Romans in Africa, Africans in Rome

Druisius is a palace guard and a musician, and were my world real, he’d be of African origin.

We first meet my character Druisius in the last third of Empire’s Exile, when he’s assigned to guard the party of travellers from the lost West who have unexpectedly arrived in Casil. (If you’re new to my series or this blog, Casil is an analogue of Rome, in most ways.) Druisius is a palace guard and a musician, and were my world real, he’d be of African origin.

“I am different.” He was, of course, his dark skin making him stand out in Linrathe and Sorham. In Ésparias, where men from the southern coast and Leste served on the Wall, his appearance wasn’t remarkable, a matter of degree rather than sharp contrast.

Empire’s Reckoning

The Phoenicians, Greece and then Rome had traded with north and northwest Africa from about 900 BCE (Carthage was founded about 800 BCE) and among the trade goods were grain and salt, olive oil, gold and pottery. Rome controlled north Africa for about 500 years.

https://anthrogenica.com/showthread.php?705-Roman-Africa

But goods from further south were also brought to Carthage and other trading centres, and Rome, always looking for efficiencies, sent perhaps up to five expeditions into sub-Saharan Africa. (They also wanted, at one point, to circumnavigate the continent, but that appears to not have happened.)

In 21 BC, Lucius Cornelius Balbus, Proconsul of Africa, sent troops as far south as the Niger River (Manding: Jeliba or Joliba “great river”; Igbo: Orimiri or Orimili “great water”;  Tuareg: Egerew n-Igerewen “river of rivers“) in part to subdue the Garamantes people who had a nasty habit of disrupting trade caravans passing through their territories. Sixty or so years later, Suetonius Paulinus led an army across the Atlas range and possibly to the borders of modern-day Senegal. Two expeditions to Lake Chad occurred in the first century CE, and possibly one that travelled into modern-day Nigeria.

Roman military leaders kept detailed records (ok, Rome kept records of everything, pretty well) and much of what we know of these explorations comes from Pliny the Elder. But archaeological evidence also suggests that trade continued well after Rome declined as a world power. Analysis of copper-based objects in Burkina Faso shows the origin of the ore to be in the Eastern Mediterranean, and dating from the 3rd to 7th C of the common era.

So – back to Druisius. Rome was a cosmopolitan city; its colonies were, too, in part because one of its strategies was to send legions of young men far away from home, where they couldn’t lead rebellions against their land’s Roman rulers. Historian and archaeologist Anthony Birley, in his book Septimius Severus: The African Emperor notes that between 193 and 211 CE eight men of African origin commanded Roman legions in the north. Severus himself was of Libyan origin, and is portrayed in contemporary portraits as dark-skinned.  So there is nothing unusual about Druisius in my city of Casil.

Septimus Severus and his family. Tempera on wood. Acquired from Egypt in 1932 CE. from Roman Egypt c. 200 CE. It is on display at the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

But as my readers know, I build my world on detailed research. And in the work-in-progress (really, a work-in-planning) my characters return to Casil, and Druisius and his family will have a larger role. I know very little about early-medieval cultures of north Africa, and less about those further south. They may be Casilani traders now, but Druisius’s family would have mementos and traditions from their own culture, and I want those to be as reflective of reality as I can make them. So it’s time for a good chunk of research, made harder by the COVID-driven closure of my university’s library…but not too hard to work around that in this electronic age. I’m looking forward to learning something new.

The featured image is a bust of the Emperor Caracalla, Septimus Severus’s son. His mother, Julia Domna, was Syrian.