A few days ago I had the great pleasure of visiting Ribchester Roman fort to film a thematic collecting interview about migration with Dr Duncan Sayer who is Reader in Archaeology in the Department of Forensic and Applied Science at the University of Central Lancashire. There is quite a long history of archaeological interest in Ribchester, not least because of wonderful discoveries such as the Roman cavalry helmet now in the British Museum and the tombstone of a Roman cavalryman.
The current excavations inside the fort made an interesting backdrop to the interview. Duncan told me about the different regiments that had been garrisoned at Ribchester during the Roman period. Soldiers from the 20th Legion built the fort during the 70s AD to control the strategic river crossing nearby. Auxiliary cavalryman from northern Spain – the Asturians – and later Sarmatians from what is now Hungary in eastern Europe held the fort in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
When we talk about “the Roman Army” you might expect that most of the soldiers if not from Rome itself were at least Italians but this is not the case. Many auxiliary soldiers were recruited from the provinces and allied peoples who provided specialised skills, such as horse riding or archery, which the Romans valued. The auxiliaries served in the army for 25 years in return for Roman citizenship, which indicates how highly citizen rights were valued. In Manchester Museum’s archaeology collection we have an auxiliary diploma or citizenship award that was presented to a man who originally came from Syria. It was found at Ravenglass in Cumbria.
In the interview Duncan spoke about the relationships between soldiers and the local people. Although the soldiers could not be legally married they formed long-term relationships with local women and had children. When they completed their service these relationships were formalised. Any sons wanting to follow in their fathers’ footsteps would join the legions as citizens. The Spanish and later the Hungarians may have received fresh recruits from home but over time the pattern shifted and local men joined the regiments.
Inscriptions provide evidence for Spaniards, Syrians, Hungarians and many other peoples in Roman Britain. Earlier thematic collecting interviews have featured Swiss and Noricans, again from eastern Europe. This provides an interesting counterpoint to the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in which immigration was a significant issue for some voters. Archaeologically and historically Ribchester and many other Roman sites in Britain provide clear evidence of the movement of people from all over Europe and beyond almost 2,000 years ago. This mixing of different peoples and cultures throughout history has made us who we are today. The discoveries at Ribchester provide a little perspective in the debate about immigration in the immediate aftermath of the referendum vote.