Leicester and Roman Africa: exploring historical multiculturalism within the Midlands

Right now, Leicester is without doubt one of the most various cities in Britain. Certainly, the 2011 Census recognized it as the primary UK metropolis the place the vast majority of its residents didn’t determine as ‘white British’ (55%). This range is usually seen as half solely of the town’s current previous, a product of Leicester’s fast industrialisation within the late nineteenth century, drawing in financial migrants to spice up its workforce, which was then bolstered within the twentieth century by the arrival of latest communities escaping battle and persecution. Over the previous 20 years, nevertheless, archaeological excavations within the metropolis have began to disclose tantalising clues that its inhabitants has been culturally combined for for much longer – and works related to the development of the Highcross Leicester retail quarter have uncovered hints of historical range notably referring to the Roman interval.

LEFT Overlooking construction of the Highcross Leicester retail quarter in 2006. Archaeological investigations associated with these works have uncovered a wealth of insights into the make-up of the city’s Roman population.
Overlooking building of the Highcross Leicester retail quarter in 2006. Archaeological investigations related to these works have uncovered a wealth of insights into the make-up of the town’s Roman inhabitants. Picture: Webb Aviation/ULAS.

Such insights haven’t all the time been obtained positively. In 2017, a BBC academic cartoon portraying life in Roman Britain triggered outrage amongst alt-right commentators who accused the BBC, in selecting to function a racially combined household as a part of this depiction, of abandoning historic accuracy for political correctness. These objections rekindled dialogue in regards to the make-up of previous populations, with archaeologists and historians fast to level out that there was loads of proof that the individuals of Roman Britain had been comparatively various and that the presence of individuals from Africa was not atypical or uncommon, particularly alongside Hadrian’s Wall and at giant city centres like London and York, which had been populated by each army and civilian personnel drawn from throughout the Empire. Effectively-known examples of such people embody Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who was governor of Britain from AD 138 to 144 and got here from Numidia (trendy Algeria); the ‘numerus of Aurelian Moors’, a unit of north-west African troopers stationed close to Carlisle within the Third century; and the ‘Ivory Bangle Woman’, a high-status Roman incomer with African ancestry who died and was buried in luxurious model in late 4th-century York.

ABOVE RIGHT The tombstone of Victor, a former slave from North Africa, was found at the Roman fort of Arbeia in South Shields.
The tombstone of Victor, a former slave from North Africa, was discovered on the Roman fort of Arbeia in South Shields. Picture: M C Bishop.

Society in Roman Britain was a combination of indigenous Iron Age and imported Roman tradition, itself a multicultural fusion drawn from throughout the Empire and past. This ethnic, social, and cultural combine may be seen throughout Britain: within the North African-style pottery being made in York, as an illustration; or on the tombstone of Victor, discovered on the Roman fort of Arbeia, South Shields, near Hadrian’s Wall (now on show within the website museum). Victor was Mauri (Moorish), from Mauretania (trendy Algeria and Morocco), and a freedman (former slave) of a soldier referred to as Numerianus. His tombstone, too, reveals a combination of Romano-British and Palmyrene stylistic influences, suggesting that its sculptor was initially from Syria. Victor is proven reclining on a sofa, holding a ingesting cup, and wearing typical Roman dining-clothes, emphasising his Romanitas, his ‘Roman-ness’. If Victor may make a 1,000-mile journey from Mauretania to Arbeia, we must always anticipate finding proof of different incomers in giant city centres like Leicester.

As for what Roman Leicester was like, the settlement boasted all the trimmings of Romanisation that you’d anticipate for a big Romano-British city: a discussion board and basilica, public baths, a market corridor, a theatre, temples, outlets, workshops, and townhouses giant and small. Within the late 1st or early 2nd century, it was designated the civitas capital of the indigenous Iron Age those who the Romans referred to as the Corieltavi, turning into Ratae Corieltauvorum, an necessary regional administrative centre within the East Midlands (see CA 387). At its peak, within the Third century, it had a inhabitants of round 6,000, and whereas most of these individuals had been descended from the Corieltavi, there would even have been a longtime minority of incomers, reflecting the city’s lengthy inclusion inside the Roman Empire.

LEFT This military lead seal was found during the Vine Street excavation. It is stamped with LEG III CYR (Legio III Cyrenaica) on the reverse, but the obverse is stamped L VI V MVC (Legio VI Victrix, together with the initials of Marcus V… C…).
This army lead seal was discovered throughout the Vine Road excavation. It’s stamped with LEG III CYR (Legio III Cyrenaica) on the reverse, however the obverse is stamped L VI V MVC (Legio VI Victrix, along with the initials of Marcus V… C…). Picture: Roger Tomlin/ULAS.

Cultural connections

These lengthy journeys shouldn’t come as a shock. The Roman Empire, stretching almost 3,000 miles from northern Britain to southern Egypt, required inhabitants mobility to operate, by commerce, migration, army and civil service, even tourism – and slavery. Mendacity on the centre of Britain, Leicester was properly positioned to develop into an necessary communications hub for the province – one thing evident within the variety of lead sealings (used to safe the contents of parcels or packages, guaranteeing that they’d not be tampered with between sender and recipient) discovered within the city. They point out the motion of army items, communications, and presumably individuals, however they’re uncommon in civilian settlements in Britain, making their presence in Leicester reasonably uncommon. But all had been intentionally damaged from their string and thrown away, indicating that websites in Leicester had been their meant vacation spot.

Many of the sealings come from British-based army models stationed north of Leicester, however one bore the stamp of a non-British Legion, Legio III Cyrenaica. The III Cyrenaica was shaped in Libya within the late 1st century BC, and was later stationed in Egypt and Syria. It by no means served in Britain. Curiously, the seal’s reverse bore the stamp of a British legion, the VI Victrix, which had been in Britain because the early 2nd century and was based totally at York. Roger Tomlin has advised that this will point out that the seal’s proprietor had served in each legions. Such a switch between army models stationed thus far aside has precedent, and a minimum of one different British soldier – the centurion Titus Quintius Petrullus – is thought to have served within the III Cyrenaica within the 2nd century AD.

RIGHT Overlooking the Vine Street excavations in 2006.
Overlooking the Vine Road excavations in 2006.

This instance and two different seals had been discovered within the Roman city’s north-east quarter, the place excavations had been carried out at Vine Road between 2004 and 2006, forward of the development of a brand new multistorey automotive park (a part of the Highcross Leicester retail growth). Work there notably targeted on a big late Roman courtyard home and a potential warehouse that occupied a lot of the positioning within the Third and 4th centuries. The presence of a seal of a specific unit can not, after all, assure the presence of a person from that unit within the neighborhood, however does display that somebody in Leicester, presumably an occupant of the courtyard home, was in communication with British, and maybe international, legions.

Egyptian imagery

One other extraordinary discover from Vine Road was a small, carved ivory panel from a field made in Egypt. Reduction-carved ivory bins are extraordinarily uncommon in Roman Britain, and this fragment is phenomenal due to its design.Its motifs are uncommon, depicting the jackal-headed historical Egyptian god Anubis squatting amongst lotus leaves and greedy a lance in his proper hand. Roman Egypt had a long-established business producing ivory bins, however most had been adorned with Greek and Roman, reasonably than Egyptian, gods. Anubis was well-liked amongst Egyptian troopers within the Roman military, although, and the truth that this determine is holding a lance could trace at a army connection (depictions of Anubis within the Catacomb of Kom El Shoqafa at Alexandria in Egypt present him dressed as a Roman soldier holding the same lance). This field would have been an exceedingly uncommon, luxurious merchandise even in Egypt, so for it to have made its option to Roman Britain is outstanding.

This ivory panel was as soon as a part of a composite field. Discovered throughout the Vine Road investigations, it reveals the Egyptian god Anubis crouched amongst lotus flowers and greedy a lance in his proper hand. Picture: ULAS/Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD/CC BY-SA 3.0.
Anubis, once more in Roman army gown, in depicted the Catacomb of Kom El Shoqafa at Alexandria in Egypt.

Depictions of Anubis are additionally discovered on a number of ceramic lamps from the Roman cemetery at Nice Dover Road in London, whereas different Egyptian gods are identified to have been worshipped in Roman Britain – there was a temple devoted to Isis in London and one to Serapis in York. The Leicester depiction is essentially the most northerly identified picture of Anubis in the entire Empire, and it appears a outstanding coincidence that an Egyptian field and a seal from an jap legion ought to flip up on the identical website.

There have been different indicators of army personnel within the courtyard home, together with a part of a Third-century enamelled army belt, in addition to hints that a minimum of one of many inhabitants got here from outdoors Britain, with somebody carrying and shedding an uncommon Continental brooch at a time when most individuals in Leicester had been not carrying brooches. May these, along with the seals of various army models and the potential warehouse, recommend that the proprietor was a military veteran with North African connections? It definitely makes a very good story.

Skeletons inform a narrative

Whereas these artefacts communicate extra to cultural communication, there in all probability had been individuals of African descent dwelling in Roman Leicester. Excavations at Western Street (in 2010-2015; CA 319), to the south-west of the Roman city, and at Oxford Road (in 2013), to the south, revealed elements of huge Roman cemeteries. Lots of the burials had been very truncated, however 39 (38%) of the 102 skeletons had a sufficiently intact cranial skeleton to attempt to assess their ancestry.

Figuring out ancestry from cranial traits may be ambiguous and never all the time potential, however 5 younger and middle-aged males had been discovered to have cranium options attribute of African or combined ancestry. Evaluation of those people is ongoing, however their precise burials didn’t recommend that they’d shared a cultural id completely different from the remainder of the cemetery inhabitants – not like, for instance, York’s ‘Ivory Bangle Woman’, who was buried with elephant ivory bangles. Moderately, the style of the Leicester people’ burials was per the opposite graves round them. A pilot examine utilizing secure isotopes – chemical signatures preserved in enamel and bones – to research their childhood origins has discovered that one man from the Western Street cemetery had in all probability been born within the Leicester space, and one almost certainly within the Pennines, suggesting that in the event that they did have African ancestry, they had been second-generation migrants.

ABOVE This child was buried at Western Road and may have had African ancestry.
This baby was buried at Western Street and should have had African ancestry.

There was additionally a toddler, round 10-12 years previous, from the Western Street cemetery who had cranium options hinting at African ancestry. They had been small for his or her age and had developed rickets, a situation that’s brought on by a deficiency in Vitamin D. Though some Vitamin D is present in sure meals, most is produced by the physique by publicity to daylight, and one speculation is that the Western Street baby had been born outdoors Britain, in a a lot sunnier place. They lived there for his or her early childhood and had been comparatively wholesome till, after the age of seven, they moved to Britain. Now dwelling in a extra northern latitude, with a lot much less daylight accessible and their darker pores and skin much less in a position to take up what little there was, they had been liable to growing rickets and inside a number of years they’d died.

Based mostly on these findings, we would recommend that a minimum of 6% of the cemetery inhabitants may have had African ancestry – if that is used as a proxy for the inhabitants of Roman Leicester it’s a determine remarkably just like the proportion of people that determine as Black dwelling in Leicester right this moment (in accordance with the 2011 Census, 6.24%).

BELOW Excavating a burial from Leicester’s southern Roman cemetery at Oxford Street.
Excavating a burial from Leicester’s southern Roman cemetery at Oxford Road.

This proof feeds into a much bigger image.We already know of 1 man from Roman Leicester leaving Britain and touring midway throughout the Empire to Dacia (trendy Romania). Marcus Ulpius Novantico was the son of Adcobrovatus of Ratae, and within the late 1st century AD he joined the Roman military and was stationed on the Danube earlier than preventing in Trajan’s Dacian Wars. He was honourably discharged in AD 110, and settled at Porolissum in Dacia, the place his army discharge diploma was discovered. Right here, then, is tangible proof of motion between Leicester and different elements of the Roman Empire – so why would we not see that in reverse? Novantico will not be distinctive – thus far there’s epigraphical proof for over 40 individuals of British descent dwelling and dying elsewhere within the Empire, together with in North Africa.

Severus and the septizonium

The ultimate, and maybe most important, artefact – additionally discovered at Vine Road – hyperlinks Leicester not with Roman Africa, however presumably with the primary African-born Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus (r. AD 193-211; he was born in Leptis Magna in what’s now Libya). The item in query is a curse pill, a skinny, hammered sheet of lead inscribed with writing that stylistically suggests it was created within the late 2nd or early Third century AD. This textual content tells a narrative of the theft of silver cash, and the sufferer, Sabinianus, names the three individuals he believed had been accountable: Similis, Cupitus, and Lochita. As punishment for his or her crime, he calls on a god to strike them down in a constructing referred to as a septizonium inside seven days.

ABOVE The Sabinianus curse tablet.
The Sabinianus curse pill. IMAGE: Roger Tomlin/ULAS.

The names alone are good proof of cultural fusion in Roman Leicester, being a combination of Latin and Greek, with German and Celtic influences. Names don’t essentially equate to cultural affiliations, however they do a minimum of present that it was commonplace to attract inspiration from various cultures from throughout the Empire when naming youngsters. It’s the constructing, nevertheless, that’s extra vital – a septizonium, or septizodium because it can be spelt, was a type of monumental nymphaeum or fountain home, particularly incorporating pictures of the seven planetary deities that represented the times of the Roman week (the Solar, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn – that is nonetheless mirrored in our phrases for Sunday, Monday, and Saturday, although the opposite days at the moment are named after Germanic deities). This style for equating deities with the times of the week got here from Egypt, and was made well-liked by Septimius Severus. Certainly, Severus constructed the best-known and grandest instance of those buildings. Devoted in AD 203, it stood on the Palatine in Rome and comprised a three-storey columnar façade with fountains, positioned on the termination of the By way of Appia. Furthermore, it appears to have been perceived by Roman writers as a basically North African monument. The writer of the Historia Augusta, as an illustration, believed that the emperor constructed it particularly to greet travellers arriving from Africa, and to impress African compatriots.

Elsewhere, the one identified parallels are from Lilybaeum (Sicily); on the commerce path to North Africa; from Cincari and Henschir Bedd (each in Tunisia); and from Lambaesis (Algeria), making the construction referred to in Leicester solely the sixth, and essentially the most northerly, named instance within the Roman Empire. Whereas these buildings seem to have had no commonplace type, they share components together with monumental shows of water, elaborate façades, an affiliation with the quantity seven and the seven planetary deities, and a extremely seen location on open plazas or highway junctions.

BELOW The Roman Empire, marking the location of the six known septizonia.
The Roman Empire, marking the placement of the six identified septizonia. IMAGE: Mathew Morris.

Given their hyperlink with North Africa and the truth that, the place their date is thought, the buildings seem nearly completely within the early Third century, it’s strongly advised that septizonia are carefully related to Severus and his dynasty, maybe expressions of Severan id or loyalty. Why was Leicester chosen for such a building? Whereas the placement of this septizonium stays unknown, it’s price noting that Severus personally led army campaigns in Britain in AD 208-211, throughout which Eboracum (York) successfully turned the imperial centre of the Empire – till Severus died there in AD 211. Is the presence of a septizonium at Leicester, then, a singular relic of proof of his go to to Britain?

The rising proof from Leicester, notably from business excavations over the previous 20 years, is revealing a cosmopolitan metropolis with connections throughout the Roman Empire. This cultural admixture shouldn’t be thought-about atypical or uncommon, and absence of proof shouldn’t be taken to imply absence of presence. Our excavations are, for the primary time, beginning to reveal the town’s early migrant inhabitants. As analysis continues, this new knowledge is offering fascinating insights into Roman Leicester, whose inhabitants had been clearly as various as those that reside within the metropolis right this moment.

Additional studying
Richard Buckley, Nicholas J Cooper, and Mathew Morris (2021) Life in Roman and Medieval Leicester: excavations within the city’s north-east quarter 1958–2006, Leicester Archaeology Monograph 26, £49.95, ISBN 978-0957479205, https://store.le.ac.uk.
ALL IMAGES: ULAS except in any other case ststed.

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