Ancient and modern

Regina, a Syrian in South Shields

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

16 December 2017

9:00 AM

D(is) M(anibus) Regina liberta(m) et coniuge(m) Barates Palmyrenus natione Catuallauna an(norum) XXX

‘To the spirits of the dead, and to Regina, his freedwoman and wife, of the Catuvellauni, aged 30 years, Barates of Palmyra erected this.’

There Regina sits, in all her Roman finery. You cannot make out her face because the great stone funerary monument in which she has been sculpted is 1,800 years old, very worn in places and the face mutilated. She looks straight out at you from her wicker basket-chair — a nursing chair, perhaps? Uncomfortable, too: she sits on a cushion.

She is dressed in a linen shift, which protrudes under her woollen skirt at the ankles (Roman women liked the ‘layered’ look); she has a torc (a sold neck-ring, for luck) around her neck and, fashionably, a bracelet on each forearm. Her left hand holds spinning equipment (spindle and distaff) in her lap, and there is a basket of wool at her feet. Her right hand proudly holds open the lid of a stout, solidly bound jewellery box, with a good, strong lock.

At the bottom of the monument is a Latin inscription. The first word is Regina — Romans would have pronounced it Raygeena — and it meant ‘Queen’. This is clearly a member of high society. Well, not that high. For the second word is liberta: liberated, ‘freedwoman’ — she had once been a slave. Not a queen, but ‘Queenie’?

Things now become very interesting. This monument was found in the Roman fort at South Shields, near the entrance to the River Tyne. So this is a Geordie lass? No: the inscription tells us that she originated from the Catuvellauni, a tribe that lived around St Albans. So down south she was sold into slavery — probably to raise money for her poverty-stricken family — and taken up north.

Things now become even more interesting. The next word is the coniugem, accusative singular of coniunx: ‘con-joined’. She was somebody’s wife. Whose? Hold tight: the inscription tells us that she was the wife of Barates Palmyrenus — Barates from Palmyra. In Syria! What was Barates doing in South Shields, for pity’s sake, more than 4,000 miles from home, in the frozen north of England? Why, doing business with the Roman army, it appears, in the international economic world of the Roman Empire, perhaps as a standard-maker for the Roman army, and falling in love with the slave he had bought, freeing her and marrying her. Regina, the inscription ends, died aged XXX: 30. It does not say how.

The Syrian style of the monument is unique in this country, but its dry, informational language is that of the traditional Roman epitaph. Now look carefully below the Latin. There is a further inscription there — in Palmyrene. What does it say? ‘Regina, freedwoman of Barates, alas’. Only in his native language, freed from the stiff formality of the ‘proper’ Roman way of doing things, could Barates express his feelings. It has been suggested that the Latin lettering is not very confident, unlike the Palmyrene. Perhaps the sculptor came from Palmyra, too.

A Syrian working in a Roman province bought a British slave from down south, took her up north, married her, made her a wealthy woman, gave her a Latin name and a traditional Roman monument, without disguising his own origins. Question: was Barates a ‘Somewhere’ or an ‘Anywhere’? Do not write on both sides of the paper at once.

There is another fine monument in South Shields to a libertus, one Victor, who died aged XX, depicted lying on a couch with a drink in his left hand. The inscription tells us he was a Moor, once a slave of the local cavalry commander Numirianus. Numirianus set up the monument to him, ‘and most devotedly escorted him [sc. to the grave]’.

Nearly half of Rome’s population was made up of ex-slaves or related to them. The emperor Augustus built a huge cemetery of niches for 3,000 of his slaves, freedmen and their families. One wonders how this made Romans think about the whole ideology of slavery.

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