Johnson's Life of London
The People Who Made the City that Made the World
London is still the mother ship for Americans, many of whom share the opinion of its tousle-headed, bicycle-riding mayor - that indeed it's the best city in the world. And as the capital takes center of the world stage with the 2012 Olympics, who better than Boris (as he is known) to convey how London became one of the most exciting and influential places on Earth?
Wearing his brilliance and erudition with characteristic wit, Boris narrates the story of his city as a kind of relay race of outsized characters, beginning with the days when "a bunch of pushy Italians" created Londinium. He passes the torch on down through a procession of the famous and infamous, the brilliant and the bizarre - from Hadrian to Shakespeare to Florence Nightingale to the Rolling Stones- illuminating with unforgettable clarity each figure and the era he or she inhabited. He also pauses to shine a light on places and developments that have contributed to the city's incomparable vibrancy, from the flush toilet to the King James Bible. As wildly entertaining as it is informative, this is an irresistible account of the city and people that in large part shaped the world we know.
She goaded the Romans to invest
It must have happened about here, I reckon. It is a bright autumn day, and I have found what could well have been the heart of the earliest Roman settlement. It’s just up from London Bridge, at the junction between Gracechurch Street and Lombard Street, with Fenchurch Street running off to the right. There’s a Marks & Spencer and an Itsu restaurant ahead, but according to all my books the space I am interested in is in the middle of this intersection.
So I risk a few toots from the motorists by cycling onto the spot, and my mind empties as in a trance; I no longer see the shiny new banks and accountancy firms but half-built wooden homes, the smoke from a thousand new hearths shimmering over all and new unsurfaced roads and a forest in the distance; and just before I scoot away I imagine what it must have been like to be in the hobnailed sandals of poor exhausted Suetonius Paulinus, the governor of the new province.
He had just marched as fast as his troops could go, down what is now the A5 highway from North Wales, and now he stood on the patch of gravel that served as the marketplace for the very first London. Before him there was a collection of London merchants in a state of terror.
They knew what had happened to the people of Colchester in Essex— thousands of them sliced by sharp Celtic swords or skewered on pikes or burned alive in their wattle dwellings; the very temple of the deified Claudius sacked and burned to the ground, its occupants carbonised. They had heard all about the ferocity of the Iceni and their queen, Boudica. They had heard what a big and indignant woman she was, with her mane of red hair and her determination to avenge the rape of her daughters by Roman troops.
Help us, Suetonius, they begged the Roman general; and the miserable fellow shook his head. As he looked at early Londinium, he could see the ambition of the settlers everywhere. Colchester (Camulodunum) was officially the colonia, or capital, but London was already the most populous centre, an entrepôt town, as Tacitus describes it, swarming with business folk and travellers of all kinds.
If Suetonius looked to his right, down to the bridge, he could see ships tied up at the dock: unloading marble from Turkey to beautify the sprouting new homes, or olive oil from Provence or fish sauce from Spain. He could see ships loading the very first exports of this country—hunting dogs or tin or gold or depressed-looking slaves from the dank forests of Essex, stained blue with woad.
All around he could see the signs of the speculative money that had been poured into the town. Just in front of him, we now believe, was a new shopping mall with a portico 58 metres long, and he could see women with their heads covered, haggling by some scales, and pigs snuffling in rubbish. There were piles of fresh timbers being laid out, so that proper square Roman buildings could replace the primitive round huts of the earliest years. There were fresh hazel laths for the wattle, fresh clay for the daub. There were carpenters who had been hired for the work, not all of whom had been paid. The roads through London were already done to a professional Roman standard, 9 metres wide and constructed of hard-rammed gravel, cambered at the side to allow rainwater to drain off into ditches.
There were about thirty thousand of these Londoners in an area roughly the size of Hyde Park, and when I say Londoners I don’t mean cockneys, obviously. They weren’t Brits: indeed, they would have been pretty contemptuous of the “Britunculi”—the “Little Britons,” as one Roman legionary was later to call them.
They were Romans, Latin-speaking traders in togas or tunics, from what is now France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, the Balkans—from all over the empire. They had expensive Roman tastes, for wine and red terra sigillata crockery, with its pretty moulded reliefs. Even in this misty outpost, they liked to lie back on their couches and toast each other in gorgeous glass goblets from Syria.
It all cost money, and they had got badly into debt; and that, at root, was the cause of the disaster that was about to enfold them.
I’m sorry, Suetonius said to the hand-wringing deputation, we can’t stay; we can’t risk it. He just didn’t have the numbers. The Roman general’s troops were knackered, their feet flayed by the march from Wales. He could call upon a maximum force of about ten thousand from the whole island. Boudica and the Iceni already had about 120,000, and more were flocking to the banner of revolt.
These legionaries were no wimps, mind you: Germans, Serbs, Dutch, capable of going for days on nothing but hardtack and water, and then throwing a pontoon bridge across a river. But they knew how Boudica’s troops had carved up Petilius Cerialis and the 9th Legion, and understandably they didn’t fancy the same for themselves. So Suetonius did what it pained a Roman to do more than anything else.
He ordered a strategic retreat, back up what is now the Edgware Road, taking with him everybody who could walk and who wanted to come. Those who stayed included the old, the infirm, and women who were scared of marching through the forests, and merchants who just couldn’t face abandoning their investments.
For a few hours London had that eerie feeling of a Wild West town awaiting revenge: flapping awnings and people peering through the casements at the deserted streets. We have some archaeological vignettes of the panic. In Eastcheap it looks as though someone grabbed a pot made in Lyons and then stuffed it with four finger-ring intaglio gems before grubbing it into the earth.
In a house on what is now King William Street, someone took seventeen coins, mainly bearing the head of Claudius, put them in a little red-glazed bowl and stuffed them in a corner. Others no doubt prayed, and sacrificed animals (we have the bones of a goat), and fondled the sooty little clay figurines of their household gods.
At length there was a rumble in what is now the Bishopsgate area.
Whooping down the branch-strewn track in their wickerwork horse-drawn war chariots came the Iceni warriors and their queen. She was a tremendous sight, according to Dio Cassius: very tall, with a harsh voice, and always wearing a multicoloured tunic, and with a great big one-kilo necklace—a torc—made of thick twisted strands of gold. She had a bosom so big that she was capable of using it to conceal her prophetic hare, an animal she would whisk out at the end of her bellicose speeches, and which she would invoke, depending on whether it ran to the left or the right, to foretell the outcome of battle. Within that bosom was a heart set on mayhem.
Far below the streets of modern London we are still unearthing the traces of the Boudican holocaust—a red layer of burned debris about 45 centimetres thick. They set the fi rst fires somewhere near Grace-church Street, where Suetonius met the Londoners; and as the defenceless citizens ran from their homes the Celts chopped off their heads or slaughtered them in the Walbrook, the malodorous stream that ran between the two low hills—now Cornhill and Ludgate—that comprised early London.
They hanged, they burned and they crucified with a headlong fury, says Tacitus; while according to Dio Cassius, they took the noblest and most beautiful women, stripped them and cut off their breasts and then sewed these breasts to their mouths so that they appeared to be eating them. They even profaned the graveyards, and evidence from excavations in the City of London seems to indicate that they exhumed the corpse of an old man and stuck the head of a young woman between his legs.
They went over the bridge and burned the buildings in what is now Southwark, while in the centre of town the buildings collapsed together in a single conflagration and a column of smoke rose to the heavens. Barely seventeen years after it was founded, London was destroyed.
By the time she had finished doing the same to St. Albans, Boudica had killed seventy thousand people, claims Tacitus. That may be on the high side, but in proportional terms she was still more destructive of London and Londoners than the Black Death, the Great Fire or Hermann Goering. In an act of incredible nihilism, she attacked the entire commercial infrastructure of Britannia—the very trade nexus the Iceni themselves needed.
The Iceni sold horses to the invaders; they depended on Roman custom. Boudica’s late husband, Prasutagus, was almost certainly a Roman citizen—and so, by extension, was Boudica. You have to wonder why she was so furious as to act in this apparently self-defeating way. The answer is that the Romans had behaved with diabolical stupidity.
When Prasutagus died, he had hoped to keep his East Anglian kingdom in the family, by leaving half to his daughters and half to the Emperor Nero. Whether or not they were following the orders of Nero the matricidal despot, the Roman administration decided to expropriate all Iceni possessions. The chief tax collector or procurator was one Catus Decianus—an arrogant twerp—who sent his centurions to Thetford, where Prasutagus and Boudica had lived in their kraal of concentric ditches and ramparts.
They laid hands on the queen of the Iceni; they cudgelled her milk-white Celtic skin and raped her daughters, and then, most stupid of all, they humiliated the Iceni elite by robbing them of their property and enslaving the relatives of the dead king. It was this humiliation, and the Roman greed, that enraged the Iceni, and the next question, therefore, is why did the Romans behave so badly? It is all there, surely, in the text of Tacitus. It was primarily an economic fiasco.
When Claudius invaded Britain in AD 43, he was a stuttering pedant in search of military glory, and he was going against historic Roman advice. Britain, said most Roman experts, was a dump, and a scary dump at that. When Julius Caesar had led his first inconclusive expedition, a century earlier, he had found the place so poor and wretched that there was nothing worth taking. Don’t bother going beyond the existing northern boundaries, said the Emperor Augustus, it’s like fishing with a golden hook: the prize isn’t worth the tackle.
The Brits were said to swim in mud, and to have weird Maori-style tattoos of shapes and animals that they liked to exhibit on their half-naked bodies—like modern football fans—for all to see. Ovid said these early Brits were green. Martial said they were blue. Some said they were half-human and half-animal. Going to Britain was like a moon shot, in other words: you did it for glory rather than as an investment.
So when Claudius arrived on his elephants, and found himself accepting the surrender of British kings—with hardly any Roman losses—it must have been a tremendous moment for Roman pride. His general Aulus Plautius had expertly solved the problem that had defeated all previous inhabitants of this country, and built the “first” London Bridge.
The bridge opened up the rest of Britain to people coming from the south coast, and soon London was a boomtown. The population shot up; prices rose; people needed to finance the houses they wanted to build and the shops they hoped to open. So they turned to the financiers, and the bankers piled in.
Nero’s tutor Seneca made a loan of 40 million sesterces for commercial development in Britain, and when you consider that a legionary was paid only 900 sesterces a year, you can see that this was a huge sum of money. The trouble was that the British investments did not pay off—or not fast enough for the bankers. It cost a lot to build the gleaming white temple of Claudius at Colchester, and to finance the port and shopping arcade of London.
The repayments weren’t enough; the loans were going bad and Catus Decianus, the procurator, started behaving like a real swine: whacking up the taxes on local people, kicking the natives out of their homes and ultimately trying to despoil the Iceni of their land and property.
The position of the Britons is well summed up by the first-ever image we have of Britannia, a carving from Aphrodisias in Turkey. It shows a bare-breasted woman being subdued from behind by Claudius in helmet and cuirass. She has a faintly cross-eyed expression, and in the words of Professor Miranda Aldhouse-Green of Cardiff University, “one has the disturbing feeling that he is about to bugger her.”
To put it in today’s language, the ordinary people of Britain were paying the price for a series of unwise property speculations, in which the borrowers and the bankers were both culpable. It wasn’t the first time it had happened in the Roman Empire, and it wasn’t the last time it was to happen in London.
In her own way, and at one remove, you could say that Boudica was the first banker-basher to hit the Square Mile. She was also at the beginning of what was to become a grand London tradition of female leaders. There is evidence that the early Britons were accustomed to strong female figures: Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, gave her menfolk a very tough time.
Then look at Elizabeth’s great pre-Armada speech at Tilbury, all about having the body of a poor weak woman but the heart and stomach of a man. It’s pure Boudica. Or look at Victoria, with her tartan cloak and brooch. There is more than a hint of the queen of the Iceni.
Or look, dare I say it, at Margaret Thatcher, with her blond hair, staring eye, harsh voice and firm views about national sovereignty. These days we identify Boudica so closely with London-based national heroines that we get into a muddle about what actually happened.
If you go to Westminster Bridge, you can see the famous 1884 sculpture of the outraged bare-breasted battle-axe and her poor raped daughters, framed against the sky in their scythe-wheeled war chariot. On the pediment are some lines from “Boudica an ode,” a popular poem by the eighteenth-century poet William Cowper:
Regions Caesar never knew Thy posterity shall sway, Where his eagles never flew, None invincible as they
Cowper’s point is that Boudica had the last laugh on Rome. It was her “posterity”—her British descendants—who went on to found an empire vaster than Caesar’s. Which is all very patriotic and consoling but completely untrue.
After she had sacked St. Albans, Boudica went off to the Midlands, where on some as yet unidentified plain she was finally and decisively routed by Suetonius Paulinus, whose troops, disciplined and refreshed, overcame odds of 20 to 1.
Boudica either died of dysentery or poisoned herself; and no, she is not buried under a platform at King’s Cross station. Contrary to what Cowper says, her defeat was so total that her language was almost completely wiped out, and her Celtic posterity was driven very largely to the fringes of Britain, while the British Empire was eventually ruled in a language that owed much more to that of Suetonius Paulinus than to that of Boudica.
The greatest thing Boudica did for London was to so shock and infuriate the Romans that it became a matter of prestige to win the province back and to assert Londinium’s status as an ever more glorious and important centre.
It was thanks to Boudica’s banker-bashing aggression that the Romans rebuilt London—to an extent that archaeologists have only recently begun to appreciate—as one of the biggest and most populous cities of the northern part of the empire. It was Claudius’s quest for prestige that led to London’s foundation, and one of the most impressive spurts of construction began when it was announced that the Emperor Hadrian was on his way.
He made London the capital
Clonk. They were rebuilding London Bridge in 1834 when workmen hit something on the bed of the river. It was green and slimy, but after they had got the mud off they could see it was a fine Roman head, slightly more than life-size.
It was an emperor, with a long straight nose and a slight frown and—aha—a beard and well-trimmed moustache. He wasn’t as fleshy as Nero, and the beard was less bushy than Marcus Aurelius’s. It was a delicate sort of beard. It belonged to a Hellenophile aesthete and intellectual, one of the greatest administrators the world has ever seen.
He was called Publius Aelius Trajanus Hadrianus Augustus, or Hadrian. Born in AD 76 of Spanish/Italian descent, he had spent his career touring the empire and bequeathing us some of the most colossal ruins of the ancient world—from the rebuilt Pantheon in Rome to the Temple of Zeus in Athens to the British wall that bears his name.Someone had made this fine bronze head in his honour and stuck it in the marketplace; and then someone else had come and chopped it off and chucked it in the river. They didn’t melt it down to make saucepans. They wanted to show active contempt. They wanted to humiliate the emperor and his sneer of cold command.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it is probably almost 1,700 years since this crime was committed, but I am going to produce for you individuals who had the motive, and the opportunity, to carry out this macabre offence.
To understand the mystery of the decapitation of Hadrian, you must grasp that this bronze object was actually divine. It was the head of a god. Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, had instituted the cunning system of the imperial cult, by which the emperor himself personified the majesty and divinity of Rome. If you were an ambitious local, and you wanted to get on in the Roman Empire, you became a priest in the imperial cult. That was why the first important temple of Roman Britain was the temple of the deified Claudius, and that was why Boudica took such pleasure in burning it down. It was a seat of local government, a symbol of power.
So when in AD 121 it was announced that the emperor—the living god—was actually coming to Britain, the news broke over London like thunder.
The Romans had almost panicked when Boudica torched the early settlements. Nero came close to abandoning the province altogether. But once she had been defeated, they decided it must not happen again. They poured money into the place, and from AD 78 to 84 the governor Agri-cola subsidised the building of squares and temples and grand housing of one kind or another. There were still uprisings, and pressure from the Celtic fringe, but in a sense the very threat of revolt was good for London. Thanks to the bridge, London was the centre of military operations, and that meant soldiers flush with cash.
The Londoners built baths at Cheapside and then at Huggin Hill, where they shocked purists by enjoying mixed bathing. There is an amphitheatre under the Guildhall, and you can go and have the spooky experience of standing on the spot where men and beasts were slaughtered, and you can inspect the bones of a female gladiator. In the sixty years between the Boudica revolt and the arrival of Hadrian, the Londoners Romanised fast.
They steadily took off their trousers and put on togas and started to get rather good at Latin—Tacitus says they spoke it better than the Gauls.
They invited each other round to their dining rooms, painted a fashionable arterial red, to eat turbot on expensive Mediterranean silverware and to toast each other with Bordeaux or Moselle. It was the beginning of the London dinner party. “The native Britons described these things as civilisation,” sneers Tacitus, “when in fact they were simply part of their enslavement.”
London was already a loyal and growing outpost. But when they heard the emperor was on his way, the citizens went into overdrive. It was like being awarded the right to host the Olympics: the place had to look its best—and that meant infrastructure investment. The Emperor was known to like sleeping in the barracks with the troops, so the London authorities seem to have erected a new barracks for his visit—complete with the living quarters that he famously liked to inspect.
What looks like a governor’s palace was constructed, a splendid place of courtyards and fountains, on the site of what is now Cannon Street station. They built a new forum, far grander than the patch of gravel on which Suetonius Paulinus had addressed the first Londoners, in an area partly now occupied by Leadenhall Market. At the north end of this vast space they built a basilica—a mixture of a shopping centre and law courts.
Parts of it are still visible in the basement of the barbershop at 90 Gracechurch Street. You can see this wasn’t any old basilica. Look at that great chunk of brick and masonry that formed one of the piers of the structure and you get a sense of the scale. This was the biggest forum and basilica north of the Alps. The building was 164 yards long, and when you look at the model in the Museum of London, you are forced to adjust your preconceptions about our city’s place in the Roman world.
When Hadrian arrived in AD 122, he found a big, bustling place, with a population of perhaps one hundred thousand and a ruling elite in a state of sycophantic ecstasy. They installed the emperor and his retinue in the smart new barracks and governor’s palace. They showed him the upgraded baths and the renovated forum and, like the man from Del Monte, the emperor nodded his approval. Then there is no doubt that they took him to that great basilica, and somewhere near what is now the market (we have found a big bronze arm in the neighbourhood) they unveiled their special sign of esteem—the statue, garlanded with flowers. The emperor beamed.
Then it seems highly likely that the Londoners had some sort of service; cowled priests of the cult of Hadrian gave thanks for his divine presence. They may even have slaughtered a cow or bull—right there in front of him—just to show how much they revered him. Or they might have slaughtered the bull to Jupiter. It didn’t matter. They were both gods. It is one of the most attractive features of Roman London (and the whole Roman world) that for hundreds of years it was a place of religious and racial tolerance.
Somewhere near Blackfriars Bridge Londoners built a temple to Isis, an Egyptian goddess of motherhood, whose husband, Osiris, personified the annual flooding of the Nile. We also have proof that they worshipped Cybele, or the Great Mother—Magna Mater. This Cybele was supposed to have conceived a passion for a young man named Atys, and when Atys failed to respond to her advances, she became jealous. When she caught him having it off with someone else, she drove him so mad that he castrated himself. I am afraid that respectable young Londoners had celebrated their devotion to Magna Mater by doing the same—and we know this for sure because the river near London Bridge has also yielded a fearful set of serrated forceps, adorned with the heads of Eastern divinities. Experts have no doubt as to its purpose.
There is even a theory that the cult of Magna Mater is remembered today in the name of the nearby Church of Magnus Martyr, noted by T. S. Eliot for its “inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.” Naturally it might seem repulsive to modern Christians that the name of this beautiful church should be contaminated by the memory of this savage Eastern cult of self-mutilation. And yet the worship of Magna Mater had more in common with Christianity than you might suppose.
What early Londoners liked about the story of Atys was that even though he may have died of his terrible self-inflicted injuries, he then rose joyously from the dead. In traditional Greco-Roman religion there wasn’t much of an afterlife, and the underworld was a cold and miserable environment, populated by gibbering shades. In a Roman society where many faced earthly lives of hardship and injustice, it is not surprising that these Eastern tales of rebirth became ever more popular. Indeed, not long after leaving Britain, Hadrian was to start his own bizarre cult of his boyfriend Antinous, who had mysteriously drowned in the Nile. Temples and oracles were founded in the name of Antinous; coins featuring the sulky-looking youth were struck.
His cult became so huge that some Londoners would certainly have been among his adherents, because it was essentially another resurrection and redemption story, like Atys and Osiris. But of all the Eastern cults in London, the most popular—especially with legionaries—was Mithraism. This was the story of Mithras, the son of a life-giving rock, who killed a bull and released its blood for—you’ve guessed it—the rejuvenation of mankind.
The important point is that all these religions coexisted more or less happily. Just as the modern Hindu can go from the temple of Ganesh to the temple of Hanuman, Roman Londoners saw nothing odd about having a temple of Isis at Blackfriars, a temple of Magna Mater at London Bridge and a temple of Mithras at Mansion House.
And then along came another Eastern religion. Christianity on the face of it seemed to have much in common with these other cults. It discussed a young man of surpassing moral virtue who died and was reborn as God. It offered the promise of eternal life. But Christianity was like the Judaism from which it emerged (and like the Islam that emerged from them both) in that it did not tolerate—and Christians would not accept—the idea of any coexisting religion, whether it was the worship of Jupiter, Isis, Hadrian, Cybele or anyone else.
“I am the way, the truth and the life,” said Jesus. “No man shall come to the father except through me.” It took a long time before Londoners showed any interest in this bold monotheistic assertion, but in AD 312 the Emperor Constantine changed the course of history by making Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.
. . .
On 18 September 1954 there was a sensation in the world of archaeology— and pretty big news all round—when it was revealed that Professor W. F. Grimes had discovered the long-sought Temple of Mithras near the Mansion House. It was all astonishingly well preserved.
You could see the place where the bulls had been killed and their steaming blood splashed to the ground. You could work out where the Mithraic torchbearers had stood—Cautes with his torch pointed upwards, Cautopates with his torch pointed down. You could imagine the chanting congregation in the dark and smoky Mithraeum, all giving thanks and praise for the sacrifice of the animal. But as Professor Grimes studied the temple, he could see that something funny had been going on.
Significant objects appeared to have been buried in shallow pits beneath the nave and the aisles. There was a head of Mithras with his Phrygian snood; there was a statue of Serapis and a dagger-wielding hand. It wasn’t long before the archaeologists had come up with a theory.
Sometime in the early fourth century AD, the Mithraist Londoners began to face persecution; then one day they could take the insults and the bullying no longer. Fearing that the game was nearly up, they had stolen into their temple and buried their most sacred objects.
Shortly thereafter their religious competitors broke in and smashed every remaining statue, kicked down the altar and destroyed the Temple of Mithras, just as they destroyed the Serapaeum of Alexandria and other mighty shrines. The religious pluralism of early London gave way to the monotheism of Yahweh.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that it was these same people who went to their forum, pulled down the idolatrous statue of the pagan man-god Hadrian and threw it in the river. My hunch is that it was the Christians; and that they may even have had particular objections to Hadrian. If you read the early Church fathers such as Tertullian or Origen, and the homophobic venom to which they were inspired by the memory of Hadrian and the cult of Antinous, you will see what I mean.
Christianity triumphed across the Roman world and the cult of the emperor was over. You don’t have to go as far as Edward Gibbon, who blamed Christianity for the Fall of Rome (he claimed that its doctrine of meekness was antithetical to the Roman ancestral love of martial glory) to see that something had been lost.
That bronze head of Hadrian incarnated the authority of Rome in divine form. Once it was clear the emperor was no longer divine—well, anybody could be emperor, or could try to be.
From the middle of the third century on, the garrison of London was weakened by the demand for troops on other frontiers. Units were constantly sent to support some of the myriad pretenders to the imperial throne, and the province became subject to terrifying raids from the region that is now Holland and Germany. Living standards declined in London; cows and pigs were housed on mosaic floors. After AD 402 no new imperial coinage entered London, and from 410 the province was offi cially abandoned.
Roman Britain was a long time dying; and, as we shall see, the memory of that epoch was never entirely to fade in the imaginations of Londoners.
Hadrian’s mission to the city was brief but not insignificant. He triggered a spurt of building that helped shape the city for hundreds of years. He formally turned London into the capital of the province and relegated Colchester. He set up the eponymous wall between England and Scotland, a physical and psychological schism that endures to this day, and that has excited Londoners such as Samuel Johnson to satirical rudeness.
His rule embraced a spirit of religious tolerance that the city was not to recapture until the twentieth century. Sometimes I stop my bike at the remains of the Temple of Mithras, which have been removed from their original site and are now displayed on Queen Victoria Street.
Go and look at those enigmatic courses of stone and brick, once deep in a cellar, now out in the wind and rain. Imagine the poor Mithraists, fleeing in terror before the Christians. Think of their tears as they watched their sacred statues smashed to bits. It wouldn’t have happened in our day, and it wouldn’t have happened in Hadrian’s.
What happened next is a terrible warning to all those educationalists who believe that standards will always keep rising. Wave after wave of invaders so shattered the old Roman system that civilisation all but collapsed. Londoners forgot their Latin. They forgot how to read; they forgot how to repair a bridge. Between the years AD 400 and 850 we find no traces of any human occupation of Southwark. There is only one conclusion: that pontoon bridge of Aulus Plautius, repaired and reinforced by generations of Londoners, had decayed and toppled into the river. The vital link was gone. There were still some hairy-looking Londoners living around what is now Covent Garden—peasants and swineherds—but the population had plummeted.
In AD 800 Baghdad had a million people, a glorious circle of scholars and poets and a library of thousands of books on everything from algebra to medicine to watchmaking. By the same year Londoners had returned to barbarism. They were neither Roman nor Christian, until in the early seventh century a man was sent from Rome to try to rescue the situation. His name was Mellitus, which means “honeyed,” and you have a job to find Londoners who have heard of him.
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