Merrifield, Ralph. London: City of the Romans.

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

This magisterial volume is an outgrowth of the change in the state of archaeology in postwar Britain, and especially in London. In the 1950s, a great many opportunities unfortunately were missed during the clearing and rebuilding of the devastation left in the city by the Blitz, to poke about and discover what could be found from earlier centuries — but people understandably had other things on their minds.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, though, officialdom finally woke up to what was being lost, perhaps forever, and laws were enacted giving the excavators a chance to see what they could find and record after yet another Victorian office block was torn down and before the erection of yet another ugly glass box. The result of the ensuing (and continuing) efforts of the archaeologists and historians was that the earliest history of London suddenly began to become much more solid. Myth began to give way to measurable fact. Early graveyards were found, road surfaces were uncovered, the location of the Roman amphitheater and forum were determined, and a great many artifacts were recovered that began to make the picture much clearer of the forces that established Londinium where London still is, and that built the first bridge across the Thames — though perhaps not precisely on the site of subsequent London Bridges, as had long been assumed. Traces were found throughout the city of a layer of burning — the only remaining physical traces of the revolt of Boudica in A.D. 60. The actual tombstone was discovered of Classicianus, procurator after the revolt, who was largely responsible for re-establishing the Roman presence. A large number of previously unknown Roman thoroughfares were tracked through the city and beyond. And all of these discoveries are described here and put into historical context by Merrifield, who has become the leading expert in the field over the past fifty years. The prose, while unavoidably somewhat technical, is entirely accessible to anyone with a basic background in Roman history — though a certain amount of familiarity with the geography of London is useful. The book contains many photos, plates, maps, diagrams, and elevations to accompany the text. (Merrifield couldn’t have anticipated it, of course, but I have found it also useful to open Google Maps to “street view” for some of these locations, to see what there is to see now, to discover what’s happened since the book was written.) The author eventually became curator of the Guildhall Museum and Deputy Director of the Museum of London, which has been responsible for most of the recent archaeological research carried out in the city. Unfortunately, he died in 1995 and no subsequent volume has been produced to bring us up to the present on what has been discovered in the quarter-century since this one was published. Until such an updated volume appears, this is by far the best thing available.

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