How the Great Fire revealed London’s Roman past

The Great Fire of 1666 obliterated an estimated four-fifths of the City of London, engulfing more than 13,000 houses and almost 90 parish churches. But, as historian Alison Cooley explains, the fire also unearthed a fascinating relic from London’s Roman past – the tombstone of a Roman soldier named Vivius Marcianus…

Tombstone-of-Vivius-Marcianus-2-79bc658

“The burning still rages, and it is now gotten as far as the Inner Temple. All Fleet street, the Old Bailey, Ludgate Hill, Warwick Lane, Newgate, Paul’s Chain, Watling Street, now flaming, and most of it reduced to ashes; the stones of St. Paul’s flew like grenados, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse nor man was able to tread on them.” An extract from John Evelyn’s diary, 4 September 1666

Advertisement

The name of one man stands out in accounts of the aftermath of the conflagration that devastated the capital: Christopher Wren. The renowned architect masterminded the rebuilding of some 50 churches including the new St Paul’s Cathedral, which also became his memorial, as his epitaph proclaims: Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice – “Reader, if you seek a memorial, look around you.” Less well known, though, is another aspect of the fire: that it revealed elements of London’s Roman past.

Portrait of Sir Christopher Wren

Christopher Wren. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

In 1669, on the site where St Martin’s Church was to be rebuilt on Ludgate Hill, Christopher Wren uncovered a large slab of limestone depicting a full-length male figure below a Latin text. Despite the fact that the stone was over two metres high, it had remained hidden for hundreds of years, having been used as building material during the construction of the earlier medieval church. The sockets cut into the surface of the stone when it was reused are still clearly visible.

The slab was a tombstone for a Roman soldier named Vivius Marcianus. The epitaph reads: “To the spirits of the dead. Ianuaria Martina, most dutiful wife, set up the monument for Vivius Marcianus, centurion of the 2nd Legion Augusta”. The 2nd Legion Augusta came to Britain during the Claudian invasion of AD 43 and remained until the Romans withdrew from the province. By the middle of the second century AD the legion was based at Caerleon in south Wales, but it was quite usual for individual soldiers to be posted to the provincial capital. It seems likely, therefore, that Vivius Marcianus was in London on secondment to the staff of the provincial governor.

On its rediscovery, the stone was immediately appreciated for its historical value. It was transported to Oxford at the expense of the archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon, who had longstanding ties to the university, having been fellow and warden of All Souls College, as well as university pro-vice chancellor and chancellor. He was also the benefactor of the Sheldonian Theatre, built between 1664 and 1669 to the design of Christopher Wren while he sat as Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford.

The tombstone was displayed in the Garden of Antiquities next to the Sheldonian Theatre. As a relic of Roman London, it was an appropriate addition to the classically inspired design of the theatre and its environs, joining a display of other classical inscriptions from the collection of John Selden, presented in alcoves built into the theatre’s enclosure wall and, on John Evelyn’s suggestion, protected from over-curious visitors by a hedge of prickly holly. In this way the tombstone of Vivius Marcianus came to contribute to the grand Roman atmosphere evoked by the theatre, with its painted ceiling recalling the open-air ambience of the theatre of Marcellus at Rome, and the bearded stone heads surmounting the area’s iron railings outside.

Sheldonian theatre Oxford
Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. (Images Etc Ltd/Contributor/Getty Images)

Thereafter, the tombstone regularly featured in historical works on the development of London. Rather bizarrely, interpretations of the physical appearance of Vivius Marcianus himself – the actual relief having become badly worn, leaving viewers free to reconstruct it as they saw fit – went through various transformations, reflecting both contemporary fashions and changing perceptions of Roman Britain.

The figure carved in the niche is roughly three-quarters life size – about 1.3 metres (four feet) tall. He stands facing the viewer, and is represented wearing a short tunic, belt and cloak, carrying a staff in his right hand and what appears to be a scroll in his left. The wooden staff appears to mark him out as a centurion in the Roman army.

In Thomas Gale’s Antonini Iter Britanniarum of 1709 the Roman is illustrated as a figure with short hair, wielding a sword and staff as he stands ready for action, whereas John Horsley in his Britannia Romana: or the Roman Antiquities of Britain of 1732 depicted him with ringlets. George Alexander Cooke in 1813 described him as a prototype Highlander: “a plaid flung over his breast”, holding “a sword of vast length, like the claymore of the later Highlander”. Nor was it his personal appearance alone that could be reinterpreted. Humphrey Prideaux’s Marmora Oxoniensia of 1676 showed him holding a long, pointed sword rather than the vine-staff distinctive of the Roman centurion.

There was a tendency for historians to look only at illustrations of the figure rather than the monument itself. In 1790 Thomas Pennant argued that the figure’s long hair (as depicted in Prideaux’ reconstruction, but not the actual relief) was proof that Marcianus was a soldier of the cohors Britanorum and that he was “dressed and armed in the manner of the country”.

In 1841, however, Charles Knight criticised this tendency of antiquarians to interpret Marcianus as a “British-born” soldier precisely because they relied heavily on inaccurate drawings. He cannily observed that “in truth nearly all the points of his attire and accoutrements are so uncertainly delineated on the mutilated stone that anything like a complete or consistent picture of the whole can only be made out by an exercise of fancy.”

If you want to decide for yourself what Vivius Marcianus may have looked like, visit the Museum of London, where this tombstone is now on display.

Advertisement

Professor Alison Cooley is head of the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on Roman Italy and the early Principate in particular, and upon the use of inscriptions in both ancient and modern times.