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Black Romans


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 AD 211 - opens new window
Map of Ancient Roman Empire in AD 211
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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.
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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'.

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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.

Statue of Septimius Severus - opens new window
The African Emperor in Military Dress
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 Map of Hadrian's Wall - opens new window
Map of Hadrian's Wall
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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.

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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 Glossary - opens new windowNumerus 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.

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References and Further Reading

Birley, A. R., The African Emperor: Septimius Severus, London,1988

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, 1977


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