The British Museum houses a Roman altar dedicated in Cumbria during the second or third century, by a man named Gaius Cornelius Peregrinus. We don’t know much about Peregrinus, but the inscription states that he was the commander of an auxiliary garrison, and hailed from Mauretania Caesariensis – modern-day Algeria.
The Romans annexed Britain in AD 43. To integrate their new province, they stuffed a few legions in there and got them warding off barbarians and building roads. The thing about Roman legions is that they weren’t comprised wholly of ethnic Romans. Instead, the Romans recruited auxiliaries from myriad provinces with specialist skills. If you were a provincial, you could get serious benefits from the army – namely, gaining Roman citizenship after years of service. Your blood could go from hillbilly nobody to crème-de-la-crème within 25 years.
Peregrinus went through this process. When you became a citizen, you took the first two names of the man who freed you, and kept yours as the last name. But peregrinus isn’t just a name; it’s a word for non-Roman provincial freemen. Peregrinus’ name tells his story: he was a former provincial and new African Roman citizen, living in Britain.
Given evidence of success stories like this strewn across modern-day Britain, it’s no surprise that the prolific Professor Mary Beard supported a BBC cartoon’s depiction of a black legionnaire’s family in Roman Britain.
The responses she faced were alarming. Twitter warriors rained insults on her, ridiculing her expertise as “elitism”, “historical inaccuracy”, and “leftist propaganda”. This response is indicative of the growing anti-intellectualism of our age. Complete nobodies with a Twitter account, whose entire education on Roman history consists of watching Gladiator, unashamedly argue with a historian who has dedicated over 40 years of her life to studying this civilisation.
Yet the larger issue the Beard incident raises is the lengths to which racists will go to deny the existence of people of colour in western history in order to hold on to the mythic ideal of a pure, white Rome.
To the ‘alt-right’, Rome represents the peak of Western civilisation. A time when the white man conquered, enslaved, and subjugated ‘barbarians’. Our society, which sees these very ‘barbarians’ as our equals in the false name of multiculturalism¸ has fallen from that ‘glory’.
Nazi iconography recalled this vision, relying heavily on Roman imagery. The National Socialists emblazoned their emblem with an eagle clutching a wreath crown. As the eagle topped Roman military standards, and the wreath crown came to be associated with the emperor, these are both symbols of Roman imperialism. The Nazis also used a gesture which, despite little evidence of the Romans using it, was called the “Roman salute”, to hail Hitler. The word “fascism” itself comes from the Latin fasces, a bundle of rods which symbolised a magistrate’s power.
The “alt-right” of today have made similar appeals to this mythic past with the Romans’ language. Around the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration, his supporters filled comment sections with slogans such as AVE DEUS IMPERATOR (“hail God-Emperor”) and DEUS VULT (“God wills it” – this refers to the Crusades, which were fuelled by Roman religion). These comments reveal the supporters’ disturbing vision of Trump as a messianic saviour who will lead a victorious campaign against Americans of colour and restore the glory of a white Rome in the US.
Peregrinus, and others like him, attest to a contrary view. Rome was hardly a progressive utopia, but it did provide offer a path for non-Romans from Britannia to Syria to integrate. The auxiliaries were only one route – manumission from slavery came with citizenship. Rome continually conceded to grant allies citizenship until the third century, when Emperor Caracalla granted blanket citizenship to every freeborn person across the empire. And as a citizen, you could prove yourself and help strengthen Rome.
The argument that the west has fallen from her halcyon days thanks to multiculturalism hinges on nostalgia for a white Rome. To realise the falsity of this vision attacks the very foundation of racist right-wing movements.
Indeed, the might of Rome was built by diversity itself.