisions and hostilities that had prompted the revolt. By around 80 AD, the cities that had been burned by Boudicca had been fully re-established, and London had replaced Colchester as the capital of the Roman province.

The tomb of Procurator Classicianus, who must have died in office, was found to the east of London. British Museum (CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Wooden tablet, with the inscription "To Mogontius at London," c 64 AD. Museum of London (image is in the Public Domain). It probably accompanied a consignment of goods. Mogontius is a Celtic name, so he was, perhaps, a Catuvellanian working as a contractor for Classicianus. 

Model of London, 80-95 AD, Museum of London. Photo: Steven G. Johnson (licensed under CCA).

Reconstruction of a kitchen in Roman London, Museum of London. Photo: Carole Raddato (licensed under CCA). City-dwellers in Roman Britain soon developed a taste for imported produce, including wine, olive oil, fish sauce, cumin, coriander, pepper, dates, and figs. 

Londoners also developed a taste for Roman blood-sports. The amphitheatre, where gladiatorial contests would have been staged, is preserved beneath London's Guildhall. Photo: Charles T. Clarke (licensed under CCA). 

Edward Rutherfurd's novel, London, is a work of epic scope, beginning in 54 BC, and continuing on to 1997 (the year in which the novel itself was published). Written in the tradition of the American novelist, James A. Michener, it follows the fortunes of a handful of inter-related families from earliest times down to the present day. The novel comprises twenty-one individual stories, but, as it is my intention to tell the story of London chronologically, I will focus on the first, "The River," the protagonist of which is a young man named Segovax, a Catuvellaunian warrior who finds himself facing the legions of Julius Caesar across the Thames.

"Even now, in the dawning light, the shape of the ancient places could be seen clearly across the water: two low gravel hills with levelled tops rising side by side about eighty feet above the waterfront. Between the two hills ran a little brook. To the left, on the western flank, a larger stream descended to a broad inlet that interrupted the northern bank ... "

"The senior druid was out in midstream, the two men with their long poles keeping the raft steady in the current. On the northern bank, the two low hills were bathed in the sun's reddish light. And now, like some ancient grey-bearded sea god rising up out of the waters, the tall druid on the raft raised the metal object over his head so that it caught the sunbeams and flashed. It was a shield, made of bronze, sent with one of his most trusted nobles by the great chief Cassivelaunus himself ... It was the most important gift the island people could make to the gods ... "

"Celtic" shields, such as this one, found in the Thames at Battersea, were probably thrown into the river as offerings to the gods. British Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

"Segovax had never seen a battle before ... Suddenly everywhere men were running, whilst chariots wheeled about at such speed that it seemed as though in a matter of seconds they might bear down across the meadows upon him. The Romans' armour seemed to glint and flash like some terrible, fiery creature ... Amidst the din, he heard men, grown men, screaming with cries of agony dreadful to hear ... When a Roman cavalryman suddenly appeared and cantered across the meadow a hundred yards from him, he was like a giant. The boy, clutching his spear, felt completely puny ... "  

" ... he had not noticed the approach of the riders. There were half a dozen of them, and they were now staring down at the little scene curiously. In the middle of them was a tall figure with a bald head and a hard, intelligent face ... He said something to the centurion, and everyone laughed with him ... Some cruel joke perhaps. No doubt, he supposed, they proposed to watch him die ... But to his surprise the centurion had sheathed his own sword. The Romans were moving away. They were leaving him alone, with his father's body."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books may be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. I've had this book on my bookshelves for years ... I will now read it! FINALLY ... motivation. Thank you -- and I'm thrilled that you are tackling the story of London like this. Awesome idea and project.