Chaney Leads “A Tour of Roman London

Michael Schreiber

William Chaney, George McKendree Steele Professor of History Emeritus, gave a lecture titled “A Tour of Roman London” Monday, May 12 as part of Classics Week. The lecture took place in Main Hall, in front of a standing-room-only crowd.
Chaney, who called classics “the fundamental basis” of education, took a slightly different tack from past Classics Week speakers, as his talk focused on London rather than Rome, Athens or other traditional classics settings.
Chaney specializes in medieval history, and he officially retired from Lawrence in 1999. He continues to teach a select few courses within his field, and is a former member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.
Chaney said his lecture would fit with the classics theme because London was an “upstart,” a city that was Roman from its very beginnings.
Chaney traced the etymology of “London” to a Celtic word, “londos,” which means “fierce.” According to Chaney, the Romans tended to use native names for newly established settlements, similar to the U.S. practice of using Native American place names.
Chaney then corrected some misconceptions about Roman London. He noted that Rome had already conquered a large part of England before founding London, instead of vice versa, and he brought the date of London’s founding forward approximately 20 years from previously accepted dates.
Chaney also discussed the changes in London’s waterways and bridges since the time of the Roman settlement. Chaney noted the importance of London Bridge to the Roman city, going so far as to call the bridge the “parent of the city.”
He noted that Fleet Street, famed for its publications, was named for a river that once flowed in the same place. Chaney also noted that the Thames was formerly slower, shallower and broader than it is presently.
Chaney proceeded to trace the evolution of the Roman settlement through time and described some of the most turbulent events of London’s early history.
Chaney noted in particular the uprising of the Iceni under their queen, Boudica. According to Chaney, Boudica was disinherited from her lands upon the death of her father. The Romans did not recognize her accession, instead pillaging her lands and raping her daughters. In response, Boudica gathered an army and razed London, killing upwards of 70,000 people. Her large marauding force was later defeated by a small contingent of Romans under Suetonius Paulinus at the Battle of Watling Street, and London was rebuilt.
Chaney passed around postcards depicting classical London and described some of the buildings that one would have seen there. He described the basilica and the temple of Mithras in detail.
He also spent a great deal of the lecture discussing the appearance, location and importance of the Roman city wall. Large portions of the wall are still visible in London today.
In his conclusion, Chaney urged the audience to “take a walk around the old city” if ever in London. He said self-deprecatingly that seeing the ruins of Roman London would “make even this lecture worth hearing.”
The talk received approval from Daniel Taylor, the recently retired former chair of the classics department at Lawrence. Taylor, who is in town only briefly, recollected how difficult it was to explain the significance of the temple of Mithras to his then 16- and 10-year-old children many years ago when he was in London. Perhaps Chaney’s introductory lecture would have helped him.