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Black people in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Scene from the movie "Gladiator"
Scene from Gladiator.

Ancient Romans, who had under their control, huge tracts of land certainly had to deal with the black population on a daily basis. Interestingly, the ratio of the white to the black race was not always beneficial only for the former.

According to the fathers of the church Jerome and Sophronius of Jerusalem, at the end of the 4th century CE, Colchis was called the “second Ethiopia” due to the overwhelming number of black people.

Other sources from the 4th century BCE, in the form of Palaephatus and Hanno the Navigator (Carthaginian sailor), mention the village of Cerne, located behind the Pillars of Hercules (Columnae Herculis), which closes the Mediterranean Sea and meant for the ancient end of the known world. The city was inhabited according to the ancients by Ethiopians, who traded in ivory, deer, leopards, wine, perfumes, Egyptian stones, and ceramics from Athens. The proof of the fact that the black inhabitants lived in Rome is evidenced by the event of 61 CE when the Roman emperor Nero organized an amphitheatre spectacle of hunting Ethiopian hunters.

What is worth mentioning, is that black people were not slaves and servants in the Roman world. Some of them became writers, chiefs, and philosophers, and according to the Byzantine chronicler John Malalas, even emperor Septimius Severus had dark skin, though it does not seem to be black; he sooner had a Berber origin and was the first emperor from Africa (he was born in Libya). As for the slaves, even the blacks were liberated and became prominent citizens of Rome.

In the picture we can see a wooden round tondo showing: Septimius Severus, his wife – Julia Domna, and two sons: Caracalla and Geta.

It is possible that a slave of Cicero had black skin – Marcus Tullius Tiro, who was liberated for good service. He was a friend and secretary of a well-known speaker, and also the author of his unseen biography. Keeping Cicero’s notes he used the so-called notae Tironianae, which was the first form of shorthand. He died probably at the age of 99.

The reconstructed appearance of one of York residents from the 4th century CE. The city was multicultural, and the exemplary woman had black and white ancestors, which was certainly common in the time of the Empire.

Another famous figure from the Roman world, which was of African origin, was Lucius Quietus. He was a Roman officer and legate of Judea in 117 CE who was of Moroccan origin and was the son of a tribal chief. Lucius’ father and his warriors supported the Roman legions in their efforts to pacify the Roman province Tingitana Mauritania during the Aedemon revolt in the 40s of the 1st century CE. Being a useful ally in that area, he was honoured with the award of Roman citizenship. Lucius served as an auxiliary officer in a Roman cavalry, recruited from free Moorish tribes. In time, he became a senator and became the legate of Judea.

Marble statue of Septimius Severus in a military uniform. The first emperor of African origin.
The British Museum

Many Romans of African descent, like Quietus, reached the high levels of their military career and were stationed away from their home sites. Many officers and soldiers served, for example, in the 3rd century CE next to Hadrian’s wall. A certain inscription proves that the auxiliary unit Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum served in Aballava (today’s Burgh-by-Sands in England). The unit was completely recruited from the Mauritanian population.

Excavations from the period 1951-1959 proved that among the exhumed skeletons in Britain, some were of African origin. What is worth emphasizing is the aforementioned emperor Septimius Severus who legalized marriages between soldiers and local women. In this way, children from mixed couples were born. Historian Anthony Birley in his book “Septimius Severus: The African Emperor” explains that between 193 and 211 CE the Roman Empire was a multicultural mix of people from Syria, Germania, Britain, Spain and Africa. In addition, he claims that at that time eight men of African origin commanded Roman legions in the north, and others were equites.

The approach of Romans toward black people

Seneca the Younger claimed that people with black complexion were not a surprise in Rome.

In the next place, we ought to consider the whole state of mankind, in order to pass a just judgment on all the occurrences of life: for it is unjust to blame individuals for a vice which is common to all. The colour of an Æthiop is not remarkable among this own people, nor is any man in Germany ashamed of red hair rolled into a knot. You cannot call anything peculiar or disgraceful in a particular man if it is the general character of his nation.

Seneca the Younger, De Ira, XXVI

Romans were not racists at all; they did not judge by their skin colour, but rather by their origin.

The Romans used the general term for black inhabitants, describing them as “Ethiopians”. The Ethiopians had their own state – the Kingdom of Aksum – which in the first century BCE experienced its “golden period”. Goods were transported from the port of Adulis to the Mediterranean, as well as to India and Ceylon. The Romans maintained commercial contact with the Ethiopians. Thanks to the fact that the residents of Aksum certainly had a black skin colour, hence the general term for all black people in the Empire.

Map of the Roman Empire from 211 CE. For sure the Roman state had to be multicultural.
  • Birley, Anthony R., The African Emperor: Septimius Severus, Londyn 1988
  • Isaac Benjamin, Proto-Racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, "World Archaeology", Vol. 38, No. 1, Race, Racism and Archaeology (Mar., 2006), pp. 32-47
  • Snowden Jr. Frank M., Misconceptions about African Blacks in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Specialists and Afrocentrists, "Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics", Third Series, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Winter, 1997), pp. 28-50

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