Londinium Lite

In-depth analysis

From Londinium to London

The name of London today owes its origin to the name given by the Romans to the settlement. The derivation of the original Roman name, Londinium is uncertain. It is thought perhaps to be a pre-Roman name for the place, although philologists now equate the name with the Indo-European word ‘plowonida’, meaning ‘fast-flowing river’ and referring to the Thames.

Inscription referring to the people of London
LONDINIENSIVM - the 'people of London'

The first written reference to London is by the Roman historian Tacitus. He wrote about the town in about AD117, describing how it had been some 60 years before: ‘But Suetonius, undismayed marched through disaffected territory to Londinium. This town, a place not graced with the title of colonia, was an important centre for business and merchandise.’

There are few references to Londinium surviving in the literary sources for the Roman period. These have been added to in recent years by writing recorded on a wax tablet found in London that has a London address (Londinio), ink-written documents from Vindolanda that mention troops being seconded to London and now a building inscription from Tabard square (LLS02) in Southwark. It mentions the ‘people of London’ (Londiniensium - see also London inscription in Londinium Lite). 

The Antonine Itinerary, a route mapping system for the empire in the early 3rd century, recorded fifteen main roads in the province. Seven of the routes began or ended at Londinium.

Coin with Augusta mint mark
Late Roman coins bear witness to London being renamed Augusta. The mint mark AVG shows it was minted here in London

In the 4th century, Londinium was re-named ‘Augusta’ (Imperial). No less than the renaming of St Petersburg as ‘Leningrad’, this signified a break with the town’s past and a new role. Late 4th-century emperors, threatened by rebellion from within the empire and invasion from without, rarely resided at Rome but travelled from city to city, accompanied by the full court.

Valentinian’s representative, Count Theodosius, visited Augusta in AD367-8, and a civil service handbook (Notitia Dignitatum) reveals that a senior treasury official resided there permanently. It is interesting to note, however, that the name London has derived from the older name and that Augusta seems to have been used for administrative purposes only.

In documents of the 7th-9th centuries, London is referred to as ‘Lundenwic’ and as early as the 670s a royal charter referred to ‘its port where the ships land’. This settlement centred to the west of the Roman town in the Charing Cross area.

In the 720s or 730s silver coins are clearly inscribed DE LUNDONIA.  Following Viking attacks, however, the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of ‘Lundenwic’ disappear from the record and after battles with the Danes, King Alfred finally re-occupied the remains of the Roman town in 886, re-establishing it as a fortified town or burgh, called ‘Lundenburg’.

By the end of the Saxon period it was known more simply as ‘Lunden’. With the Norman invasion it was called ‘Lundres and in Latin manuscripts ‘Lundonia’, hence the ‘U’ pronunciation that we have today. Both these names gradually became ‘Londres’ and ‘Londonia’ and thence London.

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