Did You Know About the Roman Ruins Besides This Richard Rogers’ Building?
London’s only surviving domestic building from the Roman era that can still be accessed
On his triumphal visit in AD 43, Emperor Claudius had brought elephants to Britain. By AD 50 the Romans had built their bridge connecting North and South banks of the river Thames, immediately establishing Londinium as the leading British port. London’s natural geographical advantages were soon underscored by the Romans, who made the City the centre of a spider’s web of roads reaching out to all parts of the country.
By AD 60, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, London was ‘famed for commerce and crowded with traders’.
By the end of AD 100, some of the most remarkable engineering achievements — of which some survived till our days — were erected. The bridge, a stunning forum and basilica, the amphitheatre and a palace. The great Roman wall, however, wasn’t built until later.
The trouble began with the death of Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, a British tribe occupying East Anglia. Lacking male heirs, Prasutagus sought to protect his daughters’ inheritance from confiscation by leaving half of his considerable wealth to the Emperor. The Roman tax gatherers, though, were not impressed by this generous gesture and insisted on seizing the entire legacy. Widowed queen Boudica led a revolt with the Iceni and other tribes and took Colchester and St Albans and burnt London to the ground.
Once the Roman had built their wall — 10 metres (33 ft) high and 3 metres (10 ft) thick, Londinium was secured.
Today the magnificence of Roman London can easily be spotted across the City. The amphitheatre ruins are accessible through Guildhall, one can visit the Mithraeum for free and — if your are not shy — you can ask to see the ruins of the Basilica at the basement of a Leadenhall’s hairdresser.
But what about Roman domestic architecture?
Today we bring you to the only surviving domestic building from the Roman era in the capital that can still be accessed.
Located north of Richard Rogers’ Billingsgate market, on the basement of an unassuming office block, one can find the remains of an intriguing Roman villa, which later had a bath house added to it.
In 1848, during the construction of a new coal exchange for London, the ruins were unearthed. Interestingly, a mid-5th century brooch was discovered on the roof tiles, meaning the Saxons had already stumbled upon its ruins even earlier. However, the site wasn’t properly excavated until 1962 when the Victorian Coal Exchange building was demolished in an attempt to widen the road to improve traffic.
The bath house had three rooms:
- Frigidarium (cold room): Where the robes would have been removed and a slave carried his master’s towels, oils, and strigils to the baths and then watched over them once in the baths, as thieves and pickpockets were known to frequent the baths.
- Tepidarium (warm room): The tepidarium is a room to sit in and be anointed in. Generally, it was the most highly ornamented room in baths but mosaics weren’t found within the ruins. We know that mosaics were familiar to Londinium as remains were found in Winchester House.
- Caldarium (steamy room): This was the hottest room in the regular sequence of bathing rooms. It was heated by a hypocaust, an underfloor heating system using tunnels with hot air, heated by a furnace tended by slaves.
The layout of the plan — atypical — made it difficult to understand the function of the complex as it bears no resemblance to other houses of wealthy Romans found in other cities. The fact that the Bath block is central to the use of the dwelling suggests that perhaps the building was originally not the home of a rich family. Its proximity to the waterfront could have made this building a brothel.
Only the right wing of this house remains. We know that the Roman building continued in use during the turbulent decades after AD 400 when the Roman Empire collapsed as coins for that period were found amongst the remains.
To learn more about the site, check the blog by the team carrying out the conservation work.
How to visit this fascinating piece of Roman architecture?
Tours are operated by the City of London and run every Saturday from 6 April until November.