Today, Leicester is one of the most diverse cities in Britain. Indeed, the 2011 Census identified it as the first UK city where the majority of its residents did not identify as ‘white British’ (55%). This diversity is often seen as part only of the city’s recent past, a product of Leicester’s rapid industrialisation in the late 19th century, drawing in economic migrants to boost its workforce, which was then bolstered in the 20th century by the arrival of new communities escaping conflict and persecution. Over the past 20 years, however, archaeological excavations in the city have started to reveal tantalising clues that its population has been culturally mixed for much longer – and works associated with the construction of the Highcross Leicester retail quarter have uncovered hints of ancient diversity particularly relating to the Roman period.
Such insights have not always been received positively. In 2017, a BBC educational cartoon portraying life in Roman Britain caused outrage among alt-right commentators who accused the BBC, in choosing to feature a racially mixed family as part of this depiction, of abandoning historical accuracy for political correctness. These objections rekindled discussion about the make-up of past populations, with archaeologists and historians quick to point out that there was plenty of evidence that the people of Roman Britain were relatively diverse and that the presence of people from Africa was not atypical or unusual, especially along Hadrian’s Wall and at large urban centres like London and York, which were populated by both military and civilian personnel drawn from across the Empire. Well-known examples of such individuals include Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who was governor of Britain from AD 138 to 144 and came from Numidia (modern Algeria); the ‘numerus of Aurelian Moors’, a unit of north-west African soldiers stationed near Carlisle in the 3rd century; and the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’, a high-status Roman incomer with African ancestry who died and was buried in luxurious style in late 4th-century York.
Society in Roman Britain was a mixture of indigenous Iron Age and imported Roman culture, itself a multicultural fusion drawn from across the Empire and beyond. This ethnic, social, and cultural mix can be seen all over Britain: in the North African-style pottery being made in York, for instance; or on the tombstone of Victor, found at the Roman fort of Arbeia, South Shields, close to Hadrian’s Wall (now on display in the site museum). Victor was Mauri (Moorish), from Mauretania (modern Algeria and Morocco), and a freedman (former slave) of a soldier called Numerianus. His tombstone, too, shows a mixture of Romano-British and Palmyrene stylistic influences, suggesting that its sculptor was originally from Syria. Victor is shown reclining on a couch, holding a drinking cup, and dressed in typical Roman dining-clothes, emphasising his Romanitas, his ‘Roman-ness’. If Victor could make a 1,000-mile journey from Mauretania to Arbeia, we should expect to find evidence of other incomers in large urban centres like Leicester.
As for what Roman Leicester was like, the settlement boasted all the trappings of Romanisation that you would expect for a large Romano-British town: a forum and basilica, public baths, a market hall, a theatre, temples, shops, workshops, and townhouses large and small. In the late 1st or early 2nd century, it was designated the civitas capital of the indigenous Iron Age people that the Romans called the Corieltavi, becoming Ratae Corieltauvorum, an important regional administrative centre in the East Midlands (see CA 387). At its peak, in the 3rd century, it had a population of around 6,000, and while most of those people were descended from the Corieltavi, there would also have been an established minority of incomers, reflecting the town’s long inclusion within the Roman Empire.
These long journeys should not come as a surprise. The Roman Empire, stretching nearly 3,000 miles from northern Britain to southern Egypt, required population mobility to function, through trade, migration, military and civil service, even tourism – and slavery. Lying at the centre of Britain, Leicester was well placed to become an important communications hub for the province – something evident in the number of lead sealings (used to secure the contents of parcels or packages, guaranteeing that they would not be tampered with between sender and recipient) found in the town. They indicate the movement of military goods, communications, and possibly people, but they are rare in civilian settlements in Britain, making their presence in Leicester rather unusual. Yet all had been deliberately broken from their string and thrown away, indicating that sites in Leicester were their intended destination.
Most of the sealings come from British-based military units stationed north of Leicester, but one bore the stamp of a non-British Legion, Legio III Cyrenaica. The III Cyrenaica was formed in Libya in the late 1st century BC, and was later stationed in Egypt and Syria. It never served in Britain. Curiously, the seal’s reverse bore the stamp of a British legion, the VI Victrix, which had been in Britain since the early 2nd century and was primarily based at York. Roger Tomlin has suggested that this may indicate that the seal’s owner had served in both legions. Such a transfer between military units stationed so far apart has precedent, and at least one other British soldier – the centurion Titus Quintius Petrullus – is known to have served in the III Cyrenaica in the 2nd century AD.
This example and two other seals were found in the Roman town’s north-east quarter, where excavations were carried out at Vine Street between 2004 and 2006, ahead of the construction of a new multistorey car park (part of the Highcross Leicester retail development). Work there particularly focused on a large late Roman courtyard house and a possible warehouse that occupied much of the site in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The presence of a seal of a particular unit cannot, of course, guarantee the presence of an individual from that unit in the vicinity, but does demonstrate that someone in Leicester, possibly an occupant of the courtyard house, was in communication with British, and perhaps foreign, legions.
Another extraordinary find from Vine Street was a small, carved ivory panel from a box made in Egypt. Relief-carved ivory boxes are extremely rare in Roman Britain, and this fragment is exceptional because of its design.Its motifs are unusual, depicting the jackal-headed ancient Egyptian god Anubis squatting among lotus leaves and grasping a lance in his right hand. Roman Egypt had a long-established industry producing ivory boxes, but most were decorated with Greek and Roman, rather than Egyptian, gods. Anubis was popular among Egyptian soldiers in the Roman army, though, and the fact that this figure is holding a lance may hint at a military connection (depictions of Anubis in the Catacomb of Kom El Shoqafa at Alexandria in Egypt show him dressed as a Roman soldier holding a similar lance). This box would have been an exceedingly rare, luxury item even in Egypt, so for it to have made its way to Roman Britain is remarkable.
Depictions of Anubis are also found on several ceramic lamps from the Roman cemetery at Great Dover Street in London, while other Egyptian gods are known to have been worshipped in Roman Britain – there was a temple dedicated to Isis in London and one to Serapis in York. The Leicester depiction is the most northerly known image of Anubis in the whole Empire, and it seems a remarkable coincidence that an Egyptian box and a seal from an eastern legion should turn up on the same site.
There were other signs of military personnel in the courtyard house, including part of a 3rd-century enamelled military belt, as well as hints that at least one of the inhabitants came from outside Britain, with someone wearing and losing an unusual Continental brooch at a time when most people in Leicester were no longer wearing brooches. Could these, together with the seals of different military units and the possible warehouse, suggest that the owner was an army veteran with North African connections? It certainly makes a good story.
Skeletons tell a story
While these artefacts speak more to cultural communication, there probably were people of African descent living in Roman Leicester. Excavations at Western Road (in 2010-2015; CA 319), to the south-west of the Roman town, and at Oxford Street (in 2013), to the south, revealed parts of large Roman cemeteries. Many of the burials were very truncated, but 39 (38%) of the 102 skeletons had a sufficiently intact cranial skeleton to try to assess their ancestry.
Determining ancestry from cranial traits can be ambiguous and not always possible, but five young and middle-aged men were found to have skull features characteristic of African or mixed ancestry. Analysis of these individuals is ongoing, but their actual burials did not suggest that they had shared a cultural identity different from the rest of the cemetery population – unlike, for example, York’s ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’, who was buried with elephant ivory bangles. Rather, the manner of the Leicester individuals’ burials was consistent with the other graves around them. A pilot study using stable isotopes – chemical signatures preserved in teeth and bones – to investigate their childhood origins has found that one man from the Western Road cemetery had probably been born in the Leicester area, and one most likely in the Pennines, suggesting that if they did have African ancestry, they were second-generation migrants.
There was also a child, around 10-12 years old, from the Western Road cemetery who had skull features hinting at African ancestry. They were small for their age and had developed rickets, a condition that is caused by a deficiency in Vitamin D. Although some Vitamin D is found in certain foods, most is produced by the body through exposure to sunlight, and one hypothesis is that the Western Road child had been born outside Britain, in a much sunnier place. They lived there for their early childhood and were relatively healthy until, after the age of 7, they moved to Britain. Now living in a more northern latitude, with much less sunlight available and their darker skin less able to absorb what little there was, they were at risk of developing rickets and within a few years they had died.
Based on these findings, we might suggest that at least 6% of the cemetery population could have had African ancestry – if this is used as a proxy for the population of Roman Leicester it is a figure remarkably similar to the percentage of people who identify as Black living in Leicester today (according to the 2011 Census, 6.24%).
This evidence feeds into a bigger picture.We already know of one man from Roman Leicester leaving Britain and traveling halfway across the Empire to Dacia (modern Romania). Marcus Ulpius Novantico was the son of Adcobrovatus of Ratae, and in the late 1st century AD he joined the Roman army and was stationed on the Danube before fighting in Trajan’s Dacian Wars. He was honourably discharged in AD 110, and settled at Porolissum in Dacia, where his military discharge diploma was found. Here, then, is tangible proof of movement between Leicester and other parts of the Roman Empire – so why would we not see that in reverse? Novantico is not unique – so far there is epigraphical evidence for over 40 people of British descent living and dying elsewhere in the Empire, including in North Africa.
Severus and the septizonium
The final, and perhaps most significant, artefact – also found at Vine Street – links Leicester not with Roman Africa, but possibly with the first African-born Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus (r. AD 193-211; he was born in Leptis Magna in what is now Libya). The object in question is a curse tablet, a thin, hammered sheet of lead inscribed with writing that stylistically suggests it was created in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD. This text tells a story of the theft of silver coins, and the victim, Sabinianus, names the three people he believed were responsible: Similis, Cupitus, and Lochita. As punishment for their crime, he calls on a god to strike them down in a building called a septizonium within seven days.
The names alone are good evidence of cultural fusion in Roman Leicester, being a mixture of Latin and Greek, with German and Celtic influences. Names do not necessarily equate to cultural affiliations, but they do at least show that it was commonplace to draw inspiration from diverse cultures from across the Empire when naming children. It is the building, however, that is more significant – a septizonium, or septizodium as it can also be spelt, was a form of monumental nymphaeum or fountain house, specifically incorporating images of the seven planetary deities that represented the days of the Roman week (the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn – this is still reflected in our words for Sunday, Monday, and Saturday, though the other days are now named after Germanic deities). This fashion for equating deities with the days of the week came from Egypt, and was made popular by Septimius Severus. Indeed, Severus built the best-known and grandest example of these buildings. Dedicated in AD 203, it stood on the Palatine in Rome and comprised a three-storey columnar façade with fountains, positioned at the termination of the Via Appia. Moreover, it seems to have been perceived by Roman writers as a fundamentally North African monument. The author of the Historia Augusta, for instance, believed that the emperor built it specifically to greet travellers arriving from Africa, and to impress African compatriots.
Elsewhere, the only known parallels are from Lilybaeum (Sicily); on the trade route to North Africa; from Cincari and Henschir Bedd (both in Tunisia); and from Lambaesis (Algeria), making the structure referred to in Leicester only the sixth, and the most northerly, named example in the Roman Empire. While these buildings appear to have had no standard form, they share elements including monumental displays of water, elaborate façades, an association with the number seven and the seven planetary deities, and a highly visible location on open plazas or road junctions.
Given their link with North Africa and the fact that, where their date is known, the buildings appear almost exclusively in the early 3rd century, it is strongly suggested that septizonia are closely associated with Severus and his dynasty, perhaps expressions of Severan identity or loyalty. Why was Leicester chosen for such a construction? While the location of this septizonium remains unknown, it is worth noting that Severus personally led military campaigns in Britain in AD 208-211, during which Eboracum (York) effectively became the imperial centre of the Empire – until Severus died there in AD 211. Is the presence of a septizonium at Leicester, then, a unique relic of evidence of his visit to Britain?
The emerging evidence from Leicester, particularly from commercial excavations over the past 20 years, is revealing a cosmopolitan city with connections across the Roman Empire. This cultural admixture should not be considered atypical or unusual, and absence of evidence should not be taken to mean absence of presence. Our excavations are, for the first time, starting to reveal the city’s early migrant population. As research continues, this new data is providing fascinating insights into Roman Leicester, whose inhabitants were clearly as diverse as those who reside in the city today.
Richard Buckley, Nicholas J Cooper, and Mathew Morris (2021) Life in Roman and Medieval Leicester: excavations in the town’s north-east quarter 1958–2006, Leicester Archaeology Monograph 26, £49.95, ISBN 978-0957479205, https://shop.le.ac.uk.
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