14 August 2011

The Little Queen at Hadrian's Wall

Once upon a time, a little queen married a man from Palmyra at Hadrian's Wall. 

At Hadrian's Wall?

Well, only a stone's throw away.

To wit, at the Roman fort of Arbeia.  On the North East coast of England, just beyond the end of Hadrian’s Wall, Arbeia was the easternmost garrison fort on the Wall.  Originally built during the reign of Hadrian c. 129 CE, it guarded a small seaport at the mouth of the River Tyne near its outlet into the North Sea (nowadays South Shields)

The Gatehouse Reconstruction
viewed from across the principia
The wooden fort was rebuilt in stone in the 160s. Around the end of that century, it was further transformed into a supply base: all the barracks in the northern half of the fort were pulled down and replaced by granaries. Arbeia could now hold enough grain to supply more than 40,000 men for three months.  A good supply system was one of the foundations of the Roman army's phenomenal success. Bulky stores and equipment would be ferried up the east coast, perhaps from the legionary base at York, and then distributed under military supervision along the Wall line.  In this way, Arbeia became a bustling port.  A small civilian settlement, at least partly inhabited by the wives and families of the soldiers, grew up nearby. 

In 208 CE, the emperor Septimius Severus came to this northern limit of empire to launch a series of campaigns against the troublesome Caledonian tribes in Scotland.  It was his last hurrah: he died at York in 211 CE at a time when he had not only proved victorious but had concluded a perpetual peace.  As part of his military preparations, Severus had embarked on major construction work at two of the forts behind Hadrian's Wall -- Arbeia (South Shields) and Coria (Corbridge)

As it happens, the lives of our little queen and her Palmyran husband were entwined with those very forts at much the same time as Severus came north.

The People of the Wall

Very few of the 'Romans' who lived along Hadrian's Wall were from Rome itself, or even Italy.  The Roman north was a cosmopolitan place with a great mixing of people from all over the empire.  Surviving inscriptions show that, at one time or another, they included Germans, Spaniards, Gauls, Africans, Syrians, Arabians,  and people from Dacia (modern Romania).

In the late second century, among this foreign flock was a man called Barates and his wife, Regina. 

Ladies first.

This is Regina (Latin for 'Queen'; or perhaps, in this case, 'Queenie') -- pictured sitting in a gabled niche on her tombstone.  Her face has been hacked off but the rest of the elaborate monument, carved in the local buff sandstone, is wonderfully preserved. 

Regina sits on a high-backed wicker chair, her distaff and spindle in her lap, a wool basket by her left side.  With her right hand she opens a jewel box and in the box are rings, bracelets and beads.  She wears a long-sleeved robe over her tunic, a necklace with a cable-pattern design and a bracelet on each wrist.  Her hair is pinned up in one of the ornate styles dictated by the fashion of the day.

Her image is typical of a high-status Roman matron and is symbolic of traditional values, with the distaff and spindle suggesting wifely domesticity.  In short, Regina’s tombstone portrays a paragon of female Roman virtue.

What's wrong with this picture?

The Latin Inscription (RIB 1065)

D(is) M(anibus) Regina liberta et coniuge
To the spirits of the departed [and to] Regina, his freedwoman and wife

Barates Palmyrenus natione
Barates of Palmyra [set this up]

Catuallauna an(norum) XXX
[she] a Catuvellaunian by tribe, [died] aged 30

The inscription tells us all that we shall ever know of Regina.  It gives her name, that she was 30 when she died (though not whether she died from disease or in childbirth), and that she was a Catuvellaunian - a member of the largest southern British tribe.  Her homeland covered what is now Hertfordshire -- about as far as it's possible to get from Hadrian's Wall while still being in the province of Britain.  This makes her a native of one of the most civilized Celtic tribes, whose chief town, Verulamium (St Albans) enjoyed the rank of municipium, which allowed its magistrates to become Roman citizens. Presumably she grew up speaking a native British language.  Perhaps her name, Regina, is a translation of the girl's original Celtic name, which might have included the element Rigan, 'queen'

How in the world did our 'queen' become a slave (for she can't have been a freedwoman, without first having been enslaved)? 

Regina, the slave

Despite being against the law, it was, sadly, a common practice -- particularly in Celtic regions -- for families to sell their daughters if they could not afford to raise them.  By this means poor parents reduced the number of mouths to feed.  It is difficult to see how a Catuvellaunian girl of the late second century could be sold into servitude except by a voluntary act on the part of her parents.  

So, it seems that her husband, Barates, bought her, later gave her her freedom and then married her, a not uncommon arrangement. 

But how the devil did he find her? 

Here's how I think it happened.

On Hadrian's Wall, eighty milecastles (or small forts) were placed at intervals of roughly one Roman mile to guard gateways through the Wall.  At milecastle 55 in Cumbria, some 70 km (40 miles) to the west of Arbeia, this building inscription (RIB 1962) was found:

The tribesmen of the Catuvellauni, Tossodius.' [T, the native commander of the contingent]

Since these Catuvellauni were involved in the reconstruction of Hadrian's Wall, their presence in the north can probably be dated to the time of Septimius Severus in the early third century. That puts Regina's tribesmen at the Wall at pretty much the right time. Q.E. (not exactly) D. but as credible a source for the girl as we are likely to find.

Barates the husband

Barates, as he told us in Latin, was even more foreign and from a land still farther away than Regina: he is Barates of Palmyra

Palmyra in the Syrian desert is some 4,000 km (2,500 miles) distant, as the falcon flies, from Arbeia.  As if to stress his pride in this exotic origin, under the Latin inscription, his dead wife's epitaph continues in perfectly-formed swirling Palmyrene letters:

The Palmyrene Inscription 

Regina, the freedwoman of Barates, alas

This is a typical Palmyran formula for the dead: name + descent or description + lament.  Oddly enough, Regina's name has been written as if it were Semitic: RGYN' -- but no such name exists at Palmyra.  Barates (whose name, on the other hand, is common there) seems to have made it up for the occasion.  It's odd that he didn't translate her name -- Palmyran inscriptions often do translate foreign names, sometimes quite literally -- so 'Regina' could have become MLKT' (Palmyrene for 'Queen').  At a guess, MLKT' may only refer to a royal person, as later Zenobia will be given this title; it's not just a pretty name.

The sculptor who carved this inscription was clearly literate in Palmyrene: he's not copying signs but writing them fluidly.  His Palmyrene is perfectly correct; more correct, in fact, than his Latin: the words Regina, liberta, coniuge, and Cataullana, should normally be in the dative (this memorial is dedicated 'to'...) but they are not; the four words are accusatives with final -m omitted.*  So there's good reason to think that the epitaph was the work of a man whose first language was Palmyrene.  The somewhat erratic Latin letters, too, as compared to the confident Palmyrene script, show that it was probably carved by a Syrian sculptor.  In truth, the whole monument is Palmyran in style: its characteristic closely detailed and linear cutting is very similar to that of funerary sculpture from Palmyra itself.**  This distinctive style also helps us date Regina's tombstone to the late second century; that is, at approximately the time of Severus' campaigns.  It seems logical to connect the arrival of Barates at Arbeia either with Severus' army or, possibly, with the Syrian entourage of his wife, Julia Domna -- the first of the Syrian empresses -- who was with the emperor in Britain and at his deathbed. 

Who was Barates?

By an amazing stroke of luck, Barates's own tombstone has also been found (RIB 1171).  He was buried at the Roman fort of Coria, situated beside the lowest fordable point of the river Tyne (modern Corbridge), just 35 km [22 miles]  from Arbeia.
D(is) M(anibus) [Ba]rathes Pal/morenvs vexila vixit an LXVIII
To the spirits of the departed [and to] Barathes the Palmyran, standard-bearer (vexillarius), who lived 68 years
What he meant by calling himself a vexillarius is disputed. This normally refers to a 'standard bearer', a low-ranking officer in the Roman army.  There is no evidence, however, for any Palmyran military unit in Britain.  Still, he could have been (say) a centurion serving in another unit.  It then wouldn't be strange to find him living not too far from Arbeia: upon discharge, many soldiers simply continued to live where they had served.  But if he were a retired soldier -- as at the age of 68 he would have been -- he should be called ex vexila[rio].  So, many think he was not a military man at all but was a trader in vexilla -- flags, standards, and ensigns -- for which there supposedly would have been plenty of customers along the Wall.  That doesn't feel quite right either, I think, as military standards don't wear out quickly enough to make a good living out of the trade.  Certainly, the richness of Regina's tombstone suggests that he was prosperous.  We don't know, of course, if he outlived Regina by many years, or if he was already much older when they married. Yet there was time enough for something to change: his own tombstone was of much poorer quality and written only in Latin.

This could mean that his trade, whatever it was, was flourishing at the time of Regina's death but went downhill after that.  So, for what it's worth (which isn't much) I think that his prosperity was somehow tied to the presence of the emperor and other Syrians in the north -- for why would he have written Regina's epitaph also in Palmyrene if there were no one there to read it?.  When everyone else left after the emperor's death, Barates stayed on -- declining in wealth, perhaps, but living to a ripe old age. 

* It's a little more complicated: the dedicatee in such Latin texts can also be in the nominative or genitive but the forms of Regina's inscription cannot be interpreted as these cases either.  Rather, the four words are accusatives (the object of the implied verb [set up]) -- a characteristic found in the Greek in Greek-Palmyrene honorific texts at Palmyra.  For a full discussion, see J.A. Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language, CUP, 2003, 253-255.

**  Martin Henig, 'Roman Sculpture from the Hadrian’s Wall Region'  A second tombstone from the same workshop is that (left) of a Moor named Victor, a 20 year old freedman, surely the boy-lover of the Spanish cavalryman who 'devotedly' dedicated it, Numerianus of the Ala I Asturum.

I am indebted to Jonathan Eaton of the Imperium Sine Fine blog for highlighting Regina's tombstone in a recent post.  In the comments, Dr Eaton also noted that, "According to the CSIR, the form of the final letter of the Palmyrene script did not outlast the third quarter of the 2nd Century AD in Palmyra."  This means that the sculptor had left Syria by that time which possibly fits with my suggestion that Barates and the other Palmyrans who came to northern Britain had some connection with the campaigns of Septimius Severus. See also the discussion of the dating of Victor's tombstone (above) in the comments on the blog post.

Main sources for this post (in addition to Imperium Sine Fine ): M. Henig, 'Roman Sculpture from the Hadrian’s Wall Region', on the Hadrian's Wall Research Project at Durham University; P. Ottaway, M. Cyprien, A Traveller's Guide to Roman Britain, 1987, 66ff; A. Cavla, 'Social Roles and Gender in the Roman World', on the site of The Roman Military Research Society; A.R. Birley, The People of Roman Britain, 1979, 127, 147; J.A. Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin Language, CUP, 2003, 253-255; ICONS: A Portrait of England.


Upper left: Arbeia fort at South Shields from Archaeology.co.uk 

Regina and her inscriptions: from Imperium Sine Fine

Tombstone of Victor the Moor (Arbeia).  Photo credit davidparsonsb at Photobucket


  1. I saw this tombstone last May on my walk of Hadrian's Wall Path and visit to Arebeia. I took a photo of it because it struck me as unusual because of the script at the bottom. It's a nice representation of a tombstone dedicated to a wife by her husband. Enjoyed your analysis.

  2. Dear Dr. Weingarten:

    Thank you for your very interesting account of Barates and his wife Regina. After hiking the Hadrian's Wall footpath in July I've become interested in the Syrian and Mesopotamian presence in northern Britain during the time of Roman occupation. My interest stems from a 36-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service, a majority of which was spent serving in Arab countries.

    In searching online for other sources of information I've found The Aleppo Project ( http://www.thealeppoproject.com/a-celtic-queen-and-her-syrian-husband/ ), which states that Regina's tombstone dates "from around 180 CE." Since The Aleppo Project seems primarily focused on hopes for the eventual recovery of Syria from the current civil war, I'm guessing that the date of 180 is not one based on rigorous academic research, but it deals with a question I've been wondering about--that is, just when did Barates and Regina live.

    You note that Septimius Severus came to northern England in 208 and died in 211. You also say "Since these Catuvellauni were involved in the reconstruction of Hadrian's Wall, their presence in the north can probably be dated to the time of Septimius Severus in the early third century. That puts Regina's tribesmen at the Wall at pretty much the right time. Q.E. (not exactly) D. but as credible a source for the girl as we are likely to find." Speaking of other foreigners among the communities living near the Wall, you also say "In the late second century, among this foreign flock was a man called Barates and his wife, Regina."

    I'm trying to reconcile the two estimates, in order to determine some reasonable death dates. It seems that Septimius turned his attention to Britain late in his reign. If it was already in the third century when he ordered the strengthening of the Hadrian's Wall forts, and if it's the opportunities to work in this restoration that brought the Catuvellaunians to the north, possibly creating the opportunity for Barates to buy his young wife, then it's unlikely the tombstones would date from the late second century. I'm wondering what your view is on this (the dates of the tombstones), and whether you could refer me to any published information that might deal with this question.

    I'm also trying to learn more about the Tigris boatmen, in case you could suggest information sources on that topic. The Tyneside History webpage for South Shields fort suggests that Barates came with them, but I don't see how that can be correct. (See: http://www.englandsnortheast.co.uk/SouthShieldsOrigins.html The quote is: "A company of skilled Arab bargemen from the River Tigris are known to have worked on the Tyne at Arbeia in the 4th century and perhaps early 5th century. They were the last-known Roman inhabitants at South Shields. ...
    Intriguingly the Arabs at Arbeia came from the far eastern reaches of the Roman Empire and found themselves working in the far north-western corner of that same Empire so their skills must have been in high demand. One of their number is known to have married a British woman called Regina, whose tombstone can be seen in the Arbeia museum.") Perhaps this is just careless drafting that confounds the Syrian archers of the second century with the boatmen of the fourth. Personally I had been inclined to believe that Barates was probably associated in some way with the archers, and pre-dated the Tigris boatmen by at least a hundred years.

    If you have time to share thoughts on these questions I'd be most appreciative. I find the format of regular email easier to work with, in case you'd like to reply directly to me at cocecil@comcast.net

    With best wishes,
    Charles O. Cecil


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