Missing Italy? Here’s a taste of Roman history right in the heart of London

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Legionaries from Spain and Hungary rubbed shoulders with merchants such as Lucius Tettius, a trader from North Africa who imported the Romans’ favourite fish sauce from the south of France. Less than 20 years later, disaster struck – Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, led her tribe to battle against the Romans, slaughtering the inhabitants of Londinium before burning the city to the ground. Following the eventual defeat of the Iceni, Londinium was rebuilt, and soon it was booming again.

By the second century it had become the capital of Britannia, welcoming the emperor Hadrian among others.

If you want to follow in the footsteps of emperors, here’s a quick guide to Roman Londinium.

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Roman City Walls

A large portion of the Roman Walls can be visited, but those who just want a quick look should head to Tower Hill. Just outside the entrance to the Tube station you’ll see a fairly representative section of the wall at almost full height.

Somewhat surprisingly, Londinium didn’t have any permanent city walls until late in the second century AD, after a renegade general, Clodius Albinus, declared himself emperor and led the British legions into Gaul against the real emperor, Septimius Severus. The revolt was quickly crushed, and Severus ordered the construction of walls around the city to keep out any marauding locals who might have taken advantage of the period of chaos.

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Don’t be fooled by the statue of Trajan, by the way – he never came to Britain. The council bought the statue from a junkyard and thought it would look good against the Roman wall!

If you want to see one of the remaining chunks of wall in an unusual spot, head to London Wall car park nearby and bay 52, where the wall never has to pay for parking.

Find it: Tower Hill, Barbican and Noble Street

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Tube: Tower Hill

All Hallows by the Tower

The oldest church in the City, All Hallows dates from the 7th century. Over the years it’s played host to the bodies of those executed by irate monarchs in the Tower of London, including Sir Thomas More. But long before such grisly happenings, this was a bustling part of the Roman town. Roman tiles have been re-used in the Saxon brickwork, and in the crypt there’s a small museum of finds dating back to the 2nd century AD.

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Find it: Byward Street

Tube: Tower Hill

Billingsgate Bath House

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The remains of a late second century AD residence with its own private bath house. Originally a luxurious waterfront abode, it boasted underfloor heating and a full suite of baths, including a warm room with a bathing pool, a steam room, and a cold plunge bath.

Find it: 101 Lower Thames Street

Tube: Monument, Tower Hill

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Roman legionary fortress, Barbican

Roman tower at Barbican (snigl3t)

Roman forts were shaped like a playing card, with curved corners. See one for yourself at the Barbican, where you can explore the remains of a second century tower that marked the north-western corner of Londinium. You can also follow the line of the fortress wall, which was re-fortified as part of the city wall in the medieval period. The 1,000 legionaries stationed here likely had a cushy job most of the time – they served as bodyguards and messengers to the governor of the province rather than frontline soldiers.

Find it: In the gardens off Wood Street.

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Tube: Barbican.

St Magnus the Martyr

There’s been a church at this location for more than 900 years, but before the advent of Christianity this site, right on the edge of the Thames, made it an ideal spot for Roman merchants to establish their shops and warehouses. Outside St Magnus’s is a remnant of the very first London Bridge. Carbon dated to 75 AD and made of long-lasting alder, it’s thought to be a piling from either the bridge itself or the river wall of the docks close by.

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Find it: Lower Thames Street

Tube: Cannon Street

Southwark Cathedral

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On the other side of the current London Bridge lies Southwark Cathedral. In Roman times, this would have been a lively settlement of native people, foreign visitors, and soldier’s families. As the city grew in importance the inevitable gentrification took place along the South Bank, and fashionable villas sprouted on the shoreline. In the aisles of Southwark Cathedral are fragments of mosaic from the Roman villa which once stood here.

Find it: London Bridge

Tube: London Bridge

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Roman amphitheatre, London Guildhall

Inside the amphitheatre attraction (Luke McKernan)

Eight metres beneath the medieval Guildhall lies a Roman amphitheatre. The extent of the seating area is marked with a black line on the pavement in Guildhall Yard; down below you can tread the sands and imagine the roar of the crowd. Some 8,000 spectators could have packed into the amphitheatre, expecting a gruesomely entertaining day out. Beast fights were held in the morning – probably wolves, bears, or packs of wild dogs – although the emperor Claudius did bring elephants to Britain, so it’s possible more exotic animals would have been on display. Then at lunchtime the arena was used for the executions of criminals before the big ticket gladiatorial fights in the afternoon. The burial of a wealthy female gladiator was discovered in Southwark and she probably fought, and maybe fell, in this amphitheatre.

Find it: Guildhall Yard

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Tube: Bank, Mansion House, St Paul’s

The London Stone

It’s hard to believe that this unimpressive lump of rock inspired so much devotion in times gone by, but for centuries it was used as the medieval equivalent of Speaker’s Corner. It even bagged a brief role in Shakespeare’s Henry VI as a rallying-point for action against the Crown. One thing’s for sure, the London Stone has been around for a long time. It’s thought to date from the rebuilding of Londinium by the governor, Julius Classicianus, in the AD60s, and it’s been suggested that it formed part of the governor’s palace, which once stood beneath Cannon Street station.

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Find it: 111 Cannon Street.

Tube: Cannon Street.

The Mithraeum

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Inside the Mithraeum attraction (It’s No Game)

Leave modern London behind as you descend into another era, and glimpse the mysterious eastern cult of the god Mithras.

Temples to this deity were constructed underground or in cave-like buildings, and you’ll experience the awe of the initiate as you enter the shadowy space with its immersive experience for all the senses.

A secretive cult open only to men, Mithraism was popular with soldiers across the empire. An interactive exhibition helps you explore the artefacts found on site, and during a visit to the temple itself you’ll hear whispered conversations and an atmospheric light display.

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Find it: 12 Walbrook

Tube: Cannon Street

Another site just outside of Zone 1 is Crofton Roman Villa at Orpington

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The only Roman villa to survive in London, Crofton once had an estate of 500 acres and was occupied for almost three hundred years from the mid-second century AD. Ten of the rooms can be seen today, with hypocausts and tessellated floors. Many of these large country estates were built as money-spinning enterprises (the Roman army ate a lot of sausages, so pig-breeding was extremely profitable!) as well as a place for a wealthy senator to escape the noise of the city.

Interested in learning more? Check out the permanent displays in the Museum of London, where you can see the head of Mithras discovered in the Mithraeum, and a pair of leather bikini pants, probably worn by a gladiator in the amphitheatre.

There’s also the permanent collection at the British Museum, which houses inscriptions and artefacts from Roman Londinium. Look out for the mosaic of Bacchus riding on the back of a tiger, from Leadenhall Street.

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