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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. By 1990 it was finally known 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 Britain for a thousand years.

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

The basilica was in a commanding position, set on top of the eastern of the two hills which went into making up Roman London. It was the focal point for the entire British road system. All roads in the Roman-occupied part of the land 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 at which London was designated the new provincial capital following the highly-damaging Boudiccan revolt. 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 remain forever in control of the empire.

There is a very clear design to how the basilica was decorated. Most of the decoration, the great human figures, were at 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.

Sequential Maps of Roman Britain AD 43-410
Rome spent much of the second half of the first century AD expanding its line of conquests across the British Isles, but also facing the urgent situation which was created by the Boudiccan revolt in AD 61 - a prestigious architectural display of Roman power was needed to show these Britons who was in charge (click or tap on map to view the entire sequence)

Second Great Forum

This model of the Second Great Forum and Basilica in Roman London is part of the Museum of London display on the city's Roman remains, which includes areas of surviving wall, both overground and (now) underground

A visitor's eye would have been drawn to the east end of the building when entering the nave. The nave itself would have been decorated in a plainer style than the rest of the building.

This visitor would have been led to look at the antechambers and the curia at the apse which was situated at the eastern end of the basilica, and from where law was dispensed.

Initially the policy behind 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 shrank ever 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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