Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Roman London was founded as a bridgehead for the conquest of Britain

"And there are sharp wooden stakes under the water as well," explained the grizzled old interpreter, a veteran of many Gallic wars. "That's apart from the line of stakes you can just see along the mud flats on the far bank of the river."
Here the river Thames was wide and relatively shallow. A large force of Roman cavalry was already making its way across, while on the far bank the British tribal hordes, resplendent in war-paint and golden finery, roared insults and challenges. Their leader, Cassivellaunus of the Catuvellauni tribe, was a respected warrior chieftain; but here on the southern bank, flanked by disciplined ranks of Roman legionaries, was an even more famous military man – Julius Caesar himself.

The year was 54 BC, and Caesar faced a crisis. Those underwater obstacles that a batch of captives now told him about, could be dangerous. The ford was also deep. Could infantry get across? Julius Caesar doesn't seem to have hesitated. He gave the order to advance, and his soldiers plunged across the river.
Where exactly did Caesar's legions storm across the Thames? There were no bridges in those days, nor any city of London. Brentford, well to the west, used to be thought a probable spot, but now central London is thought a more likely place for a battle. Julius Caesar's invasion was a temporary affair. His legionaries didn't stop for long. Nevertheless that brief and brutal skirmish on the banks of the Thames is the first time this area emerges from the mists of legend into the full light of written history.

London was created by the Romans, yet it would be wrong to think of the place as a dark swamp of mysterious barbarism before the legions came. Far from it. This marshy valley with thickly wooded hills around had seen various primitive peoples come and go. Though most invaders generally passed through to more favoured areas inland, some neolithic villagers made a living from fishing and trading even before 2,000 BC. Agriculture appeared around that time and primitive farmers left some crude pottery near Hammersmith and Mortlake. More warlike types wielding bronze swords and spears, then settled near Brentford.