Hello, I’m Tahereh, and I’m honoured to be Eleanor’s guest this week. I write about mediaeval history with brown people. I’m currently working on a book/tv series, Berserker Queen, and I’m a contributing expert for Putting the Fact in Fantasy: Expert Advice to Bring Authenticity to Your Fantasy Writing, which came out last week. While researching the trade connections between Europe, Asia, and Africa, I learned there were a lot more people of colour in Europe than I’d ever imagined.
- There were multiple African Roman emperors. Septimus Severus, his son Caracalla, Macrinus and his son Diadumenian, to name a few.
- Troops at Hadrian’s wall in England came from all over the Roman world, with Syrians at one fort and Mauritanians at another.
- Not all African migrants to Roman Britain were low status and male (eg conscripts or gladiators.) The Ivory Bangle Lady was a wealthy African citizen of York in the 4th century.
- Contrary to propaganda, Vikings were not a ‘pure’ race. They intermarried all the time, and a large percentage of skeletons from viking burials have DNA from Southern Europe and Asia.
- The first official Chinese diplomats reached Rome in the second century CE, though traders likely arrived earlier. They knew the route well.
Septimus Severus was born at Leptis Magna, one of the leading cities of Roman Africa, in what is now Libya. He is the first Roman emperor to have been born in the provinces to a family of non-Italian origin. He’s shown here in the Severan Tondo with his Syrian wife and their two children.
Severus was Punic, the Semetic people associated with the destroyed city of Carthage. Semites include many groups from the ancient Levant, such as Akkadians, Phonecians, Jews, and Arabs. Macrinus was Amazigh, the nomadic people group of the Sahara desert, sometimes still known by the exonym ‘Berber.’ ‘Berber’ is a derogatory term deriving from the Roman word ‘Barbaros’ or ‘barbarian.’ The endonym they use for themselves is ‘Amazigh,’ for a singular person like Macrinus, and Imazighen in plural.
Hadrian’s wall in northern England was more porous and focused on trade than many people assume, and there were a broad variety of people present from throughout the Roman world. Graffiti along the wall–including no less than fifty-seven drawings of penises–gives a very human and personal insight to their minds and senses of humour.
The Historia Augusta mentions a specific incident between Septimus Severus and an Aethiopian soldier. Known in his cohort as a famous prankster, he trolled the Emperor by presenting him with a garland of cyprus boughs: an omen of death. This unsettled Severus enough to make it into the written record.
Black Noblewoman of York
The Ivory Bangle Lady was found buried in a stone sarcophagus with luxury items like a mirror, a blue glass perfume jar, and–most poignantly–a stunning set of contrasting black and white bangles made of Yorkshire jet and African elephant ivory. Chemical elements in the ivory bangle lady’s teeth show she was brought up in a warm, coastal climate, and her skull shape suggests mixed ancestry, including Black features. A decorative mount inscribed 'Hail Sister, May You Live in God' implies she may have been a very early Christian. Her remains show no sign of a tough or strenuous lifestyle, confirming she was likely wealthy.
The possibility of high-status non-white people in 4th century Britain has been met with hostility, and archaeologists studying her “struggle to strike a balance between speaking with authority and not wishing to "dictate" the "truth" about the past – the latter linked with imperialism and other repressive power structures.”
In deepest irony for those who would like to imagine Vikings to symbolize an insular white supremacist past, the basic idea of ‘being good sailors’ meant they travelled. ‘Viking’ is a profession–a raider or a pirate–not an ethnicity. They were defined by their mobility and did not include the bulk of the Scandinavian population back home.
Viking graves are littered with Muslim and even Buddhist grave goods. Intermarriage was frequent, if not always consensual: vikings engaged heavily in the slave trade, and often sought women in particular. Selective female infanticide and polygyny among the powerful may have led to a shortage of women and even the viking age itself: excess bachelors fought among themselves for narrow prospects, and eventually burst out of Scandinavia in search of wives elsewhere.
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