From Rome to Kentish Town: how the ancient cities built modern London

In a new two-part series, Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill explores how ancient Athens and Rome shaped our capital, says Alex Bellotti.

Long heralded by Britain and America as a foundation of democracy, the Magna Carta is enjoying renewed attention this year on its 800th anniversary. For Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, however, this “botched compromise between a load of barons” pales in comparison to a text written 16 centuries before, which gave way not just to one of the greatest empires of the ancient world, but society as we know it.

The Athenian Constitution was believed to have been written by Aristotle to document legislation made by the Greek statesmen Solon. Among its revolutionary ideas was the idea that common citizens had the power to not just elect public officials, but to call them to account.

In his new two-part documentary, Building the Ancient City: Athens and Rome, Wallace-Hadrill sees this as the first expression of the “ideal of a ‘free citizen’”. Starting tonight, the series looks first at how the Greek capital gave birth to democracy, then how Rome built upon such tenets to form the first super-city, before examining how both ancient capitals have influenced modern-day London.

“The producer insisted on holding back on London until the end, but I was actually very conscious of London throughout, because it was the next city after Rome – at least in the western world – to hit the million population level,” says Wallace-Hadrill. “It has many things in common: it’s a city grown on empire; it’s a city that grows at the expense of the cities around it, sucking everything into the centre.”

Filmed over a week in each city, the show was inspired by the 14 years its presenter spent living in Rome.

Now Professor of Roman Studies at Cambridge University, Wallace-Hadrill’s strength lies in unearthing the lesser-known monuments – burial vaults, apartment blocks and even the sewers – rather than traditional tourist hotspots like the Coliseum.

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“I was so conscious that there is one Rome which is seen by tourists,” he says. “But the longer you live in the city, the more you become aware that antiquity is all around you and that the city of today just grows in the ancient city.

The links between antiquity and the present are there for all to see. In one scene, the professor enthuses about the early councils of Athenian politicians; in the next, we visit the London Assembly, where Boris Johnson is embroiled in a dispute concerning police funding in Camden and Barnet.

In the interview that follows, the Mayor of London waxes lyrical about the contribution immigrants played in building Athens – a moment that stayed with Wallace-Hadrill.

“It’s such a relief to me to hear a Conservative politician stating so firmly that immigrants matter and that London can’t survive without immigrants. Of course it’s a well-known democraphic fact that a big city just consumes its population – you get more deaths than births and you must import people.”

The 64-year-old points to a book by Gillian Tindell, The Fields Beneath, which explores how the streets of Kentish Town follow in the patterns of older settlements and the natural contours of the land. Rome is very much like that, he says, but there’s a “whole rich city” beneath which can help us learn how the first city to reach a population of over one million dealt with the pressures of governance, immigration and welfare.

While there is a temptation to dig into the past to find answers for today, however, Wallace-Hadrill believes we must resist the urge.

“I always say that this is not what the past is for. It doesn’t give you lessons and ideas – it actually frees you from the tyranny of the present. We live trapped not just in the 21st century; we live in the moment and can scarcely remember a world without computers.

“So looking at Rome as a great city like London, I don’t do it to improve London, but to realise that the problems we grapple with today like immigration aren’t new – they come inescapably out of certain situations and there is a range of responses to them.”

Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill presents Building the Ancient City: Athens and Rome, tonight on BBC2 at 8pm.