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: