How ethnically diverse was Roman Britain?

Earlier this month, a BBC cartoon depicting a high-ranking black soldier in Roman Britain caused controversy on social media. While Mary Beard, a professor of Classics at Cambridge University, proclaimed the image to be an “accurate” representation of Roman diversity, others criticised the cartoonist for “rewriting history”. So, how accurate is the cartoon in its portrayal of a black soldier? History Extra spoke to Dr Hella Eckardt, who has led a research project into Roman migration…

This BBC cartoon was recently at the heart of a debate about diversity in Roman
This BBC cartoon was recently at the heart of a debate about diversity in Roman Britain. It depicts a high-ranking black soldier alongside his family. (Used with permission from BBC Teach)

 

Q. What do we know about ethnic diversity in Roman Britain?

A: There is no doubt at all that there were people from other parts of the world in Roman Britain. We don’t necessarily know what skin colour these people had, but we do know that there was movement; we have North Africans attested on Hadrian’s wall, for example. However, it’s very difficult to quantify exact numbers, as our evidence is full of uncertainties. 

 

Q. What evidence is there to suggest that Roman Britain was ethnically diverse?

A: We have inscriptions which tell us where people were from. These might say, for example, that someone comes from North Africa or from Italy. There are a number of famous ones, like Victor ‘the Moor’, and Barates who came from Palmyra in the Syrian desert.

Other evidence is based on isotope analysis, which can involve looking at the chemical signatures preserved in teeth. The water and food that a person consumes shapes their isotopic signature, which gives us a rough indication of where they originally came from. At the moment, we can only say broadly that they were from somewhere cooler or warmer, and we can suggest whether someone is likely to have been a local or not. Most of the people we’ve looked at were from cooler areas, such as Germany or Poland, which makes sense because we know that mercenaries came from those areas to serve in the Roman army. 

Another technique you can use is to look at the skull of an individual. By measuring its shape, you can say whether someone has African or Caucasian ancestry. For example, the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ appears to have some African ancestry but was living in Roman York.

You can also look at DNA: the DNA profile of another individual from York suggests that he was from the Middle East, and his isotopic signature is also very unusual. 

 

Q. How did Romans think about ethnicity and race?

A: The Romans didn’t think of race in the way that it might be linked with social signifiers today. They weren’t particularly interested in skin colour, and it wasn’t something that they would write about a huge amount. They were more concerned about whether a person spoke Latin well, or whether they had the right sort of social position or rank. 

Today, when we think about ethnicity, we are very much preoccupied with things like skin colour but in the past, that wouldn’t necessarily have been the case and factors such as language, education, wealth, kinship and place of origin were probably more important.

 

Q. What kind of life did migrants in Roman Britain lead? 

A: Often the skeletons we looked at were from very wealthy graves. For example, the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ was found in a stone sarcophagus alongside glass vessels and expensive jewellery. Our research is obviously biased because we focused on sampling unusual skeletons; however, it is likely that many migrants in this period were wealthy. They were also more likely to be the people in charge; after all, you’re more likely to be moving across the entire Roman empire if you’re involved in the Roman military or the Roman administration. There was even tourism – but all of that tended to be preserved for the elite of society. On the other hand, some people probably moved against their will, for example slaves and soldiers.

Dr Hella Eckardt is an associate professor in the archaeology department at the University of Reading. She has previously led a research project investigating the evidence for incomers in Romano-British towns and developed Romans Revealed, a teaching resource for children, using the results. 
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