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African Romans in Britain

Roman Britain was actually a multi-cultural society that included newcomers and locals with African ancestry and dual heritage.

Woman in light blue top looking down on skeletonal remains from a Roman tomb. The skull is placed in the middle of the display and other bones are arranged around it.
Musem of London curator Merie Jeater with a Roman skull of a 36-45 year old woman with Black African ancestry.

The Roman Empire was the largest empire of the ancient world. At its peak in the early 2nd century AD, its territories stretched from northern England in the far north to the borders of modern-day Sudan in the far south and from Portugal in the far west to the Persian Gulf in the far east. As a direct result of the vast territories, the Roman Empire was an extremely ethnically diverse and multicultural place. But, likely, you weren't taught this at school.

In 1901, a skeleton that would later be called the 'Ivory Bangle Lady' was discovered in a stone sarcophagus buried underneath a main road in York. The skeleton was of a wealthy mixed-race young woman - probably from North Africa - who held a high status in a diverse city. Entirely at odds with traditional views of Roman Britain.

The Ivory Bangle Lady came from a group of graves excavated in 1901, located on what would have been the approach to the Roman city of Eboracum, modern-day York. The burials were dated to the second half of the 4th century AD, and many had rich grave goods. But she had one of the richest graves found, which ultimately turns on its head the perception that Africans in Roman Britain were slaves.

In 2010, the University of Reading re-examined the skeletons from Roman burial sites in Gloucester, Winchester, and York and discovered a greater population mix in Roman Britain than had previously been imagined. One in 5 of the Roman Britons were 'non-locals' hailing from other parts of the Roman empire. Some of them had African ancestry such as the young woman called the Ivory Bangle Lady.

Using ancestry assessment they found that the skeleton of the Ivory Bangle Lady was a young woman aged between 18-23 years with a mixture of 'black' and 'white' ancestral traits, and isotope analysis revealed that she had spent her early years in a warmer climate whilst her skull shape suggested she had some North African ancestry. Taken together with the evidence of an unusual burial rite and grave goods, the evidence all pointed to a high-status incomer to Roman York. It seems likely that the Ivory Bangle Lady was of North African descent, and may have migrated to York from somewhere warmer, possibly the Mediterranean.

The Ivory Bangle Lady had one of the richest graves and was buried with bracelets, earrings, pendants, beads, a blue glass jug, likely to contain cosmetics or perfume, and a glass mirror. The most famous object was a rectangular openwork mount of bone, possibly from an unrecorded wooden casket, which read "Hail, sister, may you live in God", indicating Christian beliefs. All indicating that she held a high-ranking position within Roman York.

Her bracelets were made of Yorkshire jet which probably came from Whitby and African ivory – and is perhaps the most potent image of the multi-cultural Britain of that time.

Hella Eckhardt, a senior lecturer at the department of archaeology at Reading University, said "Multi-cultural Britain is not just a phenomenon of more modern times. Analysis of the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady' and others like her, contradicts common popular assumptions about the make-up of Roman-British populations as well as the view that African immigrants in Roman Britain were of low status, male, and likely to have been slaves. Instead, it is clear that both women and children moved across the Empire, often associated with the military."

In fact, cosmopolitan Eboracum was home to Severus and his troops nearly 200 years earlier. Lucius Septimius Severus was a Roman emperor from 193 to 211. He was born in Leptis Magna (present-day Libya) in the Roman province of Africa. In 208, Severus travelled to Britain with an army of over 40,000 troops to take Caledonia (now known as Scotland).

His army contained troops from North Africa, some of whom were positioned in north Cumbria – near Hadrian’s Wall. We know this from a 4th-century inscription discovered at Burgh-by-Sands close to the fort along the western end of the wall. This inscription along with another piece of evidence, a list of Roman dignitaries, both refer to a unit of “Aurelian Moors”, soldiers collected from the Roman province of Mauretania in North Africa, modern Morocco, who had previously garrisoned the fort in the 3rd century. The unit was named in honour of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius of Gladiator fame and could well have been up to 500 strong. These soldiers are likely to have settled in the area and had families there.

Other archaeological discoveries have also shown an African presence in Roman Britain. In London, a study by the Museum of London of a Roman cemetery from Southwark revealed that some of the skeletal remains were adult individuals with Black African ancestry, all of whom appeared to have travelled from the southern Mediterranean. One skeleton was identified as a 36-45 year old woman who was buried with pottery made in southeast England.

While in Leicester, work on a part of a large Roman cemetery revealed burials back to the 2nd century AD. Five of the 83 skeletons found had African cranial features – two of which, including a child, appeared to have been born in the Roman province of Britannia.

All of which paints a picture of a Roman Britain that was a lot more diverse than previously believed. Evidence of an African presence in Roman Britain is now well documented and is now being incorporated by museums into displays and educational content.


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