Life before London: Britain’s original capital and why the Romans fired it for London

For most people, a trip to England will include a visit – if not an entire stay – to the capital London, where they can marvel at everything the city has to offer, from Exhibition Road to M&M World.

But for the Romans, a trip to England actually meant total invasion, and their visit to the then capital – a Celtic city called Camulodunum, which is now present-day Colchester in Essex – ended in death and destruction throughout the region.

It also played a role in moving the capital of the Roman province to London – then Londinium – where it has been for the last two millennia.

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The Romans and Celtic natives lived in relative harmony until 60 AD, when the Romans used the death of the reigning Celtic king as an excuse to seize the region – which included present-day East Anglia, Essex and London – from his widow, Boudica.

And with Camulodunum as the Roman-imposed capital of the region and boasting populations on both sides, what followed was something not entirely unlike a scene from Game of Thrones.

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The Celts revolted and destroyed the city of Camulodunum, which had stood as a symbol of Roman rule in Britannia. They tore down Roman statues and toppled various Roman monuments, such as the Claudius Temple and the amphitheater.

“Women woke up to insane singing about approaching destruction and declared that the barbarians’ cries had been heard in the council chamber, that the theater had resounded with screams … The sea seemed blood red and ghosts of human corpses were left behind when the tide went out,” recorded the Roman author Tacitus.

Layers of ash found by archaeologists have led historians to believe that Boudica ordered the burning of the city to the ground.

The Romans finally defeated the revolt. Despite the rebuilding of the Camulodunum – to the extent that it would eventually expand up to three times the size it was before the uprising – the capital’s functions were moved to the newly established Londinium.


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