Friday, July 9, 2010

Just who were the Romano-British?

The Anglo-Saxons ‘conquered’ the Civil Zone (non-shaded part of England), where the departing Roman army left a social and demographic vacuum. From W.E. Lunt's History of England

What happened to the Romano-British? Were they wiped out by the Anglo-Saxons? Or were they absorbed by their conquerors?

Razib Khan discusses the latest answer to this question. O'Dushlaine et al. (2010) used three genetic datasets:

1. A sample from Dublin, Ireland to represent the now extinct Romano-British.

2. A sample from Sweden to represent the Anglo-Saxons.

3. A sample from south and southeastern England to represent present-day English people.

Results: the English subjects were genetically closer to the Irish subjects than to the Swedish subjects. Conclusion: present-day English people are largely descended from the Romano-British. There was no ethnic cleansing.

Uh, not so fast. As Razib and his commenters point out, the Anglo-Saxons came not from Sweden but from what is now the Netherlands, northwest Germany, and southern Denmark. Frisians would probably be a closer match. Also, Dubliners inhabit an area of substantial Viking and English settlement. They too would be a lousy proxy for the Celtic inhabitants of Roman Britain.

But there’s another problem. A more basic one. How Celtic were the Romano-British? We know they had ceased to be Celtic linguistically.

After A.D. 43, Latin advanced rapidly. No Celtic inscription occurs, I believe, on any monument of the Roman period in Britain, neither cut on stone nor scratched on tile or potsherd, and this fact is the more noteworthy because, as I shall point out below, Celtic inscriptions are not at all unknown in Gaul. […]

The town site that we can best examine for our present purpose is Calleva or Silchester, ten miles south of Reading, which has been completely excavated with care and thoroughness. Here a few fairly complete inscriptions on stone have been discovered, and many fragments of others, which prove that the public language of the town was Latin. […]

In the twenty years' excavation of the site, no Celtic inscription has emerged. Instead, we have proof that the lower classes wrote Latin for all sorts of purposes. Had they known Celtic well, it is hardly credible that they should not have sometimes written in that language, as the Gauls did across the Channel. A Gaulish potter of Roman date could scrawl his name and record, Sacrillos avot, 'Sacrillus potter', on the outside of a mould. No such scrawl has ever been found in Britain. The Gauls, again, could invent a special letter Eth to denote a special Celtic sound and keep it in Roman times. No such letter was used in Roman Britain, though it occurs on earlier British coins. This total absence of written Celtic cannot be a mere accident. (Haverfield, 1912, pp. 10-12)

To a large degree, the Romano-British also ceased to be Celtic ethnically. This has been suspected on the basis of unusual burial objects and epigraphic inscriptions that record the presence of individuals from throughout the Roman Empire. Many came with the Roman army, as shown by fieldwork in Roman York—a town with a large garrison. At one burial ground, craniometric analysis revealed that 66% of the individuals clustered most closely with Europeans, 23% with sub-Saharan Africans, and 11% with Egyptians. At another, the proportions were 53% European, 32% sub-Saharan, and 15% Egyptian (Leach et al., 2009).

Britain was the most heavily militarized region of the Roman Empire. As such, it bore the full brunt of Romanization via the stationing of imperial troops and their demographic impact (associated influx of Roman officials, traders, etc., settlement of veterans, fathering of children with native women). This was especially so in the ‘Civil Zone’ of the south and the east, where the legions were garrisoned and where veterans usually settled after their years of service.

In the second century A.D., Britain had a garrison of ca. 50,000 men, comprised of three legions (with fortresses at Caerleon, Chester, and York) and a huge force of auxiliary troops. This army of occupation, variously estimated at between 10 and 12 percent of the entire imperial army, is a key distinguishing characteristic of Roman Britain, being by far the heaviest density of troops for a comparable area of territory. (Mattingly, 2000)

Native Celtic society was extinguished in the Civil Zone. It was submerged by a foreign military presence—like the impact of U.S. bases on certain Pacific islands. Thus, the Anglo-Saxons did not replace a native Celtic population. To some extent, they actually restored the status quo ante.

This conclusion leads to others. Wales and Cornwall are Celtic today because their inhabitants remained so during the Roman occupation. These regions fell within the Military Zone and became Romanized to a much lesser degree. In contrast, the Civil Zone developed into an atomized society of diverse origins where the main organizing principle was the Roman army. When the army withdrew in the early 5th century, Romano-British society imploded—a decline made all the worse by below-replacement fertility and 6th-century plagues that killed three out of ten people.

There is no need to postulate a process of ethnic cleansing. Once the plug had been pulled, the death of Roman Britain became inevitable.


Haverfield, F. (1912) The Romanization of Roman Britain, Second Edition, Oxford at the Clarendon Press.

Khan, R. (2010). The English & Irish together again. Discover Gene Expression, June 24

Leach, S., M. Lewis, C. Chenery, G. Müldner, & H. Eckardt. (2009). Migration and diversity in Roman Britain: A multidisciplinary approach to the identification of immigrants in Roman York, England, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 140, 546-561.

Mattingly, D.J. (2000). Roman Britain - Military Aspects, Administration and Government, Towns, Countryside, Religion, Culture, and Economy, vallum, civitates, civitas

O'Dushlaine, C.T., D. Morris, V. Moskvina, G. Kirov, International Schizophrenia Consortium, M. Gill, A. Corvin, J.F. Wilson, and G.L. Cavalleri. (2010). Population structure and genome-wide patterns of variation in Ireland and Britain, European Journal of Human Genetics, advance online publication.


Rocha said...

Sub-Saharan Africa? Did i read well? Has anyone any idea on how prevalent Sub-Saharans were in the empire? The most common (non-professional)view was that they were pretty rare, is it all wrong?

patrick said...

The Arch of Constantine shows what appear to be Sudanese archers serving as auxilia in the Roman army. David Nicolle, a military historian who has written extensively about the Roman army, thinks that these troops were stationed in Britannia and Gaul.

Peter Frost said...

The most common view used to be that blacks were uncommon outside Africa until the rise of the Muslim world in the 7th century, when the black slave trade presumably took off. Bernard Lewis is perhaps the leading advocate of this view.

There is now a "revisionist" school that postulates that black slaves immigrated into the Mediterranean world at a rate that slowly but steadily increased from the time of Christ to the 7th century. The Roman army especially appreciated Blacks because of their skills in archery (see Goldenberg 2003).

David Goldenberg has shown that slavery came to be equated with dark-skinned Africans between the 1st and 5th centuries. It was also during this period that the "Curse of Ham" became racialized, with black skin becoming part of the curse.

Goldenberg, D.M. (2003). The Curse of Ham, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

There is other evidence. At an early Christian cemetery in Corinth, Greece, craniometric analysis shows that 4% of the buried individuals were of sub-Saharan African origin.

Angel, J.L. (1972). Review of Blacks in Antiquity, American Anthropologist 74:159-160.

Also a 6th century Bible (Pentateuch of Tours) shows Egyptian scenes where almost a quarter of the faces are black.

Tod said...

How does the survival of much darker hair in the western coasts of the British Isles for thousands of years square with selection for vitamin D maximization (or anything else) having the effect of lightening hair among agriculturists at Britain's latitude.

Selection affecting hair colour must have ended before agriculturists entered the British Isles.

patrick said...

There seem to have been a fair number of soldiers, civilian officials, and private citizens from other regions of the empire in Roman Britain (and not just from neighboring regions such as Gaul or the Low Countries).
Several of the Roman cavalry units were made up of Thracians and Sarmatians from Eastern Europe, and before the Africans were recruited by Constantine, there were regiments of Syrian archers stationed along Hadrian's Wall. There were also Greek and Syrian civilians who settled in Britain.

Ben10 said...

Hi all, this is about gaul celts:

The video relates the storry of a highway construction in western France. Archeologists from INRA dug before the construction and found iron age artifacts (~100BCE). In particular, the circles of stones described in the movie before the 8 minutes of video do not contain skeletons. Just after 8:00 however, they discover skeletons that they describe as "parias" or outcasted people, put away fron the other population. One of these female outcast still wore a wrist-ring ornament, suggesting that she was not outcasted for being of inferior status. We can see for a couple of seconds their cranium. The shape is weird to me, with some apparent prognatism. The INRA would not easilly mention ethnical details because it's very politically incorrect in France (the ''''french''''' upper class doesn't like to be reminded its near-oriental roots). Is it possible that these people were of a different ethnic origin than the nearby celts and outcasted for this reason ?

If you don't understand french, just check the shape of the skulls at 8:00, do they look celtic to you?

Nestorius said...

The modern Welsh are the direct descendents of the British Romans. "Walas" was the name given to the Romans by Anglo-Saxons. Language has nothing to do with being Roman. Latin was only a secondary language in Britain. The British Romans are mixed: ancient Britts and Romans from outside Britain. Languages have nothing to do with genetic boundaries.

Rocha said...


Thanks for the info. I love ancient history. I still don't believe in such high numbers (4% or +) specially after the 3rd century. Maybe it was a city phenomenon. Anyway DNA will eventually tell us the truth.

Ben10 said...

The point of my last post was to suggest that even in pre-roman times in celtic Gaul, there might be some 'minorities' in the continent, not necessary linked to roman armies.
By the way, It has been estimated that Caesar's armies killed or enslaved about 1 million Gauls in a total population of maybe 10 millions gauls. That's a huge number and it would be very surprising if no minorities existed in western Europe.

Peter Frost said...


I suppose one might argue that UV radiation is more intense in the west of the British Isles (although the opposite is actually the case).


Thanks for the references! Was there a reason for stationing the Nubian archers in Britain and Gaul?


In Les hommes fossiles, Boule describes a number of remains that are very prognathic and look apparently 'negroid' (including other cranial traits):

"Deux individus néolithiques de Chamblandes (Suissse) sont négroïdes à la fois par leurs crânes et par les proportions de leurs membres. Diverses tombes liguriennes et lombardes de l'âge des métaux ont aussi livré des traces d'un élément négroîde."

p. 306


"Welsh" simply means foreigner in Anglo-Saxon. It could mean a Celtic-speaking Briton, but it could really mean anyone who was foreign.

This word is at the origin of many place names elsewhere in Europe, e.g., Wallonia (Belgium), Valais (Switzerland).


The problem here, I think, is that we compartmentalize history into discrete periods. Thus, when we discuss the history of the Mediterranean world, we say that 'Antiquity' gave way to the 'Islamic era' on one side of the Mediterranean and to the 'Middle Ages' on the other.

Since there were few black slaves in 'Antiquity' and many in the 'Islamic era', we assume that there was a sudden rise in the number of black slaves at this time boundary. In fact, there was a slow and gradual increase that began much earlier, in Late Antiquity.

I suppose we can resolve this problem by creating a distinction between 'Classical Antiquity' and 'Late Antiquity'.

Or we can accept that history is a continuous process.

patrick said...

I would assume that the Nubian archers might have been posted to Britannia to defend against Saxon and Irish/Scottish raiders. The Saxons had been causing trouble in the Channel and the North Sea since the Crisis of the Third Century.

Ben10 said...

This ia weird that the romans used nubians in armies so far north. My experience with africans in the military in winter is that they become quickly a burden (beside undiscipline). I was a sergeant and I had 4 or 5 french africans in my platoon during a night march in winter in the forest of eastern France. The temperature was slighlty under zero, maybe minus five centigrade. Those african guys were much stronger than I, but they showed absolutely no resistance in these conditions. Passed 10 km in the snow, they were lagging behind everybody (without faking it as they often used to) and I seriously worried that they actually would not make it. They were pityfull and a kid could have shot them with a sling. For everybody else, this march was not particularly difficult. We were well clothed and I remember that I actually enjoyed the walk, in the forests of the Fatherland, breathing the fresh and crisp air under the stars, I never felt cold.
Anyway, I wonder what the numbians could do in a cold british winter. They probably never left the roman fortress. The saxons probably didn't have to fight them. Just surround their camp in winter and that was it.

patrick said...

Dunno. Plenty of African-Americans have served in the US Army in Alaska, which is much colder than Britain.
The Romans had units from all over the empire and beyond (from Africa to to Syria to Bulgaria) stationed in Britain. A better question is why Britain was so heavily garrisoned.

KingMarco66 said...

I suspect that nubians being sent to britain has a very practical military explanation - these guys were probably auxiluary archers, (nubians were famous for that talent in egyptian armies anyway, so it seems likely) not legionaires (who are probably of much more mixed ethnicity than aux units) and being auxiluaries are therefore more likely to desert (there's a much lower payoff for aux troops, both in wages and long term prospects) - but in a province far from home, with a strange local language and obvious visual difference (being black in this case) the attractiveness of desertion is downgraded substantially. Briton auxiluaries probably get sent to palestine or egypt lol

KingMarco66 said...

As to why Britain was so heaily garrisoned, remember Boudicca's rebellion shook the economy empire-wide, so it became a senatorial football to garrison Britain more.

Anonymous said...

This narrative that blacks in the classical Mediterranean world were tantamount to slaves is ridiculous. The fact is the majority of those blacks from remote times to the Middle Ages were either merchants or mercenaries. Constantine declared in 336 CE that all subjects of the King of Axum within his kingdom be treated as equals to Roman citizens. Even in the medieval period the trans-Saharan slave trade was not at all lucrative. Most of the black slaves in Muslim world didn't involve the trans-Saharan trade. They mainly came from Ethiopia and Zanzibar and were concentrated mainly in Egypt, Iraq and India. The Fatimid military was mostly comprised of black soldiers (including Masmuda Berbers), and these soldiers were not derived from sub-Sahara Africa. The all black Abid' Army of Morocco, again, were Moroccan born freedmen. Its about time people drop this preposterous narration of black = slaves. The Greeks and Romans made no such correlation. And it shouldn't surprise anyone if they employed African auxiliaries as far away as Briton.

Anonymous I said...

Peter, you did a post on the Romano-British?! Really cool to find your page during an unrelated Google search! Great information, too - very much what I was looking for.