Germany has a cathedral dedicated to a Roman legionary known as St. Maurice (Moritz, Morris, Mauritius) born in 250 AD, the leader of an entirely Christian detachment of 6600 soldiers at a time when the crumbling Roman Empire was forbidding Christian worship.
Does St. Maurice give us additional evidence of a diaspora, or scatted population of Africans in Roman Britain?
Europe’s Black Saint Maurice
The mercenary Theban soldiers came from a North African area now in Egypt. Ordered to murder Christians to clear a route through the Alps, the legend states, the entire contingent refused and suffered a massacre as punishment. Place names in the Alps, and a number of Roman records tell versions of the Theban regiments’ story.
Maurice (whose name means ‘Moor,’ a word for ‘black’) was later adopted as a patron saint of the Holy Roman Emperors and a medieval statue of him made in 1250 stands in Magdeburg Cathedral.
By comparison, in Britain today, we are scarcely aware that in AD 193 an African-born commander became Emperor of Rome or that his life ended in York, England, in AD 211.
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Roman British Black History
Paintings such as the Severus Tondo, listed by the University of Duhram, clearly depict the North African descent of Lucius Septimius Serverus and his family, yet most of us were not taught about his African origins and upbringing in Libya.
The African Emperor was known as an effective military strategist, and as ruthless. He ordered the rebuilding and securing of Hadrian’s wall against the ‘barbarians’ in the north. In 208 AD he arrived in Britain and set about cruelly asserting Roman authority across ‘Britannia.’ During his reign, his administration sent soldiers of many ethnicities to govern northern England, ruling from the regional capital of Eburacum, now called York.
We know African soldiers worked along the western end of Hadrian’s Wall; archaeologist Richard Benjamin writes in British Archaeology of “a unit of north African Moors, Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum, stationed at the Roman military garrison at Burgh-by-Sands (ancient Aballava/Aballaba) at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria. We can say with some confidence that the unit occupied the site of Burgh-by-Sands around the 2nd to 4th centuries AD.”
Multicultural North African Romans
In their paper, ‘A Lady of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman Britain Antiquity,’ Leach and co-authors suggest that the African presence in fourth century York is multicultural rather than racially specific.
“Roman North Africa is well known for its mixed populations, reﬂecting Phoenician, Berber and generally Mediterranean inﬂuences, and individuals from Roman North Africa are therefore more likely to display mixed rather than strongly Sub-Saharan features.”
Archaeological finds from Roman Britain identified evidence of people from all round the Mediterranean region, including North Africa. Rome was a material culture; Romans liked nice things and brought possessions with them from all across the Empire.
Digging Up Roman Britain
In Britain, when developers disturb or intend to disturb a site, they must take archaeology into account. Archaeologists must properly record any historical artifacts or human remains in their archaeological context and classify them (as male, female, child for instance) before storage. In reality, there are thousands of skulls and skeletons stored in cardboard boxes that have never been properly analysed; 17,000 at the Museum of London alone.
Because the Romans had very specific beliefs about the afterlife, they had elaborate funerary practices. Their material culture means that many objects survived from their burial plots. Major rebuilding projects often unearth these when equipment starts cutting into the ground.
This was true of remains analysed in several recent cases where researchers have made surprising discoveries among the back-log, about ethnicity in Roman Britain. Recently in England, two more black Roman individuals entered the archaeological record.
The Lady of York
A mixed-race Roman woman from fourth century York studied as part of the Roman Diasporas in Britain project was one such collection of bones in a box. Someone removed her remains and her grave goods from their stone coffin in 1901, a century before modern techniques for analysis discovered her Mediterranean African identity.
Scientists ethnically identified ‘Ivory Bangle Lady‘ by skull reconstruction and comparison. Oxygen isotope signatures suggested that she migrated to York rather than grew up there.
African Roman Retiree in Stratford
The body of an African Roman man was found in a small Roman burial ground at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2009. Archaeologist Stuart Palmer of Warwickshire County Council’s ‘Archaeology Warwickshire’ studied the find, and said: “African skeletons have previously been found in large Romano-British towns like York and African units are known to have formed part of the Hadrian’s Wall garrison, but we had no reason to expect any in Warwickshire and certainly not in a community as small as Roman Stratford.”
In 2012, the man was reburied at Stratford-upon-Avon; forensic anthropology on his remains left incomplete for lack of funding.
Forensic Anthropology for Roman Britain
Recently, scientists removed 40 skulls from a Roman context from the repository where they had lain since discovery in 1988. Museum of London scientists made a full forensic analysis and decided that these had been young men who did a lot of fighting.
The fact that their contemporaries discarded their heads in an apparently disrespectful manner together with the nature of the injuries suggests that they could have been gladiators. Their racial characteristics are not mentioned.
Currently, the development of a new rail link eastwards from London exposes thousands of Roman artifacts and skeletal remains. Whole neighborhoods of York periodically yield vast quantities of material from both the Viking era and the Roman era in the city.
Forensic Anthropology Confirms African Migration into Britain
The forensic anthropology approach to identifying further evidence of African migration into Britain and African contribution to the gene pool is expensive and time-consuming and relies largely on public funding. But thanks to projects highlighting interest in tracing this ancestry, there are many experts now aware of the need to seek evidence of remains of an African diaspora in Roman Britain – and investigate when they find them.