East Africa

If Mary Beard is right, what’s happened to the DNA of Africans from Roman Britain?

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If you have been on social media at all for the last couple of weeks, you are likely aware of what may be one of the silliest controversies ever: whether a dark-skinned man should be present in a BBC cartoon for children about life in Roman Britain. Critics have raised multiple objections on the theme: whether dark skin was “typical” (even though no scholar has claimed that it was), what percentage of the population must be nonwhite before it can be called “diverse,” and statements like this.

People upset by the cartoon have shifted goalposts, ignored or distorted cogent arguments, and mocked the knowledge of experts. It’s been ugly, particularly the attacks on Professor Mary Beard, a renowned classicist. The theme uniting all these efforts is rhetoric accusing scholars and the BBC of “rewriting history” while simultaneously projecting contemporary notions of race backwards in time onto a society that didn’t share them.

First, let’s get this out of the way. Whether or not this cartoon family was exceptional (and as classicist Dr. Matthew Nicholls has pointed out, the fact that the mother of the family was literate is perhaps just as exceptional as the father’s skin tone) is beside the point. Roman Britain was indeed a multi-ethnic society, which included people from Africa, and mostly from Northern Africa. The exact percentages of African Romans within the larger population is unknown, and probably varied from place to place. Multiple lines of independent evidence, including isotopic analyses of teeth and bones, osteology, archaeology, and historical documents make this clear. While most of the isotopic evidence locates these individuals’ birthplaces to North Africa, there are also written accounts of people from further south, as Dr. Nicholls notes:

“The internet discussion was particularly prompted by the appearance of a black Roman soldier in the detachment building Hadrian’s Wall, but in fact there is an ancient account of precisely this – the emperor Septimius Severus (himself in fact an African, from Libya) was inspecting his troops on the Wall when one of the garrison’s well-known jokers, an ‘Ethiopian’, offered him a garland.

Severus was startled by the apparent omen, associating the soldier’s black colour as a portent of his own imminent death, but no-one seems to have been particularly surprised at the presence of an ‘Ethiopian’ (that is, a black African) at the northern edge of the Roman empire (Hist. Aug. Severus 22).”

In fact, Beard suggests that the image in the BBC cartoon was loosely based on another historical figure, the Algerian Quintus Lollius Urbicus. Her point, made patiently again and again, is that we don’t know the exact shade of his skin, or whether it was accurately reflected in the cartoon – that it was most likely an artistic choice designed to make the point to children that there were “vast disparities in Roman Britain in ethnicity and culture”, and that seeing such a person “would be unsurprising in an urban context.”

I am not

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