Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Black Romans

Governors of Britain

Remains of Tiddis, Lollius’ home town
Quintus Lollius Urbicus. Urbicus was born probably in the 70s CE, in Tiddis, Numidia. He enjoyed a very successful military career, becoming commander of the Tenth Legion Gemina. Afterwards he became consul at Rome in 135 or 136, then governor of Lower Germany (ca. 137-139), then Britain (ca. 139-142). He was a novus homo, a man whose family had no previous tenure in the senate. After achieving success he built an impressive family mausoleum in his hometown Tiddis, which is still standing. Several inscriptions in northern England and southern Scotland attest to his work overseeing fortifications there, including the initial phases of building the Antonine Wall. After his governorship he returned to Rome to become Urban Prefect; his actions in that role led to criticism from Justin Martyr, who perceived Christians as being persecuted by Urbicus.

Quintus Antistius Adventus. Born in Thibilis, Numidia in the early 100s CE. Adventus served in the military in the Parthian War (162-164) and subsequently became governor of Arabia. After a consulship in 167, he became governor of Lower Germany, then Britain. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about his activities in Britain, because of a lack of epigraphic evidence.

An extremely rare gold coin (aureus) of ‘Imperator Caesar Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus Augustus’ (195-197 CE)
Decimus Clodius Septimius Albinus. Aside from his distinguished military career and his governorship in Britain, Albinus also became co-emperor, after a fashion. He held the title of ‘Caesar’ along with Septimius Severus (who was also African) in 193-195 CE. In 195-197 the two fell out, and Albinus staked a claim to sole emperorship: it did not end well. If Albinus were alive today he might be called ‘white-passing’: the surname ‘Albinus’ reportedly comes from his having unusually light skin for an African. He was born in Hadrumetum, in what is now Tunisia, in the mid-100s. The details of his military career that we get in the Historia Augusta are pretty much all fictional, unfortunately, or at best untrustworthy. However, he did have a consulship, and emperor Commodus appointed him governor of Britain probably ca. 190. In 193, Commodus’ successor Pertinax was assassinated without an heir, and a flurry of provincial governors claimed the throne -- the ‘Year of the Five Emperors’. Albinus was one of the main contenders, but not the winner. Severus won out in Rome. But Albinus had a very strong position, with the strongest provincial army in the empire. The settlement was that Albinus would stay with his legions in Britain, and Severus would appoint him ‘Caesar’ at a distance. In 194 Albinus was co-consul again (with Severus), in spite of his absence. The situation wasn’t stable. In 195 Albinus declared himself ‘Augustus’; Severus declared him an enemy; and there was a short civil war. Albinus invaded Gaul (France) with three legions from Britain. He enjoyed early success, but in 197 Severus defeated him at his base in Lugdunum (Lyon). Albinus probably died in the rout. There are lurid stories of Severus abusing Albinus’ corpse and his family, but they’re probably fictional.

Lucius Alfenus Senecio. Senecio was born in Cuicul, Numidia. His father was a financial officer (procurator Augusti), and he achieved the same position in Belgian Gaul and Mauretania Caesariensis. After a consulship in Rome, he went on to become governor of Coele Syria, then Britain around 205-207 CE; Septimius Severus was still emperor at the time. Britain was a troubled place during his governorship, and there were complaints of invaders from the north having the run of the province. (After Senecio’s time these troubles led Severus to come in person to Britain to try -- and fail -- to conquer Scotland.) Senecio oversaw substantial restorations at Hadrian’s Wall.

Note: we know of around 53-57 governors of Roman Britain. In the province’s first 50 years, starting in 54 CE, all of the governors whose background can be identified were Italian. From 104 CE up until the end of Septimius Severus’ reign we have 3 Numidians, 2 Italians, 2 Dalmatians, 1 African (the province, not the continent; approximately modern Tunisia), and 13 unknowns. Of the unknowns, one has been suggested to be Sicilian, one Spanish, and one a further Numidian. Wikipedia claims yet another Numidian (Gaius Valerius Pudens) but mistakenly. Of the Italians, Pertinax (later emperor) was born in Italy but is of unknown ancestry, since he was the son of a freedman.

Manuscript illustration showing a scene from Terence’s play the Mother-in-law (Hecyra). (15th century, Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Literary figures

Whitewashed Terence: manuscript illustration dating 1000 years after his death (Vatican. Lat. 3862 fol. 2r)
Terence. One of the most celebrated playwrights of antiquity. Terence initially came to Italy as a slave. By birth he was an Afer, an ethnic group who are probably the origin of the name ‘Africa’. He probably passed through slave markets in Phoenician Carthage, which was still standing in his lifetime. It’s likely he learned Greek while there. In Italy he was freed, and as was customary, took the name of his former owner, one Publius Terentius. Terence went on to become one of the most famous comic playwrights of all time. His genre was New Comedy, a form also represented by two other surviving playwrights (Plautus, and the Greek writer Menander). Terence’s six plays were popular throughout antiquity and the Mediaeval period, and influential on Renaissance-era drama, including Ralph Roister Doister and the comedies of Ariosto and Shakespeare. Terence’s comedy is more mannered than Plautus’, less bombastic and farcical, and shows impeccable style. While his characters are very three-dimensional, Terence’s decorousness tends to make him a bit dull for present-day audiences. His plays work much better on stage than on the page.

Terentianus Maurus. Grammarian, ca. mid-200s CE. Terentianus, a Mauretanian (the origin of the word ‘Moor’), was author of three surviving poetic treatises On letters, On syllables, and On metres, which got a new edition in 2002 (ed. C. Cignolo). The second and third are among the most important surviving documents on the subject of ancient poetic rhythms. Terentianus has one famous line: pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli, ‘books have their own destinies, adjudicated by the reader’s reception.’

Apuleius. Author of the only complete surviving Latin novel, the Metamorphoses (or Golden Ass, as his later fellow countryman Augustine calls it). Apuleius’s full name is unknown. He was Numidian, born in Madaura ca. 125 CE. He became a well-known orator and a Platonic philosopher, famous to the point that he had statues erected of him during his lifetime. His Metamorphoses is the earliest picaresque novel. It is a bawdy story of a rogue named Lucius, told in the first person. Lucius’ pursuit of a girl leads to an encounter with a witch in Thessaly, who turns him into an ass. On the run in ass shape, he has a series of episodic misadventures. Halfway through comes a long and famous telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche. Finally, Lucius is turned back into a human by the grace of the goddess Isis, and in an unexpectedly serious turn, the story ends with him converting wholeheartedly to her religion. Apuleius’ prose style was immediately influential on Christian writers, though they sometimes took his novel as autobiographical and true, and accused him of being a magician ... Apuleius would probably have been amused.

Whitewashed Augustine?
Fresco in the library of the Lateran Palace, Rome, popularly thought to be a depiction of Augustine (if so, the earliest: ca. 600 CE, about 170 years after Augustine’s death).

Some notable Christian writers

Tertullian. Coiner of the word ‘Trinity’ (Latin Trinitas) to refer to the Christian deity. Tertullian was born in Roman Carthage around 160 CE. He was trained in rhetoric and law, and had a superb knowledge of contemporary pagan literature (including Apuleius, above). He wrote a few lost works in Greek, but most of his writings led the way in promoting the use of Latin in the western churches. Tertullian was extremely intolerant of religious disagreement, and regularly called his opponents idiots (or worse). After 200 he split from the mainstream church to join the Montanist sect.

Cyprian. Thascius Cyprianus was born probably sometime after 200 CE, and converted to Christianity after 240. We don’t know his hometown, but Thascius is a Phoenician name and he lived in Carthage. So somewhere near Carthage is a decent bet. He became bishop of Carthage in 248/9. His tenure was troubled by two decrees from the Roman emperor in 250 and 257 requiring participation in the imperial cult, and by a dispute with the Roman church because he readmitted Christians who had obeyed the decrees. Cyprian’s writings emphasise the unity of the church, and seem to envisage the church as supplanting the Roman state.

Arnobius. Rhetorician and Christian apologist, 3rd-4th cent. CE. Arnobius was Numidian, from Sicca Veneria. He reportedly converted to Christianity because of a dream, and wrote his lengthy treatise Against the Pagans to prove his sincerity to the local bishop and get baptised. Arnobius became a vigorous apologist, with some quirks: he avoided allegory and parable, and he regarded the pagan gods as real beings.

Lactantius. Lactantius was not so much a theologian, but more a rhetorician who wrote about his Christian beliefs. He was born in Numidia ca. 250 CE. We’re told he studied under Arnobius at Sicca Veneria, but it’s hard to be sure since Lactantius’ writings don’t mention Arnobius. He was very successful, and enjoyed the favour of emperor Diocletian, who gave him a teaching position in Nicomedia (modern Turkey). There he encountered the future emperor Constantine and the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry. He also converted to Christianity, and Diocletian was not keen on Christianity. He had already resigned his post when Diocletian demolished the Nicomedian church in 303 and decreed that all Christian priests and bishops should be arrested. When Constantine took the western throne in 306 things improved, and around 315 the emperor installed him in a new post in Gaul (possibly in Trier), where he died shortly after 324. Lactantius’ most important work is the Divine instructions. While an excellent rhetorician, the best-known aspect of Lactantius’ influence is not so positive, and relates to his espousing of flat-earthism (Div. Inst. 3.24), making him one of the very few known western Christian flat-earthers until the modern era. This has earned him widespread scorn in later centuries -- and that’s fair enough, really.

Augustine. One of the greatest Christian theologians, and one of the finest thinkers of antiquity. Aurelius Augustinus was Numidian, born in Thagaste to a non-Christian family in 354 CE. He and his mother Monnica spent time living in Carthage, and later Rome, where he converted to Christianity. Afterwards he returned to Africa and became bishop of Hippo Regius. Augustine’s Confessions is pretty much the world’s first autobiography. Several of the most important religious tracts in the history of Christianity are his work, such as On the city of God and On catechising the uneducated. I’m particularly a fan of his phenomenological discussion of the nature of time in Confessions book 11.


(Believe it or not, I had planned out this post before seeing Mary Beard’s recent blog post on Lollius Urbicus, and before hearing that Miranda Kaufmann’s book Black Tudors came out a couple of weeks ago -- and by the way, it looks like a really interesting book.)

In antiquity, race was tied to geographical and tribal identifiers, not skin colour. You weren’t white or black: you came from the Aedui or the Afri. ‘White’ and ‘black’ as ethnic categories didn’t emerge until around 500 years ago. They’re modern ethnic categories, and they have nothing to do with historical methodology. So when we talk about skin colour in antiquity we’re not properly ‘doing history’ -- what we’re doing is making colour visible. And that’s fine. It’s important to do history right, but the modern reception of history is important too.

Greek black-figure vase: an Aethiopian archer with two Amazon warriors (Brussels, Musée Cinquantenaire A 130; mid-500s BCE)
The ‘invisibility’ of colour in Greco-Roman antiquity isn’t because it didn’t exist. It’s because the Greeks and Romans themselves paid almost no attention to it. Roman writers hardly ever mention anyone’s complexion -- that just isn’t how they thought about race.

Where colour does seem to exist, it can even be artificial, or misleading. If a Roman got the surname Niger (‘black’) because of a physical feature, it was probably more often for their hair than their skin. And in the Greek vase shown here, with an Aethiopian archer flanked by two Amazons, the Aethiopian has some characteristics based on real Africans, but the skin colours have nothing at all to do with race or ethnicity: they’re about gender. It was the convention in Greek art of the time that all men were painted with black skin, and all women were painted with white skin. That’s why this style of vase painting is called ‘black-figure’.
Note: I use the old spelling ‘Aethiopian’ here because pinning down the Greek word Αἰθίοψ to just one meaning would be misleading. The classical Greeks used Αἰθίοψ to refer to (1) a mythical people, the ‘burning-looking ones’, who supposedly lived near the places where the sun rises and sets; (2) real-life Africans away from the north coast, including the region south of Egypt around modern Ethiopia. Both meanings appear in this vase. The archer is an Αἰθίοψ in the mythical sense, because Amazons and the legendary Aethiopians both turn up at the Trojan War (the contingents of the Amazon Penthesileia, and of Memnon, son of the dawn goddess); at the same time, the archer’s hair and face suggest that the painter was trying to depict real Nubian-Ethiopian physical features.

Some individuals in my catalogue may not actually have had African ancestry: a few might be children of Italian migrants, or somesuch. Instead of worrying over specific cases, let’s assume I’ve misidentified some proportion of them. Pick a high proportion if you want, it doesn’t matter. Because migration was emphatically not a one-way street: mobility through military service, and through slavery and subsequent manumission, saw to that. If a certain proportion of these Roman Africans were actually of European stock, we must also assume that a comparable proportion of Europeans were of African stock. Even if Augustine might possibly have had migrant ancestry, for all we know exactly the same might be true for Ambrose or Jerome.

A definite shortcoming in my catalogue is that I’ve stuck to the Latin west, and avoided the Greek east altogether. I’m relying on the tidy linguistic split between ancient Morocco-Algeria-Tunisia (‘Latin’ Africa) and Libya-Egypt (‘Greek’ Africa). If modern race categories are a poor fit for ‘Latin’ Africa, they’re an even poorer fit for ‘Greek’ Africa, which saw intensive Greek migration starting in the 7th century BCE, and there the migration was much more one-way. We can’t even begin to guess at how mixed the ancestry was for Alexandrians like Heron, Menelaus, or Diophantus.
One of the traits that most people would associate with race -- skin color -- is a terrible classifier. ... [Our] study really discredits the idea of a biological construct of race. There are no discrete boundaries between groups that are consistent with biological markers.
-- Sarah Tishkoff, The Atlantic, 12 Oct. 2017, interviewed about a new study on skin colour genes in African populations


  1. First, thanks for the list of African Romans - always an interesting topic.

    Second, as a North African myself, I can attest that being North African does not make you black by any sensible definition of the word - certainly not as far as skin colour goes. There are, of course, black North Africans; they constitute a visible minority, mainly concentrated in the south, and sometimes still suffer from racism for it. There are also red-haired, green-eyed North Africans, and everything in between. If you mean African, please just say African. If you actually mean black (and that would be a very interesting list too), then you'd really have to cite specific evidence on their skin colour - which I imagine is rarely forthcoming from the sources.

    1. All fair points, and I knew that if this post got any attention at all, someone would make this very reasonable point.

      I won't defend myself, because you're absolutely right, but I will just point out that this didn't come out of nowhere. The topic arose in the context of a major social media fight in the context of British perceptions of race earlier this year, which had an impact on perceptions of race not just in academic circles but in popular culture. For anyone unfamiliar with it, here's one piece of coverage from a comparatively right-wing source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/06/mary-beard-misogynistic-race-row-bbc-cartoon-us-academic-claimed/

      In a British context, as you are probably well aware, the boundary between "black" and "white" is very different from how it looks in northern Africa. For British nationalists, and some other ideologically allied groups, "black" isn't just a colour: it means anyone from south of the Mediterranean, and probably many on the northern shores as well. My post is a response to British-American-style racism: that's why I went with that boundary here.

    2. I vaguely remember hearing about that social media fight - some appalling misogyny and racism there.

      I realize the definition of "black" and "white" is very context-sensitive. I don't remember anyone considering me or other North Africans black when I was living in the UK, but just a couple of years ago a very light-skinned woman of Algerian ancestry (Malia Bouattia) got elected Black Students' Officer of the NUS, so clearly some people are willing to do so.

      Nevertheless, I do think this conflation is problematic. At best, it tends to erase North Africa's specificity, assimilating it into a generic stereotype of Africa when most English speakers barely have any image of this region at all. And in the context of discussing the Classical period, it gives the no doubt unintended impression of denying the continuity between Roman-era Africans and present-day North Africans, and by implication the indigenous status of Amazigh people (as some Afrocentrists actually do.) Using racists' definition of races against them has its benefits, but it risks perpetuating misunderstandings that are built in to their ill-constructed concepts.

  2. Just for concreteness' sake, let me illustrate my point. You speculate above that Augustine's picture was "whitewashed?". Well, I don't imagine we'll ever know what skin colour Augustine actually had. But if we must guess, a good starting point would be to look at people who live on the site of Thagaste today - Souk Ahras. So here's a classroom in Souk Ahras: https://youtu.be/66QOWXj-ECk?t=23m21s . Here's a sports club in Souk Ahras: https://youtu.be/HALXv4nwdKc?t=2m41s . And here's an old man in Souk Ahras, looking almost as pink as the Augustine picture: https://youtu.be/exEhQTZAoRk?t=12m19s . Of course Augustine could have been black, for all we know; maybe Monica's ancestors came from much further south or something. But the odds are against it.