BBC’s Roman Britain: modern multiculturalism or the probable truth?

At the beginning of August, a small animation published by the BBC in 2014 caught the attention of an Infowars editor. (For those not in the know, Inforwars is an American radio show that is most famous for its enthusiastic and rage-fuelled host, Alex Jones). This led to a Twitter debate between statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb and celebrated classicist Mary Beard. The subject in question: whether or not a Roman general stationed at Hadrian’s Wall could have been black.

The animation focuses primarily on Romano-British life, and a lost scarf, but simply featuring a Roman general who just so happened to be black has quickly become the main talking point regarding the clip. Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson sparked the debate with this tweet: “Thank God the BBC is portraying Roman Britain as ethnically diverse. I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?” Beard was quick to question him, and rebutted with: “this is indeed pretty accurate, there’s plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain”. From there the argument spiralled, with Taleb jumping into the fray. The debate has continued to rage on for several weeks.

“It stretched from Hadrian’s wall in the North, all the way South to Egypt”

Does Mary Beard’s argument carry any weight, though? In short: yes.

The Roman Empire was colossal. At its zenith it stretched from Hadrian’s wall in the North, all the way South to Egypt, and from Iberia in the West to modern-day Iraq in the East. That’s 1.9million square miles. The Roman Empire brought traditions and culture to and from those within its bounds, and allowed for the movement of people on a huge scale.

“A man from anywhere in the Empire could become a soldier”

Romans had little concept of race as we now understand it. Much of the Roman mentality was of an ‘us-vs-them’ nature; anyone could be a Roman, but Jupiter help you if you weren’t. The racism that we know today was not as prevalent as it is now; society was more classist than racist. Social standing was defined by your class and status in society; slaves were largely ignored, but a man who had bought his own freedom was more respected. Diocletian (244-311AD) was the son of an ex-slave, yet through his service to Rome became a commander on the Danube, and later Emperor of the Empire.

“The army would not care about the colour of your skin”

The Roman Army functioned on similar ideologies. A man from anywhere in the Empire could become a soldier, and his ethnicity would play no part in his escalation through the ranks if he worked hard. Lucius Quietus was referred to as “…notably one of the them most accomplished Berber [North African] statesmen in ancient Roman history” by Roman historian Cassius Dio, and was governor of Judaea in 117AD (during Hadrian’s reign). In the third century AD a “division of Moors” was stationed at Hadrian’s Wall near Carlisle. Both the Column of Trajan and the Column of Marcus Aurelius depict non-Roman soldiers fighting alongside Roman allies. The army would not care about the colour of your skin or where you came from, only whether you fought for Rome or not.

“That doesn’t mean that ethnically diverse soldiers didn’t exist”

Saying that Roman Britain wasn’t multicultural makes about as much sense as claiming that modern Britain isn’t ethnically diverse. Of course, the majority of Roman soldiers and commanding figures would have been white, simply because of where the Roman Empire was geographically, but that doesn’t mean that ethnically diverse soldiers didn’t exist. A black high-ranking soldier would have been uncommon, but not impossible.

Ellen Smithies

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Image courtesy of BBC Teach/YouTube

One Comment
  • Vanitas
    26 August 2017 at 02:04
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    Berbers were white. Most of them still are today, search for “Berber blondes”.

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