In the original description (which the BBC has since changed), the family depicted was described as a “typical family:
The video presents a black person as a high-status Roman officer and, according to the description above, as the head of a “typical family”:
But why on earth is a person who appears to be a sub-Saharan African (or possibly an indigenous North African) being depicted as a head of a “typical family” in Roman Britain?
To be “typical,” this entails that this is what the average family looked like, whether of Roman personnel in Britain or of all people in Roman Britain generally, and that in turn entails that the majority of Roman personnel or the majority of all people in Roman Britain were sub-Saharan Africans or indigenous North Africans.
Such an idea is, of course, outrageously nonsensical.
And citing evidence of some few sub-Saharan Africans or indigenous North Africans in Britain cannot possibly prove that the majority of Roman personnel or the majority of all people in Roman Britain were of that ethnic identity.
The British Classicist Mary Beard defended the BBC in various Tweets on Twitter and in this TLS article here.
Her Tweet here produced a great deal of criticism:
So what was the meaning of this Tweet? Was Mary Beard suggesting that a family headed by a sub-Saharan African or indigenous North African was a “typical family” in Roman Britain and the majority of people were like this?
A review of her Twitter feed and the TLS article here (see also here) shows that Beard quickly tried to oppose the criticisms of her Tweet by saying her defence only meant that the idea that a Roman family headed by a black man in Britain was “possible,” or that there is some evidence of low-level ethnic diversity in Roman Britain (neither of which reasonable people dispute).
Mary Beard also suggested that the black man was “loosely based …on Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a man from what is now Algeria, who became governor of Britain,” even though Quintus Lollius Urbicus was a North African Berber, and the idea that Berber families were “typical” of Roman Britain is also laughable.
The main issue that critics of the cartoon were pointing to is this: how can a family headed by a sub-Saharan African (or possibly an indigenous North African) possibly have been a “typical family” in Roman Britain, when that requires that most people were like this?
Instead of honestly answering this question, the social media debate quickly got side-tracked into secondary issues, such as whether there was ethnic diversity and foreigners in Roman Britain at all (and clearly there was some kind of low-level ethnic diversity on Roman Britain).
Is there even one high-profile Classicist or ancient historian in Britain today who has the courage and intellectual honesty to state that the BBC’s video was an outrageous travesty of history? Is there any such Classicist or ancient historian capable of saying publicly that “of course it is ridiculous and politically correct nonsense to state, as the BBC did, that a family headed by a sub-Saharan African (or indigenous North African) was a “typical family” in Roman Britain in the sense of being average.”
Well, maybe there are such people, but I’ve yet to see one.
Most damning for all the apologists for the BBC is that they quietly went and changed the description in the original video to this:
Well, well, well. It’s almost like the BBC realise their original description was absurd. But can modern classicists admit this too? Can Mary Beard admit this?
And note well: this was the major issue that critics of the BBC had, and all other points are secondary or minor. But – be that as it may – let us now turn to some minor issues.
1. The Historia Augusta, the Ethiopian, and Black Skin as a Bad Omen
In the various Twitter debates, there was discussion of a passage in an ancient Latin source called the Historia Augusta, a series of imperial biographies probably written in the late 4th or early 5th century BC.
In this work, there is a biography of the emperor Septimius Severus, who ruled from 14 April 193 to 4 February 211, and he died in Eboracum (York) in Britain. This biography describes the last years of Severus’ life when he was on campaign in Britain, and troubled by omens of his own death.
A passage from Severus’ biography was used by Beard in her TLS article here to prove that there were blacks in Roman Britain.
The passage runs as follows, with the Latin first and a translation from the online Loeb Classical Library edition of 1921, but with a revised translation of the important part at the end:
post m[a]urum apud vallum vis[s]um in Brittannia cum ad proximam mansionem rediret non solum victor sed etiam in aeternum pace fundata volvens animo, quid [h]ominis sibi occurreret, Aethiops quidam e numero militari, clarae inter scurras famae et celebratorum semper iocorum, cum corona e cupressu facta eidem occurrit. 22.5 quem cum ille iratus removeri ab oculis praecepisset et coloris eius tactus omine et coronae, dixisse ille dicitur ioci causa: ‘totum fudisti, totum vicisti, 22.6 iam deus esto victor.’Apart from minor textual issues easily resolved, the Latin of the crucial highlighted part, with its correlative conjunction “et ... et” construction, is clear enough: et coloris eius tactus omine et coronae.
“4. On another occasion, when he [sc. Severus] was returning to his nearest quarters from an inspection of the wall at Luguvallum in Britain, at a time when he had not only proved victorious but had concluded a perpetual peace, just as he was wondering what omen would present itself, an Ethiopian soldier, who was famous among buffoons and always a notable jester, met him with a garland of cypress-boughs. 5. And when Severus in a rage ordered that the man be removed from his sight, troubled as he was by the omen both of the man’s colour and of the garland, the Ethiopian by way of jest cried, it is said, ‘You have been all things, you have conquered all things, now, O conqueror, be a god.’”
Assuming that the story is even real (and the major modern biographer of Severus raises doubts: see Birley 1988: 184), what does this story prove?
It certainly does not prove that the majority of Roman personnel in Britain were sub-Saharan Africans. And the context of the passage suggests that seeing a black man in the British army was an unusual sight, because if sub-Saharan Africans were common and in large numbers in Britain, then why would Severus have been surprised or startled to meet one?
The passage also shows that the Romans had a superstitious fear of black skin, because black was regarded as an ill-omened colour (Snowden 2001: 260).
Recent work by Starks (2011) presents evidence that this was by no means an unusual attitude amongst the Romans at all, and that colour prejudice was also a prevalent social phenomenon:
Even worse, we have evidence of another episode like this that occurred in 42 BC before the second battle of Philippi in the army of Marcus Junius Brutus.
The translation below from Plutarch’s Life of Brutus follows the Loeb Classical Library edition of 1918, but with an emended translation of the crucial passage (and the Greek text following):
“48.1. On that night, they say, the phantom visited Brutus again, manifesting the same appearance as before, but went away without a word. 2. Publius Volumnius, however, a philosopher, and a companion of Brutus in all his campaigns, makes no mention of this omen, but says that the foremost standard was covered with bees; …. 4. He says also that just before the battle itself two eagles fought a pitched battle with one another in the space between the camps, and as all were gazing at them, while an incredible silence reigned over the plain, the eagle towards Brutus gave up the fight and fled. 5. And the story of the Ethiopian is well known, who, as the gate of the camp was thrown open, met the standard-bearer, and was cut to pieces by the soldiers, because they thought [him] an omen.” (ὁ δ᾽ Αἰθίοψ περιβόητος γέγονεν, ὁ τῆς πύλης ἀνοιχθείσης ἀπαντήσας τῷ φέροντι τὸν ἀετὸν καὶ κατακοπεὶς ταῖς μαχαίραις ὑπὸ τῶν στρατιωτῶν οἰωνισαμένων).The same story is recorded by the ancient historians Appian (The Civil Wars 4.17.134) and Florus (Epitome of Roman History 18.104.22.168–8).
Plutarch, Brutus, 48.1–5
Both of the passages above suggest that your average Roman solider was so superstitious that the sight of a black man before some crucial moment (like a battle) was considered a terribly bad omen. In fact, in the case of the soldiers of Brutus, the soldiers slaughtered the poor African man on the spot in a murderous assault.
So why, then, would Romans import large numbers of sub-Saharan Africans into their armies if they were so superstitious? Such evidence suggests that blacks in general were likely to have been a tiny minority in the Roman army, and not common at all.
2. The Ethnicity of the Emperor Septimius Severus
Mary Beard in her TLS article here stated that “Even in the case of Septimius Severus, the first Roman emperor from Africa (Libya), we don’t actually know the colour of his skin, how far he was ‘native’, how far the descendent of Italian settler.”
And yet Anthony Birley – the major scholarly biographer of the emperor Septimius Severus – established that Septimius Severus was descended from Roman Italian colonists in north Africa on his mother’s side and wealthy Punic (or Punic-Libyan) magnates in Leptis Magna on his father’s side (see Birley 1988: 8, 212–226; see here). This means that, at most, Septimius Severus would have had swarthy skin like the southern Italians or the native people of North Africa. It is absurd to claim that Septimius Severus would have had black skin like sub-Saharan Africans. We also have portrait statues of Septimius Severus, and he does not look like a sub-Saharan African.
Thus Mary Beard – if she bothered to read Anthony Birley’s Septimius Severus: The African Emperor (1988; rev. edn. 1999) – was being straightforwardly disingenuous when she asserted that “Even in the case of Septimius Severus, the first Roman emperor from Africa (Libya), we don’t actually know the colour of his skin, how far he was ‘native’, how far the descendent of Italian settler.” The genealogy established by modern research, however, does allow us to talk about Severus’ ancestry with reasonable confidence, and his skin colour.
Birley, Anthony. 1988. The African Emperor: Septimius Severus (rev. edn.). B. T. Batsford, London.
Snowden, Frank M. 2001. “Attitudes towards Blacks in the Greek and Roman World: Misinterpretations of the Evidence,” in Edwin M. Yamauchi (ed.), Africa and Africans in Antiquity. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing. 246–275.
Starks, John H., Jr. 2011. “Was Black Beautiful in Vandal Africa?,” in Daniel Orrells, Gurminder K. Bhambra, and Tessa Roynton (eds.), African Athena: New Agendas. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 239–257.