The Strange Myth of Black Romans in Britain

The Museum of London is relocating to a new site in Smithfield. While it will not open for a year or two, its curators have already decided that a display about Roman London should feature a ‘typical’ London household of the 2nd century AD. 

Of course, a young Black single mother will serve as the head of the display. She may be seen in the picture below. There is only one slight difficulty with this: there is no evidence that a single Black individual resided in Britain during the 400-year period of the Roman occupation of this country.

In the past decade or so, there has been a concerted effort to convince people that Britain has always been a diverse and multicultural country. This dubious enterprise is partly based on the idea that black children in school will feel better about themselves if they are told that there have always been black people living here. This sentiment was even printed on a 50p coin a few years ago, emblazoned with the inspiring, and untruthful slogan: “Diversity built Britain.” 

Given that the Roman period was so long ago and there are so few written records of the time, academics have felt safe enough to undertake this rewriting of British history. Children are taught that the country was teeming with black people at that time, with various specific examples routinely cited. This is despite the fact there is no archaeological evidence or other proof to suggest that black Africans lived in Britain 2000 years ago. To create this false narrative, a number of techniques have been employed, from linguistic manipulations to the revival of Nazi race science. Let us begin by looking at the way language has been pressed into service for this ignoble cause.

In modern Britain, the term ‘African’ is almost universally synonymous with ‘black person’. If mention is made of an ‘African community’ in some city, then we understand that these are sub-Saharan people; Nigerians, perhaps. Of course, a moment’s reflection reveals that Africa is home to countless non-black people; Egypt alone has 100 million. We seldom refer though to Egyptians or Moroccans as ‘Africans’. So it is that when we are told that there was an “African community” living near Hadrian's Wall in the 3rd century AD, many of us automatically assume that this refers to a group of black people. In the same way, hearing of an “African” emperor of Rome conjures up the image of a black man in a toga. Let us examine these two claims, which can be found in books on British history, as well as children’s non-fiction works for libraries and schools.

Two typical examples of books promoting the idea of an African community in Roman Britain are Black and British: A Forgotten History, by David Olusoga, and Places: Important Sites in Black British History, by Melody Triumph. The former is aimed at adults and was adapted into a BBC series, while the latter is intended for children. Both are published by mainstream publishers, Penguin Books and Pan. Olusoga discusses a detachment of Roman soldiers called the Aurelian Moors, who were stationed at Hadrian's Wall in the middle of the 3rd century AD. He says that they were Africans, which is perfectly true. However, since they are featured in a book about black British history, we are naturally supposed to interpret this to mean that they were black Africans. The children's book goes further and suggests that Roman troops from Africa actually built Hadrian's Wall. This serves as a clear case of diversity ‘building Britain’.

The Aurelian Moors were not black Africans, but rather Berbers from the Roman North African province of Mauretania. This was situated in modern-day Morocco. These Berbers had roughly the same complexion as the Romans. However, by referring to them as ‘African’, it has been possible to give the impression that black people were living near Hadrian’s Wall 2000 years ago.

The same sleight of hand is used when referring to the Emperor Septimius Severus as ‘African’. The aim is to confuse people into believing he was black, which is why he is often mentioned during Black History Month and is sometimes even described as the ‘black’ emperor. Though he was born in the Roman colony of Leptis Magna, located in North Africa, his mother was Roman and his father Carthaginian. The Carthaginians themselves were colonists from Phoenicia, a region roughly corresponding to modern Lebanon. Therefore, he was certainly not black, and calling him ‘African’ is a bit of a stretch. Describing J. R. R. Tolkien as an ‘African writer’ or Joanna Lumley as an ‘Indian actress’ in the same way would likely cause laughter. Merely being born in a colonial possession does not make one African or Indian.

Another way of pretending that black Africans lived in Britain during the Roman era involves the use of Nazi race ‘science’. The Nazis had a penchant for measuring certain body parts, especially skulls, to determine which race people belonged to.  This was a popular means of assigning people to their rightful place in the hierarchy, be it Aryan or Jewish, Slavic or Gypsy, or Alpine European or Mediterranean. This pseudoscience, craniometry, has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years and is linked to the current attempts to prove that black people have lived in Britain for millennia.

In 2012, some old skeletons that had been discovered over the years near the seaside town of Eastbourne, on the south coast of England, were examined. A supposed facial reconstruction expert declared upon seeing one of the skulls that it belonged to a black person from sub-Saharan Africa. Her initial impression was confirmed when she measured it carefully and input the data into a computer programme called Fordisc. Lo and behold, the skeleton was identified as that of a black woman. Her findings were met with enthusiasm by those hoping to advance the idea of diversity in Roman Britain, and the news quickly spread across the country. David Olusoga, in the book mentioned earlier, wrote that the ‘Beachy Head Lady’, as she had been nicknamed due to the location where her skeleton had been found, was ‘the first black Briton known to us’. This claim, corroborated only by the measurements of an old skull, has appeared in countless texts and a plaque has even been erected near the site of the discovery to commemorate this important individual. 

Unfortunately, a study of 200 skeletons of known ancestry has revealed the Fordisc program to be hopelessly inaccurate: 

“The results of the analyses suggest that Fordisc's utility in research and medico-legal contexts is limited. Fordisc will only return a correct ancestry attribution when an unidentified specimen is more or less complete, and belongs to one of the populations represented in the program's reference samples. Even then Fordisc can be expected to classify no more than 1 per cent of specimens with confidence.”

Seven years later, a DNA sample from the skull was tested at the Francis Crick Institute, revealing that the Beachy Head Lady was of European descent, likely from Cyprus. Despite this, fanciful representations of her with black skin are still widely circulated on the internet. 

This whole business of attempting to modify the past to meet the demands of the present is bound to fail. It was tried for many years in Soviet Russia and is still seen today in countries like Iran and China. There is no evidence to suggest that any black person ever stepped foot in Britain during the Roman era, yet the fantasy continues to grow. Making black people, particularly children, feel welcome in this country may well be a praiseworthy and desirable aim, but it cannot be accomplished through lies and deception. One is reminded of the so-called ‘pious frauds’ of the Middle Ages, when it was considered permissible to make use of fake relics of saints if it drew people closer to their faith in God. Steve Moffat, the producer of the BBC television series Dr Who for some time, explained why he cast so many black people in the programme, by saying, “We’ve kind of got to tell a lie: we’ll go back into history and there will be black people where, historically, there wouldn’t have been, and we won’t dwell on that. We’ll say, ‘To hell with it, this is the imaginary, better version of the world. By believing in it, we’ll summon it forth’.” This is precisely what is being done by those who promote the fake history of the black Romans in Britain.