The Multicultural Roman Empire
Our knowledge of Black people present in Britain in early
times is scanty. However, studies by scholars, archaeologists
and historians have pieced together evidence about the lives
of Black Romans.
One historian, Anthony Birley, in his work The African
Emperor: Septimius Severus, explains that between AD 193
and 211 the Roman empire embraced a multicultural mix of peoples
from Syria, Germany, Britain, Spain and Africa. Eight African
men had positions of command in the northern Roman legions,
and others held high rank as equestrian officers.
Map of Ancient Roman Empire in AD 211
|One of these Africans was Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 145-211).
He arrived in Britain in AD 203 and when he died in AD 211 he
was cremated in York (Eboracum), the capital of Roman Britain.
An African Emperor - Septimius Severus (AD 145-211)
Septimius Severus was the first Roman emperor not born and
raised in Italy. His father's family originally came from
Libya (Leptis Magna) and his mother's family were Etruscans
(Italian). His grandfather, a knight of the Roman empire,
owned land near Rome, but Septimius grew up in North Africa
with his father.
Septimius married Julia Domna, a Syrian, daughter of a high
priest. The name Domna is derived from the archaic Arabic
word dumayna, meaning 'black'. Septimius and Julia
had two sons, Caracalla, the elder, born in AD 188, and Geta.
Because Septimius's ancestors were Roman citizens, he was
entitled to be educated in Rome. He briefly practised as a
lawyer, became a Roman senator, and from the age of 24 took
part in campaigns in Spain, Syria, Gaul, Sicily and Athens.
He spent much time extending Rome's borders eastwards across
the Tigris in Mesopotamia and the Balkans. His education and
experience won him strong support within the empire. He was
described by contemporaries such as the famous physician Galen
and the historians Herodian and Cassius Dio as 'a man of such
energy...wise and successful...that he left no battle
except as victor'.
In AD 193, following the assassination
of Emperor Pertinax, Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor.
Later, when the Caledonians (inhabitants of what is now Scotland)
invaded Roman Britain in AD 208, Septimius travelled to this
most western part of the Roman Empire. He made this remote
region a separate province, under the commander of the Sixth
Legion stationed at York, and launched an attack into Scotland.
Nearly a century earlier, around AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian
(AD 117-38) had fortified the northern border of Roman Britain
by building a defensive wall. However, Hadrian's Wall had
been abandoned by a later governor of Roman Britain, Clodius
Albinus, and the undefended frontier was overrun by the Caledonians.
The African Emperor in Military Dress
Map of Hadrian's Wall
Emperor Septimius spent the last years of his life reorganising
Britain's northern border. In AD 197 he ordered the reconstruction
of Hadrian's Wall, and in AD 208 the Romans once more took
control of the wall. However, the region was abandoned again
after his son Caracalla succeeded him as Emperor in AD 211.
Coins from AD 208 depict Septimius riding off to war, but
due to a painful condition in his legs or feet (probably gout
or arthritis) he was carried for most of the journey. During
the winter of AD 210-11, his condition worsened, and he died
at York in AD 211. His body was cremated, and his ashes -
carried in an urn of porphyry (a purple-and-white stone reserved
for imperial rulers) - were taken back to his homeland, Libya.
The First Black Diaspora?
Emperor Septimius Severus was not the only Roman of African origin in Britain. There were other African officers, soldiers and slaves
here in the 3rd century. Excavations at York between 1951
and 1959 uncovered the largest number of human skeletons from
Roman Britain ever exhumed. Archaeologists suggest that several
of these people could have been of African origin.
There were three Roman legions in Britain for most of the
period, each consisting of 6,000 men. The legions were made
up of different ethnic groups from Spain, Africa, Italy and
Germany. The historian Anthony Birley notes that a Numerus
Maurorum was stationed at Burgh-by-Sands near Carlisle.
The soldiers of this unit would have been among those who
rebuilt and stood guard on Hadrian's Wall in the 3rd century.
During his time in office, Septimius legalised marriage during
military service. There is no evidence to suggest that all
the Roman legionaries returned home upon their discharge from
military service, so it is possible that some Black Romans
married, had children, and remained in Britain after their
tour of duty. Perhaps they might be considered to be Britain's
first diaspora people - from North Africa.
References and Further Reading
Birley, A. R., The African Emperor: Septimius Severus,
Haynes, I. P., The Romanization of the Alae and Cohortes
of the Roman Imperial Army from Augustus to Septimius Severus
(unpublished PhD thesis), Oxford, 1993
Hill, P. V., The Coinage of Septimius Severus and his Family
of the Mint of Rome, London, 1964
Holder, P. A., The Roman Army in Britain, London, 1980
Honore, T., 'Scriptor Historiae Augustae', Journal
of Roman Studies 77, 1987, pp. 156-176
Millar, F., The Emperors in the Roman World, London,