Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie
The remains of the Roman Empire are found throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East- aqueducts, stadiums, roads, temples, and cemeteries dot the modern landscapes of many European countries. Their grasp on this continent is astounding, especially when you consider that much of their movement was done on foot and by horse. Not only were they widespread, they made tangible marks on the land they conquered and the people that fell under their control. Roadways connected what were once distant and foreign lands, allowing ancient tourists, administrators and armies to make their way through the empire. The presence of these foreigners in Imperial lands is often evidenced through letters, text and art made by themselves or referring to them. Another way we find them, is through their burials. Grave goods and preferences have allowed us to locate foreigners who chose to be buried according to the standards of their homeland, not the lands that they died in. The problem is that text doesn’t necessarily represent reality since text was primarily written by elite males and we haven’t found textual evidence everywhere. Further complicating the story is that many foreigners assimilated into their new regions to better fit with the natives, or natives adopted foreign habits to better fit with the new conquerors.
So how do we locate these mobile Romans who set out from their homeland in search of employment or work, power and glory, or exotic adventures?
Eckardt Müldner and Lewis (2014) use burial practices and stable isotope analysis to identify different groups of people found in Roman Britain in an effort to distinguish migrants and natives. They argue that using this evidence, there are four distinct groups that can be identified:
- Individuals who were buried in a manner that suggests foreign origin and stable isotope analysis supports this
- Individuals with local burial practices, but stable isotope analysis suggests that they are foreign
- Individuals who were buried in a manner that suggests foreign origin, but the stable isotope analysis suggests they are local
- Individuals with native burial practices whose stable isotope analysis supports local origin
While the categories themselves appear to be simple enough, it isn’t easy to slot people into them. First, preservation isn’t always great in Britain, and many artifacts don’t survive in the archaeological record. Further, not all people are buried with artifacts at all due to either religious preference, status, or choice. It can be difficult to determine if a burial rite is local or foreign when there isn’t any tangible evidence within the grave. Second, stable isotope analysis isn’t a perfect science. While the isotopic signature may signal that the individual is local, many areas in Britain have similar ratios to areas in Wales, Western Europe and even the Mediterranean. While it is most likely that a local isotopic signature equals local origin, we need to be careful about our interpretations. Third, identifying origin becomes more difficult when you consider that many of the foreigners in Britain were soldiers. The armies of the Roman Empire were made up of people from across Europe and Africa who identified themselves with the army rather than with their home territory. Finally, while it has been suggested that food patterns may differentiate foreign from local, with foreigners trying to maintain their traditional eating patterns, the evidence seems to point to change and adoption rather than continuity.
Travel and migration was a pivotal part of the success of the Roman Empire. We know that thousands of people were moved across the landscape, into new territories where they established trade route, created administrative networks, or settled into a new home. There is evidence that these migrants kept some of their traditions, brought technology with them, and shared their goods. However, the overwhelming evidence shows that the identities of these migrants were flexible, and either matched the broader identity of the empire or blended with the local identity.
What this study highlights is the complexity and problems with trying to separate migrants from locals, and that perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. We should instead be looking at the interesting ways in which these people combined their practices, created new identities, and adopted portions of the broader Roman identity. Migrants were not just Romans who moved to Britain. They had unique identities that set them apart from their homeland and their new region. They weren’t simply displaced Romans, they were blended unique populations of migrants who brought their own traditions, new traditions from their travel, and combined these in unique ways with the native culture.
Eckardt, H., Müldner, G., & Lewis, M. (2014). People on the move in Roman Britain World Archaeology, 46 (4), 534-550 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.2014.931821