London: all the fun of Roman fayre

From time to time groups of men make a breakthrough, they find some power on earth, which harnessed allows them to rise above their fellow men. In such a situation an urge to use that power to smite, rape and pillage, to induce a delusional sense of invulnerability and Godliness wells up. For those whose power arises from the simple fact of being the biggest and ugliest group in town, this may be the end of the story, true Vandal style. However for those whose power arises from discovery, invention and industry, a further ambition comes into view, colonisation and controlled exploitation. The desire to colonize is a more sophisiticated and long-term enjoyment of one’s powers. It’s Stephenson’s steam locomotive rather than Boudicea’s sacking. It involves engagement with rather than destruction of others. Here the dominant group seeks to use their resources to empower their neighbours, enrolling them in projects, training them in their ways, so they might offer their shoulders to be stood upon. In this way, on such shoulders, and with such labour, empires are built and the leaders of such empire enjoy a mountainous social status and access to oceans full of resource.


Two thousand years ago it was the Romans, who by dint of technological and militaristic advances, attained such a position of superiority, which propelled them to build an empire. Part of this empire building involved the invasion and colonization of England and Wales. The colonization was said to have been a vanity project to boost the ego and standing of the then Emperor of Rome. In other words, there was no material or militaristic advantage to be gained. However, arriven on the British Isles the Romans used the land to feed and embellish the Roman Empire. The country was mined for tin. Taxation was used to suck the blood and energy out of the indigenous populations. The Roman’s aided this exploitation through the construction of a network of roads, some of which is faithfully followed by Britain’s thoroughfares today. They also established settlements and fortresses, some of which continue to exist today. Furthermore they incorporated and elevated some part of the indigenous population into their social structures. Like this England and Wales were incorporated into the Roman Empire, bought closer to Rome, which allowed rivers of resources to flow between the two.


When the Romans first arrived in England they tended to enter the country through the River Medway, which sits just south of the Thames. However the Roman’s capital city, Colchester, was located just north of the Thames, and the traditional treck from the banks of the Medway to the Colchester, required several bridges over the Thames, the first in the area now known as the City of Westminster and the second a few meters away from the current London Bridge, which connects what we now call Southwark with what we now call the City of London. The Roman London Bridge prompted the establishment of a port and a small market town, which grew in size as it became the hub for goods sucked out of Roman Britain and channelled to Rome and the rest of the Empire. In this way, the Romans created a psychogeographic space, one which both helped realise but also celebrate the avaricious ambitions of the Roman Empire, one in which material goods abounded and washed around. They created a honey pot, to which anyone interested in material gain gravitated reinforcing its pull on the resources from all sround.


In this way, this market town, known as Londinium, and at some point as Augustus, after a Roman Emperor, rose up to become the flagship store for Roman Britain PLC, even if the capital city remained Colchester. By the second century AD, Londinium was said to have possessed the largest town hall outside Rome, a governor’s palace, a temple, bathhouses, and a large fort for the city garrison. Such were the privileges to be enjoyed by the inhabitants of this market town, that some of the indigenous population were elevated to the status of citizens of the Roman Empire.


This dynamic has reinvented itself over the years. In the  Middle Agees London became a hub in the Hansiatic League, Europe’s premiere trading network, connecting various northern European ports. During the nineteenth century it became the centre for the British Empire, at which point the reach of London reached far beyond that of the Roman Empire. More recently, in the late twentieth-century, thanks to the zeal of Queen Margaret, London has become one of the world’s great centres for the trading of financial, accounting and investments instruments. Now the goods flow into and out of the city over electronic and digital rivers, rather than on Old Father Thames.


A historically contingent dynamic then, describes how, even after the Roman Empire had subsided, the burning sun of avarice and consumption it created, continued to burn, and whilst sacked and devastated on several occasions, the embers and ashes of the city always seemed to survive, rekindling once again this place as a market place, a black hole for goods and resources expropriated from and produced in many sites dotted all around the world. Given the influence of the Romans one wonders what might might have become of this place, had the first conquering army with the ability and motivation towards empire, been Viking rather than Roman. Perhaps the centre of the new empire might have been Edinbrugh or Hull, leaving this place north of the Thames to develop into a small city or provincial town, miles away from the metropolis.


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