In the second century of the Common Era, the Roman Empire stretched from the Red Sea (Mare Rubrum where the southernmost Roman Legion was stationed at the Limes Arabicus on the Gulf of Aqaba) to deep in the Scottish Highlands (where the Antonine Wall bisected the British Isle from the Firth of Forth to the Irish Sea).
Stunning really. Just look at the world today, fragmented, at odds, in retreat, and contrast that with a world (equally as barbaric of course as anything we know today) where such a broad swathe of humanity looked to Caesar in Rome, for better or for worse.
These things are known. We also know that the influence of the Empire stretched far beyond the imperial borders. Rome’s merchants actively traded with far flung lands, down the African coast, to Yemen, India and even to Asia where the Roman presence has been well documented (where, for example, a splendid piece of Roman glass was uncovered last year in an ancient Japanese burial mound).
Yet a find announced this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science reveals the discovery of skeletons in an ancient Roman cemetery in South London – the Roman’s Londinium – that appear to have belonged to two men of Chinese origins – proves that the Romans retain the ability to surprise.
Chinese in Londinium in the 2nd Century! Moreover, two additional skeletons of African descent were also found in the same small cemetery after sampling dental enamel from 20 sets of human remains from between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE. Who were they? Where did they come from? Did they travel there of their own free will, or as soldiers or slaves (or as the native born descendants of any of the above)? These questions remain unanswered though scientists and archaeologists continue to explore little Southwark, mere steps away from Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.
The City of London is known as a cosmopolitan place and much was made of immigration in the recent debate over Brexit, as immigration is being discussed in much of the Western world. The argument goes that the City was once a certain, way, and then immigration changed the fundamental nature of things. These skeletons provide an interesting wrinkle that will not change the discussion but perhaps it should.
Here we have proof that nearly 2000 years ago the Romans were able to create and sustain a world in which travelers from the opposite side of the planet could comfortably travel and did so, from China (which the Romans knew as Serica, its people as Seres) to Londinium. The find also weakens the previously held view that Roman-era London was a parochial, homogeneous place.
It would appear that London has been cosmopolitan ever since it was Londinium, back in the mists of time.
And that seems something to celebrate.
For more on this find see the following link:
Archaeologists digging on Mount Zion just unearthed a truly beautiful Roman coin, exceptionally rare both for its quality, condition and the era in which it
was minted (and lost).
The coin (see below) depicts the Emperor Nero, the last Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and was estimated to have been minted and buried in approximately 56CE, just over a decade before Jerusalem was leveled by the
Romans during the devastating Revolt. The coin was unearthed on the grounds of a private villa that was sat on the slopes of Mount Zion and that was almost certainly razed during the subsequent destruction of the city by the Roman Army as the team of archaeologists from the University of North Carolina who said:
“This mansion and others like it were utterly destroyed by Titus and the Roman legions, when Jerusalem was razed to the ground,” he said. “It is likely
– owing to the intrinsic value of the gold coin – [that] it was hidden away ahead of the destruction of the city, and was missed by the marauding and looting Roman soldiers.”
A coin of this quality is very rarely found and it is particularly interesting given the fact that it points to the Romans’ presence in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70CE).
For more on this discovery see this link to the Jerusalem Post.
The milestones allowed the traveller to know precisely where they stood in relation to their departure point and destination, long before our slavish devotion to smart phones and GPS.
In what had been Roman Africa, stolen by the Vandals 100 years before, there stood such a stone on the approach to Carthage from the east on the ancient Roman highway that ran along the coast. It was the tenth milestone from Carthage, known simply as Decimum Miliare (the tenth mile).
At the tenth milestone (Ad Decimum), on this day – September 13th of 533 – the Roman Army led by General Flavius Belisarius met the Vandal King Gaiseric in a battle that would change the course of history.
The world fully expected the Romans to fail as Roman armies had failed in the field against the Vandals and their Germanic ‘barbarian’ cousins for generations. The Romans were 1,000 miles from home – having set sail with an invasion armada for the first time in decades (on ships that were specially built for the purpose since Rome no longer possessed a deep water navy). If they lost to the Vandals there would be no retreat and no hope of reinforcements. The Western Roman Empire had already ceased to exist with Romulus Augustulus’ abdication in 476 (in great part due to the Vandal theft of Africa and their brutal sack of the City of Rome). If Belisarius lost the battle at the tenth milestone, the Eastern Roman Empire would be in grave jeopardy.
Belisarius and his Roman knights would triumph at Decimum Miliare against all odds and went on to extinguish the upstart Vandal kingdom and to bring Africa back into the Roman fold. This was the first in a string of stunning victories engineered by Belisarius that would restore much of the lost Western Empire in the name of the reigning Caesar, the Emperor Justinian. These recuperated lands (Africa, Italy, parts of Gaul and Hispania) would remain part of the Roman Empire until after Justinian’s death – the moment when the ancient world truly ended and the Dark Ages began.
This moment, the battle that became known as Ad Decimum, figures prominently in the second book of the Legend of Africanus series: Avenging Africanus (available at amazon.com here).
For those that would like to read more of the military history of Ad Decimum, see the excellent Byzantine Military blog by clicking here.