Black Britannia: the African people who lived in Roman Britain
Archaeological studies show that people of African origin were living in Roman Britain – and they weren't just slaves
If you visit Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort, which once guarded the main eastern sea route to Hadrian’s Wall, it will not be long before you encounter Victor. Or, at least, you will encounter a memorial to Victor: he has been dead for around 1,900 years, and time has not been overly kind to his rather grand tombstone since half of his likeness has long been destroyed.
Still, there he is in sandstone form: reclining gracefully on a couch in a beltless tunic, holding a drinking cup in one hand and a garland in the other. Its size suggests he was a person of importance when he died in the second century AD, his age being given as 20. Or, if not that, Victor must have been held in great affection by whoever commissioned the tombstone.
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The former is not the case, since the inscription at the bottom tells us that Victor died a freed slave, but the latter is clear to see. The memorial was constructed by a local cavalry commander named Numirianus, the previous ‘owner’ of Victor, who came from “natione Maurum”, “land of the Moors”.
For many years, the revelation that a man from north Africa lived and died in Roman Britain would have come as something of a surprise. It shouldn’t. Over the past decades, a growing body of evidence, from inscriptions to human remains, has emerged to challenge the widely held assumption that Roman Britain was exclusively populated by white Europeans. In fact, it appears the province attracted migrants from across the known world, including Africa.
And perhaps nowhere in all of Britannia would have been more multicultural than the place Numirianus and Victor called home: Hadrian’s Wall. This 73-mile-long fortification on the northern frontier was garrisoned by troops from all over Rome’s vast empire. That is not to mention the merchants, wives and children living and working there, too. A third-century AD inscription at Burgh-by-Sands, at the western end of the wall, tells us of a unit of “Aurelian Moors” hailing from the two Roman provinces that made up Mauretania in modern-day Morocco; while Birdoswald Roman Fort, Cumbria, is home to the tombstone of legionary Gaius Cossutius Saturninus, born in Hippo Regius (modern-day Algeria).
- Read more | How ethnically diverse was Roman Britain?
Of course, not all African people in Britannia were in the forts dotted along Hadrian’s Wall; recent finds are suggesting that men and women set up home in cities, too. Between 2010 and 2015, some 83 skeletons dating to the second century were discovered in a Roman graveyard in Leicester, six of which had African cranial features. Meanwhile, analysis of four Roman Londoners found that two may have come from north Africa; the same location as the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ – a high-status woman from fourth-century York, so named for the jewellery found with her skeleton.
The finds tell us something else. The African population occupied all strata of society, from slaves to provincial governors – in AD 139, Quintus Lollius Urbicus, from modern-day Algeria, was appointed as Rome’s top man in Britannia. Even the emperor himself was part of the African presence. When Rome was plunged into civil war at the end of the second century, one man emerged victorious: Septimius Severus. Born in the city of Leptis Magna (modern-day Libya), in seizing power he became the first African emperor of Rome. What’s more, for the final years of his life, Severus was primarily based in Britannia.
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The African governor
Although his time in Britannia was brief, Quintus Lollius Urbicus changed the frontier with a wall beyond Hadrian’s
When Quintus Lollius Urbicus arrived in what is now southern Scotland in the late 130s AD, he must have felt a long way from home. Born in the Roman city of Tiddis (modern-day Algeria) three decades earlier, he found himself in cooler, windier and rainier climes: the restive northern borders of the empire. And there – according to a smattering of contemporary inscriptions and the Historia Augusta – he made quite the impression.
That is because Lollius Urbicus was no average Roman visitor. He had been dispatched to the province as its governor, and top of his in-tray when taking up his new position appears to have been conquering the region of southern Scotland.
How exactly Britain’s African governor went about achieving this is unclear. Inscriptions dated to the early 140s AD suggest that he planned the attack from the fort of Corbridge just to the rear of Hadrian’s Wall. From there, it seems, he drove north and established a number of garrison forts, leading to the capture of the Caledonian hillfort of Burnswark Hill around AD 140. Perhaps most significantly of all, Lollius Urbicus oversaw the initial stages of construction of the Antonine Wall. Snaking across the central belt of Scotland, this became the empire’s new northernmost frontier.
Lollius Urbicus’ stay in Britannia was a short one – by the mid-140s AD, he had returned to Rome – but his legacy remains.
In his 18-year reign, he built a reputation as an accomplished if ruthless leader, who launched a series of campaigns north of Hadrian’s Wall to unite the island under the Roman imperium. Incidentally, according to the Historia Augusta, he met during his time in Britannia an Ethiopian soldier who offered him “a garland of cypress-boughs”. While Severus failed in his conquests, dying in Eboracum (York) in AD 211, his influence was profound.
African people traded, settled, married and died in Britannia for two centuries after Severus’ demise. But with the end of Roman Britain and a patchwork of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms coming to dominate the former province, the evidence of an African population was all but lost from the records.
- Read more | “There’s still this hangover that everything has to be seen through the prism of enslavement”
That didn’t mean they vanished. A north African cleric, Hadrian, would see to that. In the late 660s AD, he and his colleague Theodore of Tarsus were tasked by Pope Vitalian to educate the people of the “outermost edge of the world”. It was a mission that, over 40 years, Hadrian – this “man of African race”, as described by the historian Bede – embarked upon with enormous skill and determination. What he achieved was nothing less than a renaissance in learning that made England a cultural hotbed of Europe.
As archaeology is making abundantly clear, African people have been making Britain their home for millennia. But not many had a greater impact on the nation’s trajectory than Hadrian.
This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Spencer is production editor of BBC History Magazine
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