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Durant l’été 2017, une petite polémique historienne s’est développée en Angleterre à la suite de la diffusion d’un dessin animé de la BBC représentant un soldat romain de haut rang d’origine africaine.

Certains ont accusé la BBC de réécrire l’histoire pour répondre aux exigences du multiculturalisme contemporain ; D’autres considèrent au contraire que cette représentation de la diversité au sein de l’empire romain est tout à fait appropriée et que c’est plutôt notre époque qui est moins tolérante que l’antiquité romaine.

Afin de vous forger une opinion, vous pouvez commencer par regarder le dessin animé en question (5 min) en cliquant sur l’image ci-dessous : 


Quels chapitres allez-vous réviser ?

Quelques éléments à retenir

  • La présence de Nord-Africains en Angleterre (province de Bretagne) est attestée à l’époque de l’empire romain.
  • Plusieurs éléments permettent d’appuyer cette affirmation :
    • Des inscriptions qui indiquent l’origine des individus présents, comme par exemple celle de Victor, le Maure.
    • L’étude des dents retrouvées sur les sites archéologiques qui permettent de savoir si les individus venaient de régions plus chaudes ou plus froides.
    • L’étude des squelettes et traces d’ADN retrouvés sur les sites archéologiques qui permettent d’émettre des hypothèses sur l’origine etchnique des individus. C’est le cas par exemple de la dame au bracelet d’ivoire dont l’origine africaine ne laisse quasiment aucun doute.
  • Les Romains n’accordaient pas de réel importance à la couleur de peau ou à l’appartenance ethnique. Le fait de parler latin et l’appartenance à une catégorie sociale spécifique importaient davantage.

L’interview du professeur Hella ECKARDT de l’université de Reading publiée sur History Extra nous fournit quelques informations complémentaires pour comprendre les enjeux de ce dossier : 

Q. What do we know about ethnic diversity in Roman Britain?

A: There is no doubt at all that there were people from other parts of the world in Roman Britain. We don’t necessarily know what skin colour these people had, but we do know that there was movement; we have North Africans attested on Hadrian’s wall, for example. However, it’s very difficult to quantify exact numbers, as our evidence is full of uncertainties.

Q. What evidence is there to suggest that Roman Britain was ethnically diverse?

A: We have inscriptions which tell us where people were from. These might say, for example, that someone comes from North Africa or from Italy. There are a number of famous ones, like Victor ‘the Moor’, and Barates who came from Palmyra in the Syrian desert.

Other evidence is based on isotope analysis, which can involve looking at the chemical signatures preserved in teeth. The water and food that a person consumes shapes their isotopic signature, which gives us a rough indication of where they originally came from. At the moment, we can only say broadly that they were from somewhere cooler or warmer, and we can suggest whether someone is likely to have been a local or not. Most of the people we’ve looked at were from cooler areas, such as Germany or Poland, which makes sense because we know that mercenaries came from those areas to serve in the Roman army.

Another technique you can use is to look at the skull of an individual. By measuring its shape, you can say whether someone has African or Caucasian ancestry. For example, the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ appears to have some African ancestry but was living in Roman York.

You can also look at DNA: the DNA profile of another individual from York suggests that he was from the Middle East, and his isotopic signature is also very unusual.

Q. How did Romans think about ethnicity and race?

A: The Romans didn’t think of race in the way that it might be linked with social signifiers today. They weren’t particularly interested in skin colour, and it wasn’t something that they would write about a huge amount. They were more concerned about whether a person spoke Latin well, or whether they had the right sort of social position or rank.

Today, when we think about ethnicity, we are very much preoccupied with things like skin colour but in the past, that wouldn’t necessarily have been the case and factors such as language, education, wealth, kinship and place of origin were probably more important.

Q. What kind of life did migrants in Roman Britain lead? 

A: Often the skeletons we looked at were from very wealthy graves. For example, the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ was found in a stone sarcophagus alongside glass vessels and expensive jewellery. Our research is obviously biased because we focused on sampling unusual skeletons; however, it is likely that many migrants in this period were wealthy. They were also more likely to be the people in charge; after all, you’re more likely to be moving across the entire Roman empire if you’re involved in the Roman military or the Roman administration. There was even tourism – but all of that tended to be preserved for the elite of society. On the other hand, some people probably moved against their will, for example slaves and soldiers.

Dr Hella Eckardt is an associate professor in the archaeology department at the University of Reading. She has previously led a research project investigating the evidence for incomers in Romano-British towns and developed Romans Revealed, a teaching resource for children, using the results.