Thursday, November 5, 2009

Was Roman Britain multiracial?

Historians often assume that the Romans changed Britain politically but not demographically. The indigenous elites adopted Roman culture while the mass of the population remained Celtic. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the fifth century, much of this population fled to Wales and Cornwall, where they would retain their language and traditions. Meanwhile, those who remained behind were obliterated through a process of ethnic cleansing and coerced assimilation.

This historical account may be false. First, the Roman occupation seems to have brought profound demographic change. This has been suspected for some time on the basis of unusual burial objects and epigraphic inscriptions that record the presence of individuals from throughout the Roman Empire. Now, after analyzing remains from two burial grounds near Roman York, a research team has concluded that the buried individuals had diverse geographic origins (Leach et al., 2009). In particular, the craniometric data revealed many of sub-Saharan or Egyptian origin. At the ‘Trentholme Drive’ burial ground, 66% clustered most closely with Europeans, 23% with sub-Saharan Africans, and 11% with Egyptians. At the ‘Railway’ burial ground, the proportions were 53% European, 32% sub-Saharan, and 15% Egyptian.

York was a legionary fortress, so these individuals may have been legionnaires. There are, in fact, epigraphic references to African soldiers and even a written account about one in a history of the Emperor Septimius Severus (146-211 AD) (Scriptores Historiae Augustae, p. 425).

On another occasion, when he was returning to his nearest quarters from an inspection of the wall at Luguvallium (Carlisle) in Britain, at a time when he had not only proved victorious but had concluded a perpetual peace, just as he was wondering what omen would present itself, an Ethiopian soldier, who was famous among buffoons and always a notable jester, met him with a garland of cypress-boughs. And when Severus in a rage ordered that the man be removed from his sight, the Ethiopian by way of jest cried, it is said, “You have been all things, now, O conqueror, be a god.”

Why were these Africans so far from home? In the case of the Egyptians, Rome thought it unwise to station soldiers among people of the same ethnic background. The temptation would be strong to side with the locals if a rebellion occurred. In the case of the sub-Saharan Africans, they were recruited into the army for the same reason that Germanic barbarians were recruited: Rome could not meet its manpower requirements solely from within its empire. There was also a perception that the Romans had become soft and that barbarians made better soldiers.

Finally, Rome, like many multi-national empires, had a policy of moving people around in order to promote a common identity and to eliminate ethnic distinctiveness. The Assyrians had perfected this policy, e.g., the deportation of the Jews to Babylon and their replacement by other peoples. The Roman authorities used their army to this end. They wished to create an atomized society where regionalism or ethnicity could not mobilize resistance to imperial rule.

It is likely that these legionnaires had a major demographic impact wherever they were stationed, especially if we include the many officials, petty functionaries, traders, and others who came in their wake. Much of Roman Britain thus seems to have been Romanized in culture and multiethnic in origin.

This, in turn, calls for a few other reinterpretations. Wales and Cornwall are not Celtic-speaking today because they took in Romano-British refugees fleeing Anglo-Saxon invaders. They were simply those parts of Britain that had remained Celtic in language, culture, and population. The rest—present-day England—had long become heavily Romanized and cosmopolitan.

Nor do we have to postulate a process of ethnic cleansing and coerced assimilation to explain the extinction of Roman Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. As Seccombe (1992) points out, the Roman Empire suffered from negative population growth. Not enough people married and had children to offset relatively high mortality among infants and young adults. In breaking down local collective identities, whether ethnic or regional, the Empire had created an atomized and increasingly anonymous society without the carrots and sticks that tightly knit societies use to push individuals down the path of family formation.

Once Rome had pulled its troops out of Britain in the early 5th century, there was no longer an inflow of people to offset the demographic deficit. The local population fell into decline, and the decline accelerated in the 6th century when plagues killed three out of every ten people. The Romano-British needed no help from the Anglo-Saxons to die out. They did it largely on their own.


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.

Scriptores Historiae AugustaeSeptimius Severus 22:4-6, transl. D. Magie (1922-1932) Vol 1, London: Heinemann.

Seccombe, W. (1992). A Millennium of Family Change. London: Verso.


Anonymous said...

Consistent with this?:
"There's been a lot of arguing over the last ten years, but it's now more or less agreed that about 80 percent of Britons' genes come from hunter-gatherers who came in immediately after the Ice Age," Miles said.
The notion that large-scale migrations caused drastic change in early Britain has been widely discredited, according to Simon James, an archaeologist at Leicester University, England.

"The gene pool of the island has changed, but more slowly and far less completely than implied by the old invasion model," James writes in an article for the website BBC History.

Tod said...

Interesting explanation, a bit ominous in it's implications though.

Peter Frost said...


I don't see the inconsistency. Since the Romano-British largely died out, it doesn't matter how multiracial they became.

The current British gene pool is derived from populations that maintained their growth rate above replacement. This was the case with the Anglo-Saxons and those Britons who maintained the cultural restraints and incentives that favored family formation. This was not the case with Britain's Romanized population.

Tod said...

I've read that a Roman soldier had to wait the 20-24 years until he retired before he could marry.

The mystery religions such as Mithras are said to have been popular among soldiers and the upper classes in the late empire.

What do you think of the claim that Christians outbred the other religions in the Roman Empire?


Inuit did not get abundant vitamin D in their diet judging by their their adaptations which increase the effect of vitamin D.
If white skin was an adaptation to low vitamin D it would have evolved in the Inuit.

Vitamin D Insufficiency in Greenlanders on a Westernized Fare: Ethnic Differences in Calcitropic Hormones Between Greenlanders and Danes.

"Multiple regression analysis revealed a significant effect of ethnicity. Compared to Danes, Greenlanders had higher 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D levels, but lower 25 OHD and PTH levels despite relatively low plasma calcium concentrations. In addition to ethnicity, 25(OH)D levels were influenced by age, season (summer > winter), and diet (a traditional Inuit diet>westernized diet). Ethnical differences exist between Greenlanders and Danes. Our results suggest that Greenlanders may have an inherent lower set-point for calcium-regulated PTH release or an enhanced renal 1,25(OH)2D production"

Adaptation of Inuit children to a low-calcium diet.

"The study participants had a preponderance of the bb
genotype for the vitamin D receptor gene (8 children had
this genotype and 2 had the Bb genotype; p < 0.01 compared
with North American norms).6,7
[...]The distribution of vitamin D receptor genotypes was significantly different from that in the white population (p < 0.01) but was similar to that of
some Asian populations".

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Anonymous said...

Cities, in the Roman and later sense, were always net negative growth. When a population becomes urbanized enough, it stops making enough kids to support the next generation. Kids in cities are just too expensive. Remember Augustus' campaign to get Roman women to have more children! He was actually successful, but it only took a short while before this was reversed.