Governors of Britain
|Remains of Tiddis, Lollius’ home town|
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)|
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)|
|Whitewashed Terence: manuscript illustration dating 1000 years after his death (Vatican. Lat. 3862 fol. 2r)|
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.
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 writersTertullian. 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.
Notes(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)|
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.