My shoes are my friends. I still have brogues from 1985 (they don’t half polish up nicely). Romans, sadly, did not have the Nottingham shoe industry to rely on. When the English weather had finally done for their flimsy leather pumps, they would take them off and throw them in the marshy stream that ran through the centre of London. Maybe they did this with a contemptuous flick of the wrist on their way back from the sandal shop. Two hundred and fifty shoes have been found underneath modern Walbrook, in what remains of the original Roman stream, including some pairs complete with cork soles used for walking over a heated floor in winter.
Close examination shows that women’s and children’s feet, as well as men’s, have been in intimate contact with these beautifully crafted shoes and sandals. Historians no longer think of Londinium as once they did: a largely male garrison town. The Walbrook footwear has changed that forever. Far from an Up Pompei of pink-skinned men, Londinium was incredibly diverse, with slaves, and freed slaves, from all ends of the Empire mingling with all sorts and conditions of citizens.
We have a sense of the spectrum of both female and male Londinium lives. We know about women rich and powerful enough to set up gushing memorials to members of their families - "To Marcus Aurelius Eucarpus, my most devoted son; aged 15 years 6 months; set up by his mother, Aurelia Eucarpia" - and women whose lives were played out in the utter degradation of the Lupanaria or low class brothels of the day. We know about men who owned signature palaces, and about those who were thrown roughly into the amphitheatre in what is now Guildhall Yard along with a menagerie of hungry animals.
Thanks to charismatic historians like Mary Beard, David Olusoga, Simon Schama, and David Starkey, not to mention the irrepressible Tony "Baldrick" Robinson, history has come out of its mouldy closet, and it won’t be put back. Archaeology is big business. Few of the people who pass through Architect Peter Foggo’s Cannon Street Station on their way to work these days realise the giant cantilevers on which it's suspended are there to ensure the Roman deposits underneath lie undisturbed, ready to be investigated by our grandchildren and great grandchildren. Sleeping beneath the station ready to be woken when time, money and technology allow, is a gigantic Roman Governor’s Palace fronting on to still-preserved Roman wharves where the Walbrook flowed into the Thames. There are ornate mosaic floors, and a giant ornamental pool full of statuary that would once have overlooked the Southwark marshes.
In the last century, basements of new City office buildings were scooped out and the earth unceremoniously alienated to the Essex marshes. We wouldn't dream of doing that now. An idea currently floating around the City archaeology community is to seek out elderly digger drivers who remember where the earth was dumped, so the precious deposits can be relocated and sifted. Every bucket load is a time capsule.
The Romans only managed to cling on in Londinium for a blink of an eyelid in historical terms, about 300 years, before the angry tribes surrounding them finally got the upper hand. The dead city lay abandoned and in ruins for more than 400 years before Alfred the Great reoccupied it in 886. The Walbroook stream was eventually haphazardly filled in, but the river and its contents remained intact under the debris. When Michael Bloomberg created the carparks under his new HQ, the time capsule was definitively opened, and the working lives of the forebears of my rows of bankers, plus those of their wives, children, bosses and drinking buddies, were vividly brought to the surface.
Romans wrote not on iPads or PCs, but on wooden tablets covered in blackened wax. One of these tablets was found next to the Walbrook, and is the oldest financial document we have from the City of London. Its message was scratched out on a January day in 57 CE, just ten years after the Romans had completed their first substantial building works. It is a wintery IOU, a promissory note, from someone called Tibullus to someone called Gratus - both, as it happens, freed slaves - formalising a debt of 105 denarii for some goods Tibullus acknowledges have been safely delivered. The wax has been lost, but the metal stylus left just enough telltale information on the wood beneath to make the message decipherable.
“They’re boasting throughout the market that you’ve leant them money, so make sure you don’t look shabby, or you won’t do yourself any favours", says another note, penned to an anxious - or perhaps not anxious enough - fellow called Titus. Precisely the same sentiments can be overheard today being muttered discreetly into phones in the alleys off Bow Lane.
Nineteen of these writing tablets were found in one small building off Walbrook, meaning we may have found London’s first office, complete perhaps with a toga-clad version of David Brent presiding over a cast of bored scribes pinching each other's office supplies. One of the volunteer archaeologists who helped with the dig remarked that the rich, cessy aroma of the pit was the smell of Londinium itself.
We are people in time. We stew in our own troubles without the perspective of history at our peril. Tibullus' and Gratus' exchange of paperwork in 57 CE makes our own daily dealing with the unknown seem less a trial unique to us, and more of a communion with those whose very names, through a strange game of chance and preservation, have passed from their hands into ours.
Tibullus. Gratus. Wherever you are, remember us.
The Roman writing tablets illustrated can be seen most days between 10 and 6 at the Bloomberg London Mithraeum on Walbrook. Admission is free.