History Files


Roman Britain

London's Basilica

From Channel 4's Down To Earth series by Doctor Catherine Hills, 1990



Every Roman town had a forum and a basilica. The basilica was usually the largest building in town, part town hall, part commercial centre. Archaeologists looked for London's basilica for a century. Now it is know just what the structure was like.

What was found originally, in 1881, was part of the apse and part of the nave, situated at the eastern end of the building. What was found when the task was completed, was the largest Roman building in Britain, the largest in the northern provinces, and the biggest thing built in this country for a thousand years.

The great civic centre complex comprised the basilica, which is a great hall. On the northern side of the courtyard was the town hall itself, and on the other three sides of the courtyard there were arcades of shops and so on, so that the forum was the market itself on three sides, with the great basilica dominating on the northern side.

The basilica was in a commanding position set on top of the eastern of the two hills that went to making up Roman London. It was the focal point of the entire British road system. All roads in this country lead to the heart of the provincial capital.

It is now known that it was not build in AD 50, in the early part of the Roman Period, but in AD 100, at the time when London was designated the new provincial capital. As a consequence it had to have civic buildings to match that new status.

What the Roman administration wished to do was to show Britons that this was the new capital, to show their great confidence in London as the new capital by building this enormous structure, showing that they had the prosperity and the power to stay in control of the Empire forever.

There is a very clear design to how the basilica was decorated. Most of the decoration, the great human figures, were in the east end where the legal proceedings would have been held. There would have been figures of justice, truth, equality and victory, these metaphorical figures presiding over the court.

A visitor's eye would have been drawn to the east end of the building as he entered the nave because the nave itself would have been decorated in a more plain style. He would have been led to look at the antechambers and the curia at the apse at the eastern end of the basilica where law was dispensed.

Initially the policy of this construction was very successful. The Roman town of Londinium expanded in the second century, but in the Late Roman Period, in the third and fourth centuries, things started to go quite badly wrong.

The town itself contracted, the population grew smaller and smaller, and in AD 300 the basilica was demolished. Roman life in London continued for another century without its huge town hall. This suggests that the huge building was something of a white elephant since London could survive without it.

So the construction was mainly a result of Roman propaganda. The reality was that it was not really needed and was quickly turned to rubble.



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