48 – Mary Beard over diversiteit in Romeins Brittannië

[…] Overall among most tweeters and commenters there was far too great a desire for certainty in the face of the diversity of the past (and when people suggested that certainty was unattainable, that was turned into a ‘you historians don’t know anything then’). One thing is for sure, the Roman empire — Britain included — was cultural and ethnically diverse, from the Syrians in Bath, to Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Ethiopian who met Septimius Severus on Hadrian’s Wall and the wonderful couple from South Shields, Barates and Queenie (‘Regina’), he from Palmyra, she an Essex girl. There is no doubt about that. The trouble is that pinning this down in specific cases to precise ethnicities is much harder than many would like and it requires an array of historical and scientific techniques. Even in the case of Septimius Severus, the first Roman emperor from Africa (Libya), we don’t actually know the colour of his skin, how far he was ‘native’, how far the descendent of Italian settler. The same goes for Quintus Lollius Urbicus, often claimed to be Berber, which he may well have been, but it isn’t certain, and anyway it isn’t actually a simple question of either/or, as the marriages of Barates and Queenie shows (Roman names, once you are a citizen, tend to obscure rather than reveal ethnicity). When it comes to human remains, which are not all that numerous, there are an array of techniques than can point you in the right direction, but aren’t the magic bullet. There is the relatively old-fashioned cranial observation (on the basis of which it is very likely that Beach Head Lady, her skull above, had sub Saharan African ancestry, whether parents or further back); there are also more techy scientific techniques such as isotope analysis on the teeth. This cant tell you exactly where someone was born, but it gives a clue to the climatic conditions in which they lived while they grew up; so you can identify those who were children in warmer or colder climes. It was on the basis of a combination of such techniques that the Chinese in London were identified (though again it doesn’t mean that they were born in Beijing, but were more likely of Chinese ancestry). None of this contradicts the general diversity claim, but overall supports it. […] We should reflect, I think.

The Times Literary Supplement, 3 augustus 2017