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Africans in Britain 2000 years ago.

The former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, declared some years ago that the English (or was it the British?) were all "homogenous Anglo-Saxons". Really? As Africans in Britain celebrate Black History Month this month (October), we put Mrs Thatcher's words to the test. Fully two thousand years ago, as the historian and academic Marika Sherwood shows in this piece, Africans in Roman Britain--who married native women and begat children--held senior posts both in the administration and in the military, and a number of Africans governed Britannia on behalf of the Roman Empire. These men rose to such heights not only in Britannia, but also elsewhere in the Roman Empire and in Rome itself. "Homogeneous Anglo-Saxons"? Sit back and enjoy our special Black History Month report.


Many peoples from many parts of the world, not only Europe, have settled in what became known as "Britain"--for thousands of years. But while some might acknowledge Italian, or Spanish, or French ancestry, few will accept that their forefathers might have come from Africa and what used to be called Mesopotamia, and is now for reasons unknown, called the "Middle East".

So who were the early Britons? The earliest Roman historians did not ignore the many who had settled on this island: for example, Tacitus wrote of the "dark complexion of the Silures or Black Celts and [their] unusually curly hair". According to Herodotus, the ancestors of the Picts (in the north of the island) were a regiment of the African army of the Egyptian king, Sesostris II (1980-1935 BC), who had attempted to conquer West Asia. The regiment had settled near Colchis and became known by that name. Colchis is near the Black Sea.

Some recent research proves from archaeological and linguistic analyses that the Picts hailed from Scythia, the area between the Caspian and Black Seas--that is, near Colchis. A major trade route passes through this area, mixing the peoples of the East and West and the South and North. It is not surprising therefore that some of the Pict carvings in Scotland depict the great goddess of the Ossetes (in the Caucasus region), who is believed to be the same as the Indian goddess Lakshmi and the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar.

One panel of a sarcophagus in St Andrews (Scotland) illustrates the story of Gilgamesh, an epic known from Mesopotamia in the east to the western reaches of the Mediterranean. The elephants on many Pict carvings sometimes depict the live animals and sometimes the skin of the animal worn in order for the wearer to take on the characteristics of the animal. This Asian custom was also practised in North Africa during Roman times.

Pliny, another Roman historian, described Britons of the second century AD as having "Ethiopian complexions". Did they acquire these dark skins from the Africans who came with the conquering Romans who first arrived in 55 BC? The incorporation of Britain into the Roman Empire dates from 43 AD by Emperor Claudius.


The Romans in Britannia

Julius Caesar, after he had conquered Gaul, invaded Britannia in 54 BC, searching for gold and slaves. There was slavery in both the Roman Empire and on the British Isles, but it seems to have been relatively easy to acquire freedom. But there was little gold and it proved uneconomical to transport enslaved natives to Rome, especially as they did not fetch a very high price in the slave markets. According to Cicero, they were "dull-witted" and had "no fine hand in music, literature and the arts".

But the hunger for empire did not diminish, so about a hundred years later Emperor Claudius decided to reassert and entrench the Roman "ownership" of the colony of Britannia. The Romans had to protect their colony from the invading forces from the north of the island--the Caledonians, Brigantes, Celts and Picts. To stop further invasions in 122 AD, Emperor Hadrian, after visiting Britannia, ordered the building of a wall from coast to coast--117 km (from the Solway Firth on the east coast to the mouth of the River Tyne in the west)--across the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, which was eventually built by the Roman Africans brought there by Emperor Septimius Severus, an African emperor.

The mainly stone-built wall was heavily fortified--there were forts about half a kilometre apart along the whole length. It is believed that gates through the wall would have served as customs posts to allow trade and levy taxation. Thousands of Romans served in the conquering military and in administration; others arrived and settled as traders. The Roman administrators/civilians and army were drawn from the whole Roman Empire, which encircled the Mediterranean, and spread into central Europe and the East, almost to India.

Most of the individual Africans on whom there is available information are from North Africa. But who were the North Africans? They were not only Northerners such as the Berbers but also Southerners who had migrated or traded with the North; then there were the many peoples who had settled there, or at least visited and begat children, from the East and across the Mediterranean. After all, the Romans traded not only across their Empire, but also down the Red Sea, along the East African coast and to India. Naturally these men (and some were able to bring their families) brought with them the many cultures and religions that were represented in their ranks. They also introduced roads, bridges, cities, fortresses, central heating, bathrooms and drainage systems; and new foods (for example, olive oil and wine), clothing and jewellery, and theatres where the audience was entertained with chariot faces and by gladiators.

New tools and household goods also arrived: for example, pottery described as 'African red slip ware" has been found scattered throughout Britain. These relics probably emanate from the households of the owners, Africans in the military and African civilians. It has also been suggested that some of the pottery excavated in the York area was made locally, possibly by Africans in Legio IV Hispana and in Legio VI Victrix, as they appear to be for recipes from North Africa requiring special utensils. ("Legio" is a "legion", a military unit in the army.)

Some Romans settled in the countryside: some were very wealthy and lived in mansions while others lived in more modest homes. Cities had different administrative statuses: for example, Colchester housed mainly retired military, while others were for retired administrators. Londinium (which later became known simply as London), the centre for trade, became the capital of Britannia Superior in 197 AD, while York became the capital of Britannia Inferior, when for administrative purposes the colony was divided in two.

All cities had offices, military barracks, markets, traders, restaurants, public baths and places of entertainment. What proportion of the population was from Africa is not known. The religions were many: for example, there were shrines to a "Syrian goddess" (who was probably the same as the African Juno Caelitis), near a fort garrisoned by men from Hamath, in Syria. There was also an altar to Vulcan (the god of beneficial fire) and shrines to Melkart, the Phoenician god of health, prosperity and wellbeing whose worship spread around the Mediterranean.

There was also a temple to Isis, the Egyptian goddess of nature and magic, in Londinium and statues of her elsewhere. These statues, especially those including her son Horus, have usually been reinterpreted as early representations of Mary and her son Jesus! There are also remains of temples to Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife or resurrection (and the brother and husband of Isis) and Serapsis, the god of antiquity.

There are many Black Madonnas on the walls of churches all over Europe: were these related to Isis, or did they acknowledge that Palestinians (for example, Jesus and his mother) were not blond blue-eyed Europeans, as so often depicted? And how many people know of Pope Victor I [c. 189-199], the first of three Africa-born popes?

The Roman military

As was practised by the British Empire some 1,800 years later, the Romans conquered and then garrisoned their empire with troops drawn from their various subject territories. In Britannia, there were three major garrison towns: Caerleon (where the wonderful walls, public baths and amphitheatre are fairly well preserved), York (archaeological work ongoing) and Chester (some remains, many bulldozed to make way for commercial development in the 1960s). The numbers of troops at these garrison towns varied from c.55,000 to about 15,000; aside from many Europeans there were African infantry and "light horse"; and archers and bargemen from West Asia (for example, Palmyra [Syria] and Arbeia [Arabia]). Archaeological evidence shows their presence around modern Britain--in towns, villages and homesteads. How well distributed Africans were is not yet known--do the African amphorae (large pottery vessels for transporting oil and wine) found at Canterbury indicate African residents or just that such jugs (and their contents?) were imported from North Africa?

An amphora found at Carlisle is inscribed with "Lucium Tettius Africanus finest fish sauce from Antipolis" (Antibes on the French Mediterranean coast). This tells us that Africans lived in France and exported one of the Africans' favourite foods elsewhere in the Empire. And that they knew how to promote themselves! The tuna-fish-in-oil on which this sauce was poured, was also imported from North Africa.

There were Africans in the military unit based in the fort at Burgh-by-Sands, near Carlisle in Cumbria, near Hadrian's Wall. Now believed to have been stationed in Britannia prior to the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, this unit, the Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum ("maures" in Greek means "dark" or "black"), part of Legio III, was posted there to defend the Empire from the invading Northerners from the other side of Hadrian's Wall.

We know almost nothing of the Africans in the Numerus Maurorum or in the other regiments, for example the one at Cramond on the Forth, the Legio XX at Chester, and Legio II Augusta at Caerleon in Wales. To give two examples of men who returned after their discharge from the army, there are tombstones for T. Flavius Inenguus of Numidia, a soldier from Legio III; and C. Aelius Tertiolus, described as the governor's aide from Legio IV Victrix. (Numidia, incorporating part of today's Algeria and Tunisia, was a Berber kingdom conquered by the Romans.) Legio IV was from Timgad, a Roman colonial town in North Africa founded by Emperor Trajan around 100. One archaeologist, quoted by Lindsay Allason-Jones in Women in Roman Britain (Council for British Archaeology, 2005) believes that Vibia Pacata, the wife of Flavius Verecundus, the centurion of this Legio (roughly equivalent to the level of sergeant) was an African.

Another returnee was Publius Licinius Agatopus, a cavalryman, who went back to his home in Gadiaufala, also in Numidia. Returning home "was a most unusual event in the 3rd century", according to the historian R. W Davies. If this is correct, then presumably most, if not all, of the Africans discharged in Britannia settled there. It has been impossible to discover if discharged soldiers had to walk home or if they could pay for berths on any of the vessels trading to Britannia from the rest of the Empire. Some of these ships were very large, could carry 340 tons of cargo or 600 passengers.

York was one of, if not the major, fortress/garrison town in Roman Britain. Research on just one Roman burial ground near York has revealed that "66% of the individuals ... [were identified] most closely with Europeans, 23% with sub-Saharan Africans, and 11% with Egyptians". At another burial ground, the proportions were 53% European, 32% sub-Saharan, and 15% Egyptian.

There are some tombstones and epitaphs giving some glimpses of African lives and relationships. For example, there is an epitaph in London to Tullia Numidia by her husband noting her as "a most devoted woman". Was her husband also from Numidia? Remains suggest that some soldiers brought their wives with them, while others married local women--but such marriage only became acceptable some years after the major local revolt led by Boudicca. She had led this revolt by the Iceni and Trinovantes peoples against the Roman occupiers in 60-61.

It seems that some of the "entertainers" were also from Africa: the bronze head of a statuette of a black African wrestler has been discovered in the village of Wall built by the Romans c.45 (near Tamworth, along Watling Street, which was the Roman road north from Dover and then Wales).

The African-Roman elite

Emperor Septimius Severus is buried in York. He was born in 145 into a wealthy family in Lepcis Magna in the Tripolitania region of today's Libya, then a Roman province. His mother was from Italy. He entered the emperor's service at senatorial rank, and rose to become governor of Lower Pannonia. In 193 after three emperors were murdered in quick succession, Severus was proclaimed emperor. He had to quell numerous rivals and mutinous provinces in his extensive empire, which he enlarged with the addition of Parthia (Mesopotamia) in 198.


Some 10 years later, alarmed by the incursions of the Caledonians into his British domain, Severus was carried in a litter (he suffered from gout) to the western outpost of his empire. Some archaeologists now dispute that it was Severus who brought in the Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum, an African "light horse" regiment. Was the "Ethiopian" soldier who on one occasion greeted the Emperor, from the Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum or from another regiment? ("Ethiopia" is from two Greek words, "aithein", to burn, and "ops" which means "face".) In L. A. Thompson's book, African in Roman Britain, this soldier is described as "a man with a great reparation as a buffoon and always noted for his jokes". He presented the emperor with a garland of cypress boughs. In 209, Severus and his sons succeeded in repulsing the northerners, but Severus died on 21 February 211. He was cremated at York. Hadrian's Wall remained the garrisoned border between Caledonia and Roman Britain.

Julia Domna, the wife of Emperor Severus, apparently accompanied her husband to Britannia in 208. She was the daughter of a high priest in Syria. Some claim that the name "Domna" is derived from the archaic Arab word "dumayna", meaning "black". A woman of great intellect, she gathered a circle of philosophers around her in Rome and played no small part in behind-the- scenes politics. According to accounts of her visit, the Roman ladies wanted to copy her hairstyle, which from the existing drawings, was very wavy indeed. A brief year after Severus' death, the struggle for power between their two sons, the joint emperors Caracalla and Geta, resulted in the assassination of Geta by Caracalla. When Emperor Caracalla was campaigning away from Rome, he left his mother Julia Domna in control of most of the civilian administration. When Caracalla too was assassinated in 217, she is said to have starved herself to death, either voluntarily or on the orders of the new emperor, Macrinus.



Some of the Africans in Britain held senior posts both in the administration and in the military. A number of Africans governed Britannia on behalf of the Roman emperors. These men rose to such heights not only in Britannia, but also elsewhere in the Roman Empire and in Rome itself, which amply demonstrates that there was much more racial discrimination in the British Empire some 1,600-1,900 years later.

More archaeological evidence

Given the difficulties of travel, many "Romans", perhaps especially those from the farthest shores of the empire and those who had married native women, settled in Britain. Emperor Severus gave official permission for serving soldiers to marry, but many had married without this. Both civilians (for example, administrators and merchants) and members of the military when discharged were free to settle in Britain. Discharge certificates for the military provide evidence of this. Other evidence comes from inscriptions: for example, an inscription found in the area of the Tyne, tells us of a Palmyrian who had married a British slave woman, whom he freed. There is some other interesting evidence of the presence of Africans in the Tyne area: some "vaulting tubes"--"a temporary framework for pouring the concrete vaulting of the legionary baths"--were probably built by Africans, as the "technique was common in Africa", according to Roger A. Wilson in his book, A Guide to Roman Remains in Britain (Constable 1975, 1996).

Recent archaeological research in York by Dr Hella Eckardt of Reading University demonstrates that "inscriptions from that period show that African people (in Britain) were most often members of the imperialist power's army. The latest research on a series of skeletons confirms that African men had emigrated to Britain, invariably with the Roman Army, and had brought their wives and children. Some wealthy Africans [civilians] also lived here." As Roger A. Wilson attests in Guide to Roman Remains in Britain), at Vindolanda, one of the forts along Hadrian's Wall, archaeologists noted that "part of the wall is reminiscent of a style of masonry more associated with Roman North Africa than with anything elsewhere."

At Hull Museum there is a tombstone to Victor, from Mauritania: he is "reclining on a couch at his dinner, while a tiny slave holds up a wine jar filled from a bowl on the floor" (Roger Wilson, p. 449). There is much ongoing archaeological research in many parts of Britain, so more will eventually be found on Africans in Britain during the Roman period.

After the Romans

The Roman Empire collapsed in the late 4th century, due mainly to the invasion of Rome by "barbarians". However, even in the previous century, Rome began to pay less attention to this faraway off-shore island. Whether any Africans remained is not known, but it is quite likely that especially those who had married local women did not embark on the long walk to their homelands with their wives and children.

As you would expect, there is no research on the presence of Africans in Britain after the Romans left. Nor do we know how many Africans from that period settled in Britain. What about the children undoubtedly fathered by the Africans with native women?

Our next glimpse of Africans is in fact with the expansion of Christianity: Ireland had a "negro" bishop, St. Diman, who died in Ulster in 658. And Abbot Hadrian, an African, refused appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury.

From the Abbreviatio Domesday, 1241, held at the National Archives in London, we find an African man holding on to a capital letter "I" that decorates the beginning of a page. It was probably created by monks of Westminster Abbey in the mid-13th century. The Abbreviatio was a working document for officials of the King's exchequer. They used it to consult the original volumes of the Domesday Book. They added notes to it during the course of their work. How familiar were these monks with Africans? And are Africans mentioned in the Abbreviatio? This has not been researched.


RELATED ARTICLE: Other African rulers in the Roman Empire

QUINTUS LOLLIUS URBICUS, from Tiddis in Namidia, was made governor of Roman Britain from 139 to 142. He had commanded Legio X Germina and then served as the governor of Lower Germany before being moved to Britannia. During his governorship the Scottish lowlands were reconquered, so the Emperor ordered him to build a new wall north of Hadrian's Wall. Known as the Antonine Wall, it stretched from Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth, but was abandoned when peace was reached with the invading northerners. Urbicus was then recalled to Rome and made an Urban Prefect.

SEXTUS CALPURNIUS AGRICOLA was governor of Germania Superior and then of Britannia from c. 162 to 166.

QUINTUS ANTISTIUS ADVENTUS POSTUMIUS AQUILINUS, from Thibilis (Announa, Algeria), governed Arabia and Germania Inferior, then Britannia from c. 175 to 178. His son married the daughter of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

DECIMUS CLODIUS ALBINUS, born in Hadrume(n)tum (Sousse, Tunisia), was governor of Lower Germany in 189, then governor of Britain c. 191-2. When he challenged Severus for the throne, a civil war ensued which he lost; he committed suicide.

GAIUS VALERIUS PUDENS, from Djemila, Numidia, was governor of Germania Inferior and then Britannia from about 203 to 206.


LUCIUS ALFENUS SENECIO FROM CUICUL, from Djemila, Algeria, was governor of Syria in 200, then of Britannia from c.205-8; he undertook a lot of building work in the North and on the northern frontier during his tenure.

P. SEPTIMIUS GETA arrived with his father and his brother Caracalla in Britannia in 208 to participate in the campaign against the rebellious natives across Hadrian's Wall While his father and brother were fighting in the north, he governed the colony. He was murdered by his brother after the death of their father.

CAIUS JUNIUS FAUSTINUS PLACIDUS POSTUMIANUS probably governed Britannia during the reign of Emperor Caracalla. He had been commander of Legio XI in Pannonia, had governed Lusitania and was on the staff of Emperor Septimius Severus during the campaigns in Britannia.

Q. ARADIUS RUFINUS, born in today's Tunisia, governed from 238 till 244.

There were 38 Africa-born officers and definitely two generals leading the Roman legions in Britannia: Fronto Aemilianus Calpurnius Rufilianus, from Tunisia, commanded Legio II from 161 to 169. Q. Aurelius Polus Terentianus commanded Legio II c. 180. We only have the names of two African equestrian commanders, Aemilius Salvianus and Minthonius Tartullus, but there were many more!
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Title Annotation:Africa
Author:Sherwood, Marika
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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