Fresh from the success of confirming the identity of the skeleton in the car park in Leicester as the remains of Richard III, and hot on the heels of the documentary about Eddie Izzard’s genetic ancestry, another DNA research breakthrough was announced about 10 days ago. In The Daily Telegraph (23rd February 2013) it was reported that up to a million Britons carry genetic signatures that are commonly found in and are likely to have their origin in Italy. The DNA marker R1b-S28 is thought to come from men who served in the Roman army.
I have to confess I am a tad sceptical about this. After all it’s not so long ago that claims were made on the basis of DNA studies that the Etruscans really were descended from people who left Lydia or western Turkey to settle in northern Italy as was claimed by some writers. Later it was revealed that the DNA link went back much much earlier and it reflected the fact that people recolonized Europe after the last Ice Age over ten thousand years ago from warmer refuges in western Asia. Most Italians had the Asian DNA not just those living in northern Italy because they were mainly descended from a small population of ancestors who’d lived in the same refuge before the last Ice Age.
The claim in The Daily Telegraph seems to assume that all the men in the Roman army were Romans or at the very least Italian. However, detailed research on the Roman army over many years has shown that it was ethnically an extremely diverse organisation. ‘Odds and sods’ of all sorts as Mark Hassall once put it. The number of soldiers fluctuated but much of the time there were three legions numbering in total 15,000-18,000 men in Britain and at least as many auxiliaries. The auxiliaries were recruited from peoples who had been incorporated in the empire or who supplied troops under a treaty obligation. After serving for 25 years the auxiliaries received Roman citizenship. One of our best sources of information about ethnicity in the Roman Empire is epigraphy or the study of inscriptions. Gauls, Spaniards, Moors, Germans, Syrians and many other peoples are attested. For example, for a time here in Manchester the garrison of the Roman fort consisted of men from Raetia and Noricum (Switzerland and the modern Styria, Carinthia, Salzburg, and part of Austria and Bavaria in eastern central Europe). Once these men had become Roman citizens their sons would have been eligible to serve in the legions. This being so, we should expect a diverse DNA profile.
Even if we focus on the legions, historically the recruitment shifted over time from Italy to the provinces, although these men must have been the sons and grandsons of men who were Romans and Italians in the late Republic/early Empire. Later as the sons of auxiliaries awarded Roman citizenship became eligible to serve in the legions a broader genetic catchment must have had an influence.
One of the best examples we have here in the Museum’s Ancient Worlds displays of ethnicity in the Roman army is a fragmentary bronze auxiliary diploma from Ravenglass in Cumbria. This official record showed the recipient has been awarded Roman citizenship after serving the requisite number of years. We don’t know the man’s name. That bit of the diploma hasn’t survived, sadly, but we do know he came from Syria.
The date he was demobbed – in the reign of Antoninus Pius – suggests he was recruited in the early 130s AD. In his publication of the diploma Paul Holder, who works at the Rylands Library, suggested that the most likely historical circumstance in which this man was recruited is the suppression of the Jewish revolt in 132-5 AD. Afterwards the man came back to Britain with his unit and, because his diploma was found in the North West, he must have stayed here. Like another easterner, Barates, the Palmyran who married his former slave, the British woman Regina or Queenie (her tombstone is at South Shields), the Syrian on the Ravenglass diploma probably put down roots. Maybe he got married, had children, and ran a business in a vicus or civilian settlement attached to a fort. Could Syrian DNA be identified in the populaton of northern Britain? The numbers involved were probably not large. A cohort of Hamian archers on Hadrian’s Wall numbered 480 men. However, in the First World War Yemeni sailors settled at South Shields and married local women. 1800 years earlier Tigris boatmen had been garrisoned at Arbeia. Just a thought.