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Africans on the Antonine Wall (2nd century AD)

Written by Oadeye

 

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If you take a walk around Scotland observing its numerous monuments that include remains of forts, towers and roads, you will find that most –if not all- the surviving monuments are military in nature. This is because at some time, Scotland’s location was on the northwest frontier of the enormous Roman Empire. One of the most brilliant Roman military monuments among the remains that are still present in Scotland is the remarkable remains of the Antonine Wall.

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To mark the northernmost border of the Roman territory in Britain, the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered the building of the Antonine Wall. The wall was meant to defend the frontier from raids conducted by the Caledonians (Northern Britons who often raided the southern parts for its wealth). Part of his decision of building the wall was also to rival the wall built by his predecessor, Hadrian. The building started in 142 AD and took several years to complete the structure.

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The task of building the wall that ran from the Firth of Forth in the east to the Firth of Clyde in the West was assigned to the Roman general and governor of Britain, Quintus Lollius Ubricus. Upon its completion, the wall was comprised of a bank of turf that is almost 4 meters wide and 3 meters high and topped with an imposing wooden paling. The turf was fronted by a ditch that was dug about 3.5 meters deep. A road was constructed to allow quick movement for the Roman soldiers in case of trouble. About 26 small military forts dotted that road to house the hundreds of soldiers who manned this frontier. The Antonine Wall became Rome’s north-western frontier for a generation during the mid-2nd century.

 

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Illustration of building the Antonine Wall, 142 AD

The military forts that lined the road housed a range of soldiers who came from different regions of the vast Roman Empire that stretched from Scotland all the way to North Africa. Naturally, this meant that Rome was home to people from a number of different countries which together formed sort of a mosaic of cultural diversity. Even though those different people were under one Roman ruling, they still maintained their cultural identities and traditions and continued to worship their own gods. This created what is probably one of the few ancient multicultural empires.

 

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Map showing extent of the Roman empire during the reign of Antoninus Pius

Army positions and regiments were usually organized according to ethnic identity to make use of a nation’s finest qualities in military tactics. Africans could be seen in many positions starting with general Lollius Ubricus who was originally from Numidia (the present day Algeria). More evidence of African presence was revealed with the discovery of some pottery from the different sites along the Antonine Wall which were found to be of a North African style. The pottery dishes were of a brazier style, which is a type of cooking that is popular in north-west Africa. Another casserole dish is thought to be the early form of the modern day North African tagine dish.

A soldier wearing Roman military uniform consisting of armour and a long red cape.

Roman general and governor of Britain, Quintus Lollius Ubricus

 

Another theory explaining the presence of people from African descent on the Antonine wall says that after Antoninus Pius was involved in the Mauretanian War (around the present day Morocco), some of the locals accompanied the soldiers when they returned to Britain either as replacements of the war losses or as slaves.

Furthermore, it was found that upon the discharging of soldiers from the Roman army, they received what was known as a military diploma in the form of a bronze inscribed document. The diploma rewarded its recipient with Roman citizenship as an acknowledgment for their services to the empire. It was concluded from the discovery of a certain diploma that the First Cohort of Baetasians participated in the Mauretania war. They were a regiment stationed at the forts of Bar Hill and Old Kilpatrick by the Antonine Wall, the same place where evidence of African culinary and cooking styles was found. If anything, this newly found diploma proves that there was a noticeable soldier movement between North-west African and the Antonine Wall.

A map showing the Antonine Wall stretching from the Clyde to the Firth.

 

Even with the presence of people from African descent among the Romans, the indigenous Britons viewed all Romans as a single entity that was looking to extend its land and occupy that of the Britons.

“We are the last people on earth, and the last to be free: our very remoteness in a land known only to rumour has protected us up till this day. Today the furthest bounds of Britain lie open—and everything unknown is given an inflated worth. But now there is no people beyond us, nothing but tides and rocks and, more deadly than these, the Romans.” {Tacitus, Agricola (XXX})

Up until the Constitution of Antoninus was issued by Septimius Severus’ oldest son, Caracalla in 212, most Britons were not considered as citizens of Rome. Like all other provinces that were under the Roman ruling, they lived on the confiscated land as serfs on Roman Imperial possessions. When the constitution –also known as the Edict of Caracalla- was issued, it declared that all free men and women in the Roman Empire were to be granted Roman citizenship and given the same rights as Roman citizens. According to historians, Caracalla decreed that law to increase the number of tax-payers as well as to increase the number of men who were allowed to serve in the legions of the Roman Army.

There are several descriptions that the Roman made about how they saw and perceived the Britons, among those is the following;

“There are two principal races of the Britons, the Caledonians and the Maeatae, and the names of the others have been merged in these two. The Maeatae live next to the cross-wall which cuts the island in half, and the Caledonians are beyond them. Both tribes inhabit wild and waterless mountains and desolate and swampy plains, and possess neither walls, cities, nor tilled fields, but live on their flocks, wild game, and certain fruits…They dwell in tents, naked and unshod, possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring. Their form of rule is democratic for the most part, and they are very fond of plundering; consequently they choose their boldest men as rulers….They can endure hunger and cold and any kind of hardship; for they plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water, and in the forests they support themselves upon bark and roots, and for all emergencies they prepare a certain kind of food, the eating of a small portion of which, the size of a bean, prevents them from feeling either hunger or thirst” {Roman History, LXXVII.12.1-4}

africans on the antonine wall - pic8Today, upon the mention of Romans amidst many people, some Britons included, they have this picture in their minds that all Romans are of white descent. The previously mentioned facts show that all the while during the growing of the Roman Empire, it embraced the concept of ethnic diversity. It also showed that they did not judge, attack or harbor animosity based on skin colour, but rather on skills, technical development and military strength. The image on the right shows a marble statue of an African Roman, and that is just one piece of evidence among many that prove how the Roman Empire continued to grow and expand depending in part on the concept of being a multicultural Empire.

Bibliography

  • Breeze, David J. (2006) The Antonine Wall. Edinburgh. John Donald. ISBN 0-85976-655-1
  • Frontiers of the Roman Empire – UNESCO World Heritage Centre
  • “Antonine Guard Living History Society”. THE ANTONINE GUARD. Retrieved 26 May 2018.
  • Krakowka, Kathryn (30 May 2018). “Reading the painting on the wall” (CA 340). Current Archaeology. Retrieved 30 May 2018.

About the author

Oadeye

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