How diverse was Roman Britain?

By Dr Matthew Nicholls, Department of Classics, University of Reading

A heated conversation arose on social media on Wednesday surrounding the question of the racial diversity of Roman Britain, or the Roman empire more generally.

The tweet from Alt Right commentator Paul Jospeh Watson, that kicked off the debate

There is plenty of evidence that the Roman empire was relatively diverse, as might be expected from an empire that encouraged trade and mobility across a territory that extended from Hadrian’s Wall to north Africa, the Rhine, and the Euphrates (and which, less positively, enslaved and moved conquered populations around by force).

Rome itself was a melting pot of people from all over the Mediterranean and beyond (satirical poets moan about it, and we have the evidence of tombstones). Outside Italy the Roman army in particular acted as medium for change and movement in several ways.

Its legions, recruited from Roman citizens, were posted all over the empire. Soldiers might take local common-law wives and marry them on retirement, creating new generations of Roman citizens outside Italy who would then be eligible for legionary service.

The internet discussion was particularly prompted by the appearance of a black Roman soldier in the detachment building Hadrian’s Wall, but in fact there is an ancient account of precisely this – the emperor Septimius Severus (himself in fact an African, from Libya) was inspecting his troops on the Wall when one of the garrison’s well-known jokers, an ‘Ethiopian’, offered him a garland.

Severus was startled by the apparent omen, associating the soldier’s black colour as a portent of his own imminent death, but no-one seems to have been particularly surprised at the presence of an ‘Ethiopian’ (that is, a black African) at the northern edge of the Roman empire (Hist. Aug. Severus 22). There were other Africans on the wall – a third-century AD cohort of Mauri from north west Africa are also attested in an inscription at Burgh-by-Sands near Carlisle.

“Hadrian’s Wall had garrisons of Tungrian and Batavian troops from Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as units from as far away as Syria”

Auxiliary military units, levied from non-citizens, were deliberately posted to areas of the empire far from their troops’ home province, so Hadrian’s Wall also had garrisons of Tungrian and Batavian troops from Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as units from as far away as Syria.

Auxiliary units like these passed on Roman military discipline, Latin, and Roman cultural habits and often rewarded their soldiers with grants of citizenship on retirement, producing more new citizens with a long training in Roman ways. And Roman army units in frontier provinces built roads and harbours and created instant large markets for food, drink, and services, stimulating the growth of towns outside the fortress gates. In the long-term, this also monetised trading economies that drew in more civilian settlers from around the empire.

We know about some of these settlers from archaeological evidence and inscriptions. Colleagues at the University of Reading have worked on both. Dr Hella Eckardt’s analysis of skeletal remains found in York suggest that the city was home to immigrants from North Africa (find out more here), while Professor Peter Kruschwitz has written on moving inscriptions that document the lives and deaths of immigrants in the Roman empire.

This remarkable monument, discovered in Arbeia (South Shields) at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, documents the life of a British wife of a Syrian immigrant from Palmyra, including text in Palmyrene, one of several pieces of evidence for a near eastern people in northern Britain.

Take a look at the Romans Revealed website, featuring research by the University of Reading and Runnymede Trust, to find out more about Roman society.

Learn more about Roman history and explore an incredibly detailed virtual reality model of Ancient Rome built by Dr Nicholls as this free online course by the University of Reading and Futurelearn returns in October 2017.

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  1. Michael Simon’s avatar

    Dear Dr Nicholls
    Thanks so much for this informative piece.
    While one can appreciate Roman Britain was indeed diverse – can you shed light on whether the BBC’s depiction of a ‘typical’ family portrait, is in fact, typical? Was it typical to see mixed, non mono-racial families as representing the majority of families at the time in Britain?
    Thanks ever so much,
    Micahel.

    Reply

    1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

      Longinus Sdapezematygus is a great name.

      Reply

    2. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

      Thank you, Michael – glad you enjoyed it. I can’t really speak for the BBC, but I’m not sure that they were trying to claim their Roman family was ‘typical’. My concern was to answer that Twitter comment by pointing out from our evidence that it was at least historically possible.
      Beyond that, we have so few demographic data from the ancient world that any claim about numbers and proportions is hard to sustain. Up in the north of Britain at this date all incomers due to the Roman presence were in a minority, with a range of different subgroups and units within that population. Doubtless black troops were a minority, but we know that at least some were there. The q. of who seemed Roman and who was not could become rather complicated and probably depended on whose perspective you were looking from. Were the Dutch and Belgian auxiliary troops on Hadrian’s Wall ‘Romans’? Spoke a bit of Latin, wore Roman uniforms, served the Roman empire; but not (yet) Roman citizens, from populations relatively recently conquered, maybe worshipped different gods of their own alongside Roman and local ones.
      The longer the Romans were in Britain, the more usual it would have become to see mixture and movement, esp. in the big towns linked by good Roman roads. The link to an inscription at the end of the blog post is a good example of this sort of complexity. It’s the gravestone of a woman from a tribe in southern Britain who was a slave and then married a Syrian from Palmyra, and ended up living with him near Hadrian’s Wall. So mixed race families were possible, and as this tombstone shows the mixing effect of such a large empire – including the effects of slavery – could bring people together from very different starting points.

      Reply

      1. Michael Simon’s avatar

        Thanks so much for your learned reply, Dr Nicholls. It is greatly appreciated.
        Wishing you well.
        With kind regards
        Michael

        Reply

        1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

          You’re very welcome – thanks for reading.

          Reply

        2. John Finn’s avatar

          ” I can’t really speak for the BBC, but I’m not sure that they were trying to claim their Roman family was ‘typical’. ”

          Yes – obviously it is a bit confusing, Dr Nicholls, though I did think there was a bit of a clue in the sub-heading, i.e.

          Suitable for teaching 7-11s. An exploration of life in Roman Britain shown through the eyes of a TYPICAL FAMILY {my emphasis}. Part six of an 11-part animated series.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nN_x9o8MV1o

          Tricky stuff – this research business.

          Reply

          1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

            John – no need for the sarcasm but, yes, you’re right that the text beneath the BBC video does in fact make that claim. Thank you. As I say, I’m not intending to speak for their motives here. They were, after all, making a cartoon educational resource for children and in that they have done a good job as far as I can see; as has been firmly established now, the charge of historical inaccuracy that prompted this post was wrong.

            So, as to the claim of typicality – that doesn’t seem problematical to me. At least, there are all sorts of typical and untypical features in this family, depending on what is understood by the term, and the overall picture is reasonable.
            Are the BBC claiming that most Roman families were mixed race and contained a black person? I doubt it; that would be not be a sensible claim. But there are plenty of well researched details which make the claim to a sort of composite typicality reasonable – the costumes, names, architecture, domestic art, curse tablet, bathhouse, female birthday party invitation, slavery, amphitheatrical games and the two boys’ reactions to it, etc are all grounded in literary, archaeological, or epigraphic examples. The mother of the family can read and write – see 2 minutes in – and this is probably relatively unusual (less so for an elite family like this, but for the Roman world as a whole, where both male and female literacy was less widespread than today). Does this also make the family ‘untypical’? Well, yes, but no one seems to have objected to this particular detail; and of course there are many examples of individual women who *could* read/write (including the wife of a fort commander on Hadrian’s Wall, who as here sent a birthday invitation, found among the Vindolanda tablets), just as there are plenty of examples of African and Syrian and Belgian etc, etc troops in Roman Britain.

            The same is true of the fact that this family are rich, hold high military office, live in a nice villa in Bath with mosaics and frescoes (surrounded, we night notice in passing, by a large majority of white people), and have enough money not just to own slaves but to employ or own a specialist paedagogus to teach Quintus maths. None of these attributes are ‘typical’ of the majority experiences both in Roman Britain – where of course all Romans and camp followers, of whatever race, were minority incomers, and there were far more subsistence farmers than military officers or educated children – and of the wider empire.

            So – typical in each individual particular? No, but I don’t think that this is claimed (and it was surely never designed to attract this kind of scrutiny). Plausible overall, a fair representation of the life of an elite Roman family in early 2nd C Britain, making some interesting points about life in the province, and conforming to known examples? Yes, I think so.

            Reply

          2. Mary’s avatar

            “…I’m not sure that they were trying to claim their Roman family was ‘typical’.

            Actually, that is exactly what the BBC was trying to claim, that this history lesson was supposed to be “through the eyes of a typical Roman family”. I don’t think anyone would argue that there were indeed, some people from other Roman provinces in Briton 1800 years ago, but I somehow doubt that a “typical Roman family” consisted of a black father and son, a lighter skinned wife and white slaves.

            Reply

            1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

              I’ve replied on this above. The ‘typical’ family in the province would also not contain a high ranking officer, a literate wife, a villa with frescoes, children being taught mathematics, etc. It seems a reasonable composite to me. The BBC have their own reasons for choosing these elements, but the charge of historical inaccuracy is not right.

              Reply

            2. kyometaxao’s avatar

              Dr Nicholls

              Im puzzled by the following that you wrote…

              “but I’m not sure that they were trying to claim their Roman family was ‘typical’.”

              The caption to the picture clearly states that the family was indeed “typical”.

              Possible? Certainly. But “typical” would suggest that a “non-typical” family would be white. Why do you think the BBC elected to display a mixed race family as “typical”?

              Reply

            3. Randal’s avatar

              On the subject of mixed race families:

              In our epigraphic evidence, do we have records of women from Africa or the Levant as well as men?

              The examples I’ve seen quoted, as well as common sense, suggests it was more common for men to travel so far (i.e. as traders, or in the army) than it was for women. But common sense has been known to be less than sensible.

              Still, if that is so, these men pretty much HAD to marry local women if they wanted families, which would mean a mixed race coupling would actually be far more typical than a non-mixed black/north-African/Syrian couple.

              Then again, it also occurs to me that there might have been plenty of female slaves or servants who joined such soldiers or traders on their travels, but would have been far less likely to leave an epigraphic record. Likewise, a trader or (high-ranking) soldier might have already been married and brought his wife.

              And there are also famous examples of women in Roman Britain with foreign roots, such as the Lewis Bangle lady.

              Is there any evidence to indicate whether women themselves would have travelled from other parts of the empire, or should we suppose such individuals to be the offspring of mixed-raced couples as shown in the video?

              I’d be interested in any insights you have to offer. Either way, thank you for your time in addressing this.

              Reply

              1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                Interesting question. I’d have to read through the epigraphic corpus to give the definitive answer, but I would guess that you’d be right that male mobility was higher; certainly plenty of soldiers took local wives, formally or informally. Barathes’ wife in the inscription linked above was a slave from a tribe in southern Britain, and marriages between freed slaves and former owners turn up a fair bit in inscriptions.

                It’s not quite what you asked about, but one of my favourite Vindolanda texts is from a pretty high status woman, Claudia Severa, wife of a Roman fort commander, to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the Roman garrison commander in charge of the cohort of Batavians at Vindolanda – the famous birthday party invitation. A charming text if you don’t know it, between two Roman women who probably felt a bit marooned up there in frontier country. There’s a nod to that in the BBC video that started all this discussion, incidentally.

                Reply

                1. Randal’s avatar

                  Thanks for replying. I do know that text. It’s indeed charming, but also changed my perception of how we should envision army camp life. It’s too easy to get caught up in abstract diagrams or lists and forget we’re dealing with people.

                  It’s like the memoir I read of the battle of Waterloo, which talked about a wife coming to find her husband mid-battle to show him his newly born child, afraid that he’d die before he could see his son, and refusing to believe the officer who told her he’d sent the man back to camp as soon as they heard the news of the birth.

                  There’s so much more life going on in these places than we imagine, even among soldiers, even in the midsts of battle. In that, I think the video offers a valuable perspective, since it does stress this aspect. (Though I can’t say I’m too fond of its style of presentation.)

                  Reply

                2. Franck Nganba’s avatar

                  Did u see my commentary sir ?

                  Reply

                3. Franck Nganba’s avatar

                  Good morning, Dr. Nicholls. I have a few questions for you.

                  – Is what Septime Severe who was half Libyan half Italian can be considered black?

                  – How many troops that invaded England were extra europeene? Was it in large numbers? Is it wrong to represent the Romans as being generally white?

                  – In agreement with wikipedia here are the legions that invaded England; [6] Aulus Plautius, a distinguished senator, was given a total load of four kilograms Legions, totalling about 20,000 men, more about the same number of auxiliaries.

                  Legio II Augusta
                  Legio IX Hispana
                  Legio XIV Gemina
                  Legio XX Valeria Victrix ”

                  Knows where the soldiers of these legions were recruited.

                  -I recently saw a documentary or Hannibal Barca was represented black is this true? I always thought that the Carthaginians were the descendants of the Phoenicians who even came from the Middle East?

                  Is that what the moors and the inhabitants of North Africa during the antiquity was black?

                  Reply

                  1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                    Franck – lots of interesting questions.
                    Septimius Severus: you are right about his background. His mother’s family had a reasonably distinguished Italian ancestry. On his father’s side he was Libyan/Roman – he was born in Lepcis Magna, a town on the Punic-speaking cost of north Africa which nonetheless by this date had a long history as a Roman colony – another example of multiple or overlapping identities in the Roman empire. Ancient sources who want to knock him for his provincial background comment on his accent, for example; later some others of his dynasty got into difficulty in Rome over their adherence to eastern religious cults. Unusually for a Roman emperor we have a painting of him as well as statues, though how far these can be used simply as evidence of what he looked like in life (rather than how he wanted to be seen) is not an easy question, as I’ve said to someone below.

                    Reply

                  2. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                    ‘England’ did not exist at this date, and there was no nation of Britain to be invaded – rather, a patchwork of tribal kingdoms. But yes, these are the legions that invaded under Claudius and garrisoned the island and two of them (XX and II, plus VI Victrix, which was moved in from Spain) were involved in the building of Hadrian’s Wall. They had a long history of service on the continent by the time they got to Britain (variously e.g. Spain, Illyria, Germany). Legionaries were Roman citizens (who by this date might well come from outside Italy – you’d have to look through the epigraphy of the legion to see if you could tell from people’s names whereabouts they came from) but legions on campaign would also be accompanied by non-citizen auxiliary troops who might come from all over the empire. For more you could try e.g. Lawrence Keppie’s collected papers in Legions and Veterans; for the Roman presence in the island e.g. David Mattingly, or P. Salway’s History of Roman Britain among much else. This online free course on Hadrian’s Wall may be of interest:
                    https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/hadrians-wall

                    Reply

                  3. Franck Nganba’s avatar

                    “Still, if that is so, these men pretty much HAD to marry local women if they wanted families, which would mean a mixed race coupling would actually be far more typical than a non-mixed black/north-African/Syrian couple.”

                    The previous commentary evokes interracial relationships as a common thing can we really say that?

                    Reply

                    1. Nigel’s avatar

                      Basic logic states that if you are the only person from your city state that has travelled to the British Isles, then if you marry, it *has* to be to someone you would consider “foreign”.

                      Remember, the average person didn’t travel more than half a day’s walk from home. That’s ~4*4 miles. 16 miles is the radius of your life on foot as a peasant, etc. That’s your small town to the next town.

                      The military are a huge exception, with very mobile large groups of young men travelling faster (forced march), and going (one way) to garrisons that can feed and house them.

                      Obviously you’ve got traders and the occasional traveller too, but they’d not stay in a place and settle, generally.

                      So yes. Any soldier getting married is going to be to someone they never saw before, with no connection or shared friends or family or locations. Truly foreign – they wouldn’t even have the same first languages. Don’t get hung up on the skin colours.

                      Reply

                    2. Nigel’s avatar

                      Well, basic logic states that if you are the only person from your city state that has travelled to the British Isles, then if you marry, it *has* to be to someone you would consider “foreign”.

                      Remember, the average person didn’t travel more than half a day’s walk from home. That’s ~4*4 miles. 16 miles is the radius of your life on foot as a peasant, etc. That’s your small town to the next town.

                      The military are a huge exception, with very mobile large groups of young men travelling faster (forced march), and going (one way) to garrisons that can feed and house them.

                      Obviously you’ve got traders and the occasional traveller too, but they’d not stay in a place and settle, generally.

                      So yes. Any soldier getting married is going to be to someone they never saw before, with no connection or shared friends or family or locations. Truly foreign – they wouldn’t even have the same first languages. Don’t get hung up on the skin colours.

                      Reply

                    3. ali armanazi’s avatar

                      I am Syrian from that part of Syria that provided the auxiliary archers who served near Hadrian’s Wall, and in York. Today, I find that my DNA is shared by a number of Scottish families !

                      Reply

                      1. Al Holmes’s avatar

                        Extremely cool… In the past years I have seen many pics of blue eyed red / blonde haired children in the region as well. I think there were multiple chances for mixes, but this is certainly one.

                        Reply

                      2. Laura Davis’s avatar

                        That’s great Ali! My son is part Lebanese, part French part British, and his son is half Chinese, so a proper mix up.

                        Reply

                      3. Franck Nganba’s avatar

                        “Doubtless black troops were a minority, but we know that at least some were there.”

                        black troops or north african troops ? bc i the roman empire dont stretch to sub saharian africa

                        Reply

                      4. Franck Nganba’s avatar

                        “Don’t get hung up on the skin colours.” i am not but it’s the point of the subject?
                        Are you sure that women soldiers can not travel with them because in this case your theory is not necessarily true.

                        Reply

                      5. Al Holmes’s avatar

                        Hmmm.. There was a bit of an argument on % of POC the Romans consisted of and formed families on site, to cut to the chase.

                        The BBC “educational series” push a high % just by the visuals in cartoons. This is actually easy to determine if true or not.

                        If such a high % existed, then the DNA record would be fruitful. Not finding that. Maybe someone other than me can find a record of African DNA emanating from the period.

                        Neanderthal seems more likely to be your daddy, if coming from NoEu, I have a higher percent than normal at nearly 4% per 23andMe.

                        Seems an institution of higher learning would be able to skin this one out in rather short order.

                        Reply

                      6. Paul McNeil’s avatar

                        Surely Roman “Britain” wasn’t ethnically diverse in any statistically meaningful way? Londinium was, probably a mainly a “foreign” or “Roman” (but not very Italian) city, with a sub class of racially “British” working class? Same with most Roman garrison towns with units from all over the Empire, probably with a high Germanic and Gallic element. But once you got outside the bigger towns and into the country where most of the aboriginal “British” lived, you’d be unlikely to see many foreigners other than the odd trader and tax collector. I’d guess the place to look for genetic evidence to test the theory would be areas where ex-Roman soldiers were settled and may have married mainly local women. African genes will stick out like a sore thumb in currently rural districts.

                        Reply

                        1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                          Yes, there would surely be different levels of visible diversity in big towns and military outposts (not sure what would count as ‘statistically meaningful’ but I agree that we are not talking about large %s). We can see empirical change in the archaeology and literary sources. The building of all those straight roads, military camps, establishment of a cash economy, etc all meant that there was more movement to and within the province than before (though there had been a fair bit of cross channel interaction even before the Romans in the SE). The Vindolanda tablets, for example, are full of it. Britain itself was a patchwork of different tribes at the time and the admixture of these in towns and trading posts might have been another way in which the Roman presence stirred things up – see e.g. the Barathes and Regina stone. Remoter parts of the countryside may well have been less effected. The cartoon which started the conversation, though, is set in a) Hadrian’s Wall and b) Bath, so urban/military settings with a more overt Roman presence. I have no expertise in DNA studies but have seen interesting comments by others on what they can and can’t tell us at this interval of time. Neville Morley’s blog has a piece on this.

                          Reply

                        2. Pasi Antero’s avatar

                          Being from North Africa or Middle East was not that uncommon in the legionaries, but those people weren’t black by any measure. They were in fact less brown than the current inhabitants of those areas on average.

                          Sure there would’ve been some cases of aethiopian, sub-saharan african legionary coming in, but as testified by how startled the emperor was to see such a man there, it was extremely rare.

                          Reply

                          1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                            See below (more likely auxiliary troops than legionaries). I don’t doubt that you are right that this was an unusual sight, but far from an impossible one.

                            Reply

                          2. Alan’s avatar

                            “the emperor Septimius Severus (himself in fact an African, from Libya) ”

                            Typical dishonesty. Severus came from North Africa. He was descended from *Italian colonists.* That means he was not a sub-Saharan Africa, nor was he an indigenous North African (who were, we know, genetically Caucasian/Caucasoids anyway).

                            Statues of Severus show he was a European Caucasian:

                            http://www.ancient.eu/uploads/images/358.jpg?v=1485681253

                            So much for the claim that he was African

                            Reply

                            1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                              Happy to discuss facts and evidence, but I would rather keep things courteous: ‘Typical dishonesty’? Typical of whom, or of what?
                              Severus came from North Africa, as you say. Who said he was sub-Saharan? He certainly had Italian ancestors; Punic forebears in Lepcis Magna may have roots in another Mediterranean migration of Phoenicians to the north African coast. He therefore had a distinguished Roman ancestry, though by this time that applied to lots of people born outside Italy. Insofar as the Hist. Aug. is a reliable source, we see there that Severus never lost an ‘African accent’ and was embarrassed that his sister could barely speak Latin; so he, or his biographer, was at least sensitive to the charge that he was of mixed origins.
                              His statues show us a number of things, inc. that he was keen to present himself with similar hair and beard to the previous Antonine dynasty with whom he claimed continuity – Roman portrait statues are not simple records of personal appearance, though their physiognomy is highly convincing. There is also a famous tondo portrait of the Severan family.

                              Reply

                            2. Someone’s avatar

                              “the emperor Septimius Severus (himself in fact an African, from Libya) was inspecting his troops on the Wall when one of the garrison’s well-known jokers, an ‘Ethiopian’, offered him a garland.

                              Severus was startled by the apparent omen, associating the soldier’s black colour as a portent of his own imminent death, but no-one seems to have been particularly surprised at the presence of an ‘Ethiopian’ (that is, a black African) at the northern edge of the Roman empire”

                              Seems a tad myopic. In your own words, Severus was “startled.”

                              Reply

                              1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                                Myopic? not sure I follow.
                                Anyway, ‘my own words’ are not important here; we need to look at what the *actual evidence* says which in this case is a late biography of dubious merit, the so called Historia Augusta. I gave the reference in the blog. You can find it here: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/L/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Septimius_Severus*.html#22

                                My ‘startled’ is paraphrase, not translation. The whole paragraph is about omens. What bothers Sep. Sev. is that he is being offered a garland of cypress, a symbol of funerals, by a man whose black colour seems to him a portent of death (the poor chap didn’t help matters by calling out as a joke that Sep. Sev. should, having accomplished so much, ‘become a god’). The Latin adjectives for Severus here are iratus and tactus – angered at the presumption/ill omen and literally ‘touched’ or ‘perturbed’ by the combination of colour and garland. Obviously the man’s heritage was unusual, or why comment on it, but not radically out of the ordinary or a cause for comment in itself. And it serves to confirm the original point – that the BBC was quite within its rights to depict a black Roman soldier on Hadrian’s Wall.

                                Reply

                              2. Peter Foden’s avatar

                                We’re all familiar with the idea that ‘we were all immigrants once’. That seemed reasonable enough to anyone with the slightest inkling of the past 2000 years of British history: waves of invaders – Romans, Anglo-saxons, Normans – followed by waves of refugees from European & Colonial wars and pogroms. I’ve just begun learning about recent advances in human genetics, beginning with Professor Bryan Sykes’ The Seven Daughters of Eve, and am amazed to discover just how ‘mixed up’ European populations were from the very beginnings of human settlements. And that includes Britain and the Middle East! There are people now living in Ireland and in Kurdistan (for example) who share the same mitochondrial dNA, which means they share the same female-line ancestor perhaps 15,000+ years ago, not because of any recent invasion or migration in recorded history, but because of our shared membership of humanity over millennia. It looks as if we have become (and are still becoming) more, rather than less, ‘tribal’, during our recorded history. Nations begin to look ever more artificial, not just the ones created with rectilinear borders after WW1, but even the ones we tend to believe more culturally and linguistically defined.

                                Reply

                                1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                                  Interesting stuff!

                                  Reply

                                2. Topcliffe’s avatar

                                  What amazes me is that the historically illiterate criticism of the idea that everyone in the Roman empire was “white” — a category which simply didn’t exist till well into the Modern era — seems to come exclusively from films and television programmes in which Romans are almost invariably portrayed by white British actors.

                                  Reply

                                  1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                                    Yes; and the assumption that ethnic difference was mostly about skin colour, or that cultural identity was straightforward and single. The Roman empire was a large and complex place.

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                                  2. John Rogers’s avatar

                                    There is 0 evidence for black Africans in Roman Britain.

                                    Reply

                                    1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                                      I gave you some of the evidence above. Did you read it?

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                                    2. Reinout Korbee’s avatar

                                      This discussion is all messed up. Judging historical events according to modern moral standards is historical falsification however you put it. If race and ethnicity or skin colour where no topics in the period and place we’re talking about then discussing about events in those terms is a pointless exercise. Next we complain about the lack of transgenders among the Huns.

                                      Reply

                                      1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                                        Every age views the past through its own lens. I agree with you that there’s been far more heat than light in this particular debate – to put it mildly, a lot of people seem to be projecting their own concerns onto an educational cartoon for children. People can form their own opinions, but what I wanted to do here was lay out some of the source material behind the fairly firm scholarly consensus that’s emerged in response.

                                        Reply

                                      2. Carl’s avatar

                                        A few people in the comments above seem to allude to Nassim Taleb’s DNA argument, claiming that we would see DNA evidence if there had been black Africans in Roman Britain. For anyone interested, this article (by an expert in population genetics) squarely debunks Taleb’s claims:

                                        https://iainews.iai.tv/articles/beard-nassem-taleb-twitter-feud-and-dangers-of-scientism-auid-868?access=ALL

                                        Reply

                                        1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                                          Thanks for the link. I’d have been more inclined to listen to Mr Taleb’s contributions if they hadn’t been so aggressively made. As this article says, the contribution dna can make to this discussion is interesting but (it seems to me) limited. Neville Morley’s Sphinx blog has more and is worth a look: https://thesphinxblog.com/2017/08/02/diversitas-et-multiculturalismus/

                                          Reply

                                        2. Markus Möller’s avatar

                                          Dear Dr. Nicholls,

                                          i have a problem with the arguments you show to underline that a family like in the image would have been possible. I don’t doubt that were exceptions and that it could have been possible, but your arguments don’t help either, because the persons you listed are African but most likely not black-African (i am not sure if this is an appropriate term in English, i hope it is). You don’t do it, but naming Septimius Severus an African together with the Ethiopian man, implies that he was black as well. But Lepcis Magna was a roman colony and he would have been probably of semitic and italian heritage. Even if you take the Numidians and the governor of Britain Dr. Beard presents as an example, you still have not a black man but a semitic or berber-looking person. Arguing that way only supports the Afrocentrists and supports claims like that Hannibal or Cleopatra were black-skinned people. I personally wouldn’t mind, but as scholars we should look at the evidence we have.

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                                          1. Matthew Nicholls’s avatar

                                            Hello Markus. Thanks for your comment. I think we largely agree with each other, actually. I don’t think Septimius Severus and the ‘Aethiops’ had the same racial background. You’re right to point out that I don’t say this – see my answer above (and comments from other readers) agreeing with your understanding of the emperor’s origins. He’s African (and often referred to as such, e.g. in the title of Birley’s biography) inasmuch as he came from Roman Africa. In general I prefer to look at what evidence we have for the ancient world, rather than use it to justify or comment on modern ideas about race. That’s why I posted on this in the first place, and it’s generated some interesting conversations.

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                                          2. Chamil’s avatar

                                            Dear colleague,

                                            Thank for your post. The fact that Roman Africa was extremely important in Roman Empire cannot be denied: in fact both in political (Severan dynasty) and religioux matters (rise of christianism, Augustine) this region played a vital role in Roman history. It has even been the most quiet part of the Empire (at least until 429), while the rest of Roman empire was enduring difficulties through late antiquity.

                                            Nevertheless, this BBC cartoon is at least clumsy. Roman Africa was ethnically composed of mediteranean people, and contained less Black Africans than today (most of them are in fact a legacy of trans-saharian slavery). As a whole, the empire was mainly europan and mediterranean.

                                            “Ethnic diversity” of Roman empire is indeed an obvious fact far right and racist activists should learn rather than insulting historians. But Black Africans were far from being “common” even in North Africa, not to mention Roman Britain. A typical roman family in England was white, or possibly, in areas of garrison, mediterranean.

                                            As an historian, I am really worried by the growing use of history to promote an agenda concerning primarly our times. Conservatives have done it routenely, now it seems some progressives, in the name of an non-historical “politicaly correctness” have also jumped in.

                                            Best regards from France,

                                            Chamil

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                                          3. Thabani Maphosa’s avatar

                                            Thank you, Dr Nicholls for this excellent article. In the article you mentioned satirical poets who bemoaned the diversity of the Roman Empire. I’d like to read some of these poems and also learn more about the ethnic diversity of Rome. Thank you

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