Hadrian’s Wall was not garrisoned by ‘Romans’ from Italy, but by soldiers recruited from all corners of the Roman Empire. The communities living along the wall included people from many different ethnic groups who lived together alongside the native Britons to create what must have been a vibrant, diverse, and colourful population. Inscriptions show that, at various times they included Germans, Gauls, Arabians, and Romanians. A Spanish cavalry unit was based in Maryport; a North African unit was stationed at Burgh-by-Sands; Syrian archers were posted at Carvoran, and South Shields was home to a group of Mesopotamian boatmen.
At Arbeia (South Shields), two tombstones provide a more personal insight into the multi-cultural society of the northern frontier. The first was set up by Barates for his wife Regina, who died at the age of 30. The inscription tells how Regina was a slave, but was then freed and married by Barates. Regina was member of the Catuvellauni tribe who lived in south east England, whilst Barates hailed from Palmyra in Syria. The inscriptions are written in both Latin and Palmyrene. How the couple met is unknown.
Barates may himself have been buried at Coria (Corbridge). A tombstone to a man of that name shows that he was 68 when he died. He is described as a ‘vexillarius’. The term is disputed: it usually refers to a ‘standard bearer’, yet there is no evidence for a Palmyran military unit serving in Britain. As a retired soldier he should be called ‘ex vexilario’, leading some to think he was in fact a merchant, trading in vexilla – standards and flags. His tombstone was much less ornate than that of Regina, and written only in Latin. Perhaps Barates family and friends were not familiar with the Palmyrene language and traditions.
A second tombstone at South Shields was raised by a soldier called Numerianus to Victor, his 20 year old former slave, described as ‘by nation a Moor’. In the Roman period, the Moors originated from Mauretania (an ancient country of North Africa), and were generally dark-skinned. The figure carved on the tombstone clearly shows African racial characteristics. Numerianus may himself have been African, like his former master.