Black History Month: Did African soldiers patrol Scotland in the Roman era?

The view that soldiers from North Africa may have been stationed along the Antonine Wall around the 2nd Century AD has intensified following the discovery of new evidence linked to the most northerly Roman frontier.

Here, for Black History Month, Dr Rebecca Jones, head of archaeology and world heritage at Historic Environment and Dr Louisa Campbell, from the University of Glasgow, explain the thinking behind the African connection.

The Antonine Wall, running from the Firth of Forth in the east to the Firth of Clyde in the West, was Rome’s north-western frontier for a generation in the mid-2nd century AD. It was built by the governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus under the orders of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the successor to Hadrian.

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A stretch of the Antonine Wall, the most northerly frontier of the Roman Empire, which runs from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. Research suggests soldiers from North Africa were stationed at its forts. PIC: Courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland.

The Wall was home to soldiers from around an Empire which stretched from Scotland to the deserts of North Africa.

Although not a term in use at the time, nowadays we would regard the Roman Empire as multicultural. Rome was a mosaic of cultural diversity and was home to people from many different countries. Those who became part of the empire continued to worship their own gods and maintain their cultural traditions.

Army regiments were organised based on ethnic identity. Regiments posted along the Antonine Wall were filled with soldiers from across the Empire.

The construction of the frontier was led by Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who descended from modern-day Syria. PIC: Courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland.

Tungrians (from modern-day Belgium) and Vardullians (from Spain) were stationed at Castlecary fort.

Thracians from Bulgaria manned Mumrills fort. Hamian archers from Syria could be found at the centre of the Wall in Bar Hill fort.

The Syrian connection was well known and Lollius Urbicus was originally from Numidia (modern day Algeria).

But in the 1990s, the late Dr Vivien Swan identified pottery from various sites on the Antonine Wall of a north African style. One particular form of casserole dish may have been a precursor to the modern tagine. Other dishes were of a brazier style, a type of cooking more popular in north-west Africa than northern Europe.

With this evidence, it was argued that potters with first hand knowledge of north African pottery and soldiers who wished to cook in a north African style must have been at the Wall. The north African connection was born.

Ancient historians record Antoninus Pius dealing with a war in Mauretania (roughly modern-day Morocco). It has been suggested that soldiers involved in this war returned to Britain with some of the locals, perhaps to replace losses during the war or perhaps as slaves. However, this theory did not receive universal acceptance. Others have claimed that potters working at the Antonine Wall were simply well-travelled and knew how to work in north African styles.

A recent discovery has provided fresh evidence for the Antonine Wall’s African connection.

When soldiers were discharged from the army they received a document inscribed in bronze, known as a military diploma. The diploma would often reward the recipient with Roman citizenship as reward for their service.

Thanks to Professor David Breeze and Dr Paul Holder, we now know of a recently discovered military diploma suggesting that the First Cohort of Baetasians were involved in the war in Mauretania. This regiment was also stationed at Bar Hill and Old Kilpatrick.

We cannot confirm with absolute certainty that people from north-western Africa were stationed on the Antonine Wall. But it seems highly likely that there was movement of soldiers between the two provinces. This may be an explanation for the pottery and cooking styles recorded along the Wall. Further research can illuminate this intriguing theory.

This article first appeared on the Historic Environment Scotland blog.