Welcome to Londinium

Welcome to Londinium

The Roman outpost of Londinium, a lonely collection of cottages along the banks of a dark and unknown river, was typical of a Roman armed camp in hostile territory. The Romans expected trouble from the natives, and they got it. In the 160 years of Roman occupation, the city was attacked countless times and burned down twice. Let’s take a walk down the muddy streets of Roman London, a frontier town in a very dangerous neighborhood.

The English Countryside In the Time Of The Romans

A wide and lazy river winds through a lonely forest. Bears, stag, and even forest lions still roam these hills, beautiful and green in the summer but bitter and cold the winter through. There is good fishing and swimming, and the southern bank of the river is close enough that they might build a bridge there someday.

Just a little downstream of where the Fleet River joins the Thames, between Walbrook Creek and the marsh, there are two small hills by the river. Between them is an open field, and it is here that the Romans have built their settlement.

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The Ancient Ages of Gambling

Gambling is a hugely popular activity and has been so for as long as the old tales can retell. It is one of mankind’s oldest activities and evidence of the art has been found across the globe throughout the ages. Gambling is as old as history itself.

One of the first mentions of gambling was in Ancient Roman and Greek history. Everyone, from the upper elite to the peasants and slaves enjoyed gambling and while it was illegal at the time, many still regularly practised it.

The Romans worshipped many gods, and among them, the goddess named Fortuna was considered to be the ruler of fortune and chance. Several temples were erected throughout the Velabrum and the Roman Forum in her glory and she became known as Felictas, meaning “good fortune” or “good luck”. She became a symbol of wealth and prosperity in the Roman Empire, and was called upon by gamblers when wagering and making bets.

The Greeks, much like their Egyptian predecessors, also believed that the act of gambling had been born from the Gods. According to Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades cast lots to win parts of the Universe. After the final wager had taken place, Zeus won the Heaves, Poseidon the sea and Hades, who got the short straw, won over the Underworld. Many mentions have been made in history as to the gods betting over the power of mere mortals.

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The Fall of Rome

Patrick Neylan provides a quick overview on the disintegration and fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire.

Rome spent the fourth century AD trying to organise itself to counter the growing threat from the Germans in the north and the Persians in the east. Recognising that one man could not run the empire alone, the Romans tried various forms of division until Constantine, the emperor who made Christianity the state religion, founded a ‘New Rome’ in AD 330 that bore his name: Constantinople. The empire gradually became accustomed to having two emperors and two capitals, until the split became permanent after the death of Theodosius in 395.

The separation happened at an inopportune time for the Western Empire and a good time for the East. The Emperor, Julian, had led an expedition to Persia in 363 that ended in disaster. Yet the humiliation on the Persian frontier did lead to a lasting peace, which, while unfavourable to the Romans, at least gave them a breathing space to tackle their problems in Europe. While the Romans tried to deal with the arrival of the Huns, the Persians were distracted by the threat from the White Huns on their eastern frontier.

The Huns and the Ostrogoths

The Huns had spent nearly four centuries vying with the Han dynasty in China before finally being defeated and moving westwards in the 3rd century, where they lived quietly in the area of modern Kazakhstan. Meanwhile the German tribes, frustrated in their efforts to break into the Roman Empire, had begun to expand eastwards. The most ambitious of them, the Ostrogoths, slowly spread across the Ukrainian steppe until they encountered the Huns in the area of modern Volgograd (which was, ironically, the limit of German eastward expansion in the 20th century, when the city was known as Stalingrad).

The reaction of the Huns was brutal and swift. The armies of the Ostrogoths were annihilated and a century of German expansion was obliterated in the space of three years. The Huns drove westward until they reached the Roman frontier on the Danube, enslaving or displacing the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Gepids and Lombards. Some fled north into Germany proper while others sought refuge across the Danube in the Eastern Empire.

The Romans, never the most respecting of barbarian cultures, mistreated the refugee Visigoths so badly that they rebelled. In 378, the Goths destroyed an East Roman army at the battle of Adrianople after which the Visigoths roamed the Roman Empire’s European provinces at will, marching into Italy shortly after other German tribes had crossed the Rhine into Gaul in 407.

The Sacking of Rome

Over the next 50 years, these new arrivals put their military prowess to good use, either serving the empire as mercenaries or carving out their own territories. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 before staking out their own kingdom in South-Eastern France and later Spain. The Suevi took a corner of Spain and the Vandals crossed into Northern Africa and made Carthage the capital of their new kingdom.

The Vandals sacked Rome in 455, a far more brutal affair than the Visigoths’ effort forty-five years earlier, and their name remains a byword for mindless destruction.

Meanwhile the Franks and Burgundians set themselves up in Gaul while isolated tribes of Angles and Saxons began their slow, piecemeal conquest of Britain, which the Romans had abandoned in 410. The only respite for the crumbling Roman Empire came with the collapse of the Hunnish empire following the death of Attila in 453.

The King of Italy

As the empire’s European territories fell away, the barbarian general in charge of Italy, Odoacer, deposed the last puppet emperor in 476 and set himself up as King of Italy. Odoacer is considered the first non-Roman to have ruled all of Italy. The imperial regalia were sent to Constantinople, and the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist.

Yet the Eastern Empire survived. Constantinople guarded the waterway of the Bosphorus and kept the invaders out of its richest lands in Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Barbarian generals gained power in the city but were never strong enough to threaten the position of the emperor. While the cities of the West declined, urban life continued in the East and a form of Roman civilization survived there for another thousand years.

Patrick Neylan

See also Cincinnatus – the hero who saved Rome and
Marcus Tullius Cicero: A Life in Letters

Marcus Tullius Cicero: A Life in Letters

There is only one figure in Rome during the crucial years at the end of the Republic and the rise of the Empire (c. 146 B.C.E – c. 46 AD) whom we can attempt to know in any significant detail. This only due to a combination of his voracious propensity for correspondence and the care with which one of his great friends took to conserve and later publish his letters.

Novus Homo

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.E) was a novus homo (new man i.e someone with no notable ancestors) born at Arpinium, south of Rome, to a reasonably well off family. He studied as a lawyer and, as was the done thing for a Roman barrister, began a political career. Cicero’s time in office would span the crucial years of the end of Roman Republican rule and his own part in these affairs was significant, though in the end not decisive.

Throughout his life he kept in correspondence with his good friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, a wealthy individual who lived variously in Greece and Rome and was well connected with the political elite at the time despite his own refusal to participate in such a career. Through these, and numerous other letters to leading figures of the day, we gain not only an insight into the machinations of the Republican political colossus of the epoch, but also a more personal understanding of the workings of one man’s mind within the system.

The Catiline Letter

In July 65 B.C.E, Cicero wrote Atticus with news that his wife had given birth to a son. However, though obviously important, this was not the reason for the letter. In fact it concerns the trial of Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline), a political rival of Cicero’s. The trial itself is clearly a sham with Cicero admitting the collusion of defence, jury and prosecutor but justifying his own participation in the hope that it would place Catiline in debt to him with elections approaching.

Cicero was later to withdraw from the defence team. The consequences of Catiline’s acquittal and Cicero’s refusal to participate would return to haunt him. After Cicero’s victorious election to the post of Consul (the state’s highest), Catiline formed an armed conspiracy in 63 B.C.E with the intent of grabbing power from the Consuls and Senate. Eventually this was crushed; politically by Cicero and militarily by another.


Despite this victory and his being hailed “Father of His Country”, another rival, Publius Clodius Pulcher (incidentally the prosecutor in Catiline’s earlier trial), looked to take Cicero down. He eventually did so using the treatment of the Catilinarian conspirators, specifically their murder by order of the senate, as the sword with which to bring Cicero down, and had him packed off into exile in 58 B.C.E for the crime of killing Roman citizens without trial.

The Mind of a Man

That the beginning of these tumultuous events in both the life of the individual and state can be seen in a single correspondence between friends remains one of the remarkable qualities of this collection of letters.  In the original communiqué Cicero is merely telling of an interesting, if not uncommon, legal proceeding with which he was involved. When he wrote those words he had no idea of the events about to unfold. Thus, through his ignorance, we can gain a picture of his thoughts and feelings truly without hindsight.

John B. Knight
See also: Cincinnatus – the Hero Who Saved Rome
Biography – a very short history and The Fall of Rome

Cincinnatus – the hero who saved Rome

‘Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was at the plough when he was notified of his election to that dictatorship’

In his treatise on Old Age, the Roman politician and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero cites the potent semi-legendary figure of Cincinnatus as an example of the joys of agriculture. He talks of the Roman Senators of the age being modest farmers, who delighted in the peace of cultivation and only engaged in public business at the request of the state as opposed to from some higher ambition or longing for power.

Cincinnatus defends his son

CincinnatusLucius Quinctius Cincinnatus first appears in the historical narrative of Livy (59 B.C – A.D. 17) trying to defend his son from a charge of treason (461 B.C.). As an aristocrat in times of conflict between the patrician and plebeian factions at Rome, the dangers of this social strife had been turned on his son for his popularity and strength in the aristocratic party. Cincinnatus eventually went into a voluntary exile but despite this the trial went ahead in his absence and he was forced to pay the fine; near bankrupting him. (Pictured is Cincinnatus receiving the Deputies of the Senate by Alexandre Cabanel, painted 1843. Click to enlarge).

Cincinnatus in office

A year later the civil disturbances continued with the seizure of the Capitoline Hill in Rome by one Herdonius. The plebeian representatives, the Tribunes, neither condoned nor attacked these actions and called for a refusal to fight on behalf of the Senate. Eventually an attack, with the help of Rome’s allies the Tusculans, displaced Herdonius and he was killed. After peace was restored elections were called and Cincinnatus was returned to one of the two positions of Consul (the most powerful magistrate in Rome).

Once in power Cincinnatus proceeded to attack the Senate more vehemently than even the plebeians. He criticised his son’s banishment and the divided nature of the political scene. His time in office was spent fighting against Rome’s enemies; the Aequians, and attempting to avert yet more civil strife.

Cincinnatus retires to his farm

After his appointed year in office Cincinnatus retired to his farm. Rome continued to fight both internally and externally. Military disaster followed when a Roman invasion force against the Aequians, led by the Consul Mincius, was trapped and another enemy, the Sabines, were nearly at Rome’s walls. In such a time of emergency a Dictator with supreme power could be elected by the senate. This, in 458 B.C., was the course of action they took and it was unanimously decided to send for Cincinnatus.

The Senate sends for Cincinnatus

A party of senators arrived at his farm (as depicted by Juan Antonio Ribera, c1806, pictured) and told him of the dangers threatening Rome. He was asked to save his country from these perils, a request to which he acquiesced after some initial surprise. After being given command of an army he marched towards where the Consul had been trapped and quickly routed the enemy. For such an amazing feat of arms he was allowed to ride through the city in triumph.

Cincinnatus the hero

In the space of just two weeks he had raised an army, crushed his enemy and laid down his office to return to farming. It is these events that were canonized as a moral example of how a Roman nobleman ought to behave. Such austerity and modesty were looked upon as characteristics of the ideal Roman citizen. It was thought that a Roman should only serve his country; not wish to have it serve him. Cincinnatus was a hero who did his duty and no more.

John B. Knight
See also The Fall of Rome and Marcus Tullius Cicero – a life in letters