In Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather, when Tessio’s plot to assassinate Michael Corleone fails, Tessio is abruptly led off to execution. He turns to Tom Hagen and – mournfully and memorably – says: “Tell Mike I always liked him. It was only business”.
“Only business”. It could be London’s motto.
In my previous post I argued that the pre-Roman London region – and South London in particular – was an unregarded, thinly-inhabited back-water. Admittedly it sat on the banks of a major river, but so too did many other places with better soil and better prospects. Politically it was part of the Catuvellauni territory, but there is nothing to suggest that it held any importance for them, unlike Colchester, St. Albans, Dorchester, Rochester or Canterbury. And yet, within ten years of the Roman invasion, London was an entrepôt, a market, a place to make money, a place to do business.
The decision to create London involved political, military and commercial interests, and must have represented some sort of compromise between them.
From the point of view of the army and imperial authorities, their priorities in these early years were dictated by the geography of the invasion, and the locations of allies, and of actual or potential enemies. They needed to consolidate their grip on recently-conquered Catuvellauni territory in Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex. They needed a secure connection with their allies the Atrebates, on the south coast. They needed a jumping-off point for continuing campaigns to the north and west. They needed a single site from which they could reach out in all these different directions.
But that site also needed to work for the merchants and craftsmen and financiers who were an indispensable part of the imperial project. They needed good access to the sea to bring in supplies for the army; and to kick-start a British export trade to tie the new province into the wider imperial trading system; and to import luxury goods as part of the standard Roman strategy of cultural assimilation, bribing local elites into acquiescence.
And finally, crucially, the Romans needed this site to be their site, a virgin site, unencumbered by local tribal associations or traditions.
The site they chose became London. They chose it because it was convenient as a river-crossing, acting as a junction for roads in all directions; convenient as a port because it was on a tidal river; and convenient because it had no previous existence, because it was a back-water. It offended no tribal dignity. It was a blank slate upon which the Romans could write a new city and make it entirely theirs.
Admittedly, this raises a question: if London was founded as an entirely Roman creation, why didn’t it have an entirely Roman name? Why was it called ‘Londinium’, which adds a Latin ending to a non-Latin place-name? The current philological view seems to be that ‘Londin’ is derived from the pre-Celtic, Indo-European word ‘plowonida’ meaning ‘fast-flowing river’, referring perhaps to the Thames from the point where it becomes tidal. If this is right, then ‘Londin’ is a metonym, a descriptive term for the river itself, recruited to serve as a place-name for a particular site upon the river. But this still doesn’t explain why the Romans chose to use this local term, rather than adopt one of their own.
Londinium Bridge – (c) Museum of London
Until sometime in the second century, London seems to have kept itself outside the formal imperial/military structure which the Romans were imposing on the rest of the country. Former tribal centres such as St. Albans or Colchester were quickly adopted as Roman settlements; and large parts of the country were divided into civitates, cantons or administrative regions, sometimes based on pre-existing tribal territories and sometimes not. But London just got on with being London, so that around AD 98 the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that it “did not rank as a Roman settlement but was an important centre for merchants and goods”.
Rightly or wrongly, this conjures up a picture of a boom-town, devoted to the making of money, happy to turn a profit from import and export, and anxious to avoid outside control. This picture is consistent with the numerous letters on writing tablets, found during recent excavations in the City. These date from very soon after the city’s foundation, either side of Boudicca’s revolt in AD 61, and they are mostly concerned with business, with loans and repayments, purchase prices, deliveries, and the commercial value of a good reputation.
Roman writing tablet – commons.wikimedia.org
Boom-town London didn’t last. In the late second and third centuries the Empire slipped into crisis. The cross-continental trade upon which London relied started to dry up. Horizons narrowed as imperial policy shifted to a new defensive stance organised around walled towns and cities, and provincial self-reliance. This was also a time of greater class inequality: Britain’s most luxurious villas date from this period. London meanwhile acquired new city walls, as markets and trade gave way to a new emphasis on administration and taxation, and its population fell.
In other words, London began as it has continued, an accommodation between money-making and power-play, profits and politics. Sometimes the emphasis is on money, sometimes on state-craft, but ultimately each feeds off the other. Nothing personal, it’s only business.