Migration in Roman Britain | History Today

After Britain became part of the Roman Empire in AD 43, the island and its inhabitants were integrated into the wider Roman world. This drastically increased the possibilities for migration to and from the newly minted province. Yet for the majority of Britons, little changed. Most chose to spend their lives in their local communities, remaining close to their place of birth. Some, however, emigrated from their homeland and travelled great distances across the Mediterranean, often as members of the Roman army. At the same time, people migrated to Britain from across the Empire. Although this usually happened as a result of military service, many also arrived as traders and slaves.

An interesting case is that of Barates of Palmyra, a Syrian who travelled to Britain, probably as a merchant. On arrival, he bought a slave named Regina, who had been born into the Catuvellauni tribe of southern Britain. Afterwards, Barates freed Regina and the two married. From the depiction of Regina on her tombstone, by the time of her death at 38 she had become quite wealthy. Barates himself lived to be 68, dying at Corbridge near Newcastle. It is amazing to think that Barates had left his home in the Levant to travel across the Empire, married a Briton and ended his life in northern England. Even Regina, while not travelling as far, had moved from southern Britain to the northern edge of the Roman world.

As a Roman province, Britain became a diverse, multicultural society. This has long been known from the textual sources and material remains, but now scientific analyses are also enhancing our knowledge of migration to the island. One recent study in particular, published in The Journal of Archaeological Science, used scientific techniques to shed light on the origins of some of London's earliest inhabitants. The researchers applied lead and strontium isotope analyses to the dental enamel of 20 people buried in the ancient settlement between the first and fifth centuries AD, the first large scale study of its kind for Roman Britain. They revealed that 12 of the individuals probably grew up around Londinium, while another four probably grew up elsewhere. The results for the remaining four were inconclusive.

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