Fifty shades of slavery?
Britain, A.D.61.
Boudica’s revolt is crushed.

Along with thousands of others, a young captive British girl is condemned to slavery. As she is herded naked and chained into the market place, she trembles in terror at her fate. But in the Roman world there were many shades of slavery (er... at least fifty of them) and hers was one she could never have imagined in her darkest nightmares or, perhaps, even in her wildest dreams.


Historical Background

Regina and Barates really did exist.

Barates, of Greek origin by his name, and from Palmyra in modern day Syria, really did buy a British (Catuvellauni) girl called Regina as his slave somewhere in the South of modern day England.

They did fall in love, because he freed her and married her; and, when she later died in Northern England, Barates had a beautiful and expensive tombstone carved for her, depicting her dressed as a Roman lady and seated on a chest full of her possessions. Under the Latin inscription Barates carved his own inscription on her tombstone: ‘Regina, freed woman of Barates, alas [for her death]’. He carved it in flowing Aramaic script. When he died later, he had himself buried not far from her, under a simple inscribed stone slab.

Regina’s tombstone still exists, at Arbeia (South Shields, at the mouth of the River Tyne), but is defaced, so her physical description is a matter of conjecture; but she clearly is not depicted as portly, has had her hair styled in the Roman fashion, (or perhaps tied back?), is well dressed in a full-length linen tunica and stola, and she does appear to be wearing decorative bracelets on both wrists!

There are two possible versions of their story. They lived in either the 1st or 2nd Century A.D. Barates was either a 1st century Roman soldier, or a flag seller of the 2nd century. Modern dating is apparently based entirely on the appearance of the two letters DM on Regina’s tombstone. However, this is the very edge of the empire, and there is another - plausible - alternative.

I have followed the older version which makes Barates a 1st century Roman soldier. If Barates was a Roman soldier, he could well have bought Regina because he had been promoted to centurion, and thus needed a slave to lead the mule that carried his tent and belongings.

There actually was a centurion of the 20th Legion called Marcus Favonius Facilis who died at about that time. He did have two male slaves - as mentioned in my story - who were freed on his death and who then erected a fine tombstone to him at Colchester, the legionary headquarters.

If Barates did buy his slave girl because he had been newly promoted, he probably wouldn’t have had a lot of money to spare. A small, dark-haired, peasant girl - of uncertain morals and with no valuable skills - would be cheap. 150 denarii is quoted as a high price for a girl of her type during this period. A mere seventeen or so years after the invasion of Britain, Barates’ chance of finding a girl from the British countryside who spoke Latin must have been pretty remote.

Her name? Regina is a Latin name, so doubtless it wasn’t her born name.

Why did Barates choose that name? It does mean queen, so I very much doubt that she was plain looking!

My tribunus, Marcus Nonius Balbus, is also a genuine eques of this period - from Herculaneum (not Rome as Aprilla imagines). He could well have served in the army as a young man, to return home to an unexpectedly early demise in 79 A.D.! (You can look up that bit of history for yourself!)

Likewise Rufus Sita is a genuine Thracean auxiliary cavalryman who died while serving in Britain.

And so is Quintus Julius Proculus Damascenus (Quintus) - another genuine Roman soldier from the period (detail from his pay-book!).

There is no detailed historical record of the fate of the Iceni after the failure of Boudica’s revolt, except that the Governor of Britain, Gaius Seutonius Paulinus, was recalled to Rome - apparently because of his brutality to them after the revolt, (but more probably because the emperor, Nero, was jealous of his spectacular military success); so presumably the 20th Legion did spend some time in what is now called East Anglia ‘laying waste the land’, before moving on to their new legionary base at Deva (Chester).

Likewise there is no record of an Iceni Caratacus, but, if Paulinus was brutal, then some resistance does seem likely.

A Roman fort was established on the coast of north Norfolk at Brancester, rather later. It isn’t where I’ve placed mine. I’ve been to Brancester, the coast there is too flat to suit the purpose of my story. Perhaps Marcus Nonius’s temporary fort was washed into the sea by coastal erosion? Or perhaps the faint archaeological remains of a wood and earth castellum were unwittingly built over during Victorian times? Time is a great blurrer of both historical reality and facts.

The precise details of a Roman marching - or night - camp are open to conjecture. The archaeological remains at Cawthorne Camps in Cropton Forest near Pickering have two banks and ditches. The crop marks at Great Casterton in Leicestershire also form a double circuit. Whatever the debates, I have followed the archaeology for camps occupied for more than a single night. The existence of smaller earthworks - such as the ones built on the orders of Marcus Nonius in my story - is well documented.

How were camps laid out the same shape and size? Again this is open to conjecture, but using trigonometry as I have described - it was known to the Romans - a length of rope divided equally by 13 knots will create a right angle triangle with the dimensions 3-4-5. In this way the shape of the camp could have been very precisely laid out in minutes, by a handful of men starting from the centre, and with the position of the roads and gates immediately delineated. Historical re-enactment groups seem to have reached the same conclusion.

How were the camps guarded? Vegetius suggests that half of the soldiers remained on guard at all times. I have used this formula during the breaks during the cohort’s march north, and while working to build their castellum, redoubts, etc. However, I find it hard to believe that this was normally the case at night, except in the most exceptional circumstances. The cohort - or legion - would have become exhausted from lack of sleep after a few days. Vegetius was writing three hundred years later. I suspect that, in reality, in normal times both day and night guard would have been about five contubernii, (half of the men in one century), with eight men doing three hour shifts through the theoretical twelve hour Roman day and night, plus two men to guard the praetorium, perhaps with the numbers doubled in times of moderate danger, as I have described.

Did the Roman army take its mule train, wagons and slaves with it when it marched? Varus (Publius Quinctilius Varus) certainly did! Plus his vicus! (And got the whole lot massacred in 9 AD.) Although each Roman soldier carried three days ‘hard’ rations, cooking gear, blankets, etc., we know their heavy leather tents were carried on mules. The artillery, especially the catapultae, must have been transported in wagons, and long term supplies for a campaign must have been kept close at hand. Maybe this explains the disparity between the number of soldiers (80 in a century), and therefore a cohort (6 x 80), and the frequently quoted overall numbers of men in a cohort (600)? Many of the remainder must logically have been wagoneers and mule drivers. Therefore, except in cases of dire emergency, it seems likely that a cohort would have kept its supplies with it when marching. The frequently quoted figure of legions marching 25 Roman miles in a day on good roads would fit with them being slowed down by a mule train.

As I was writing the story, a problem in the military organisation of my cohort - and specifically of the centuries - quickly occurred to me. 80 men is an unwieldy number to command, and doing so started to give my centurion problems, even with the inclusion of the ‘optio’, a deputy chosen by the centurion. The army was famously divided into contubernii of 8 men. If so, for practicality, would not one man in each 8 have ranked as lance-corporal? Vegetius vaguely mentions a rank of ‘caput’, which translates as ‘chief’ or ‘leader’. I have used it to mean senior legionary - leader of the eight. As far as I know there is no historical evidence either to support or disprove this. It simply made increasing sense to me as the story progressed..

Slavery was an important aspect of Roman civilisation. It has been estimated that up to a third of the people in the empire were slaves. There are literally scores of Latin words delineating different types of slave. There was a complicated system of ranking within a slave household, as I have described, with the atriensis - head slave - and the coquus - cook - at or near the top, and servulicolae - slaves’ slaves - at the bottom. Famula does not even translate directly as slave, but as serving maid. Serva/servus were, I suspect, basically derogatory terms for nameless field or industrial slaves who were worked to death. Household slaves fared rather - or actually much - better! There actually was a law - as Aprilla describes - to stop Roman noblemen from marrying their slave girls! Interestingly, ‘cacula’ was a specific name for a soldier’s slave, but, despite its feminine ending, is masculine, suggesting that (masculine) Roman soldiers commonly owned slave women... or boys used as women?

Were Roman slaves ‘marked’ to show their status, as Julius says? While there is no specific reference to say that all slaves were marked, more than one contemporary source says that some slaves in lowly occupations were actually branded on the forehead, and one source seems to suggest that it was a common practice. An inscribed iron slave ‘collare’ of precisely the type that Barates initially fits to Regina has been excavated. Historical sources refer to them as a form of punishment, or a way of delineating unreliable farm slaves. However, one particular wall painting, and one carving, seem to show both a boy and a girl household slave wearing something suspiciously like a collar. An inscribed silver snake bracelet belonging to a favoured slave girl was found in Pompeii. Whether it was loose enough for her to slide over her hand is a matter of pure conjecture. I have inferred the rule from the majority of the evidence. It seems logical that a famula (or famulus) - which centurions’ slaves must have ranked as - who was allowed an inordinate degree of liberty - which a centurion’s slaves must have had - would have been marked in some way.

It is difficult to totally abandon the mores of modern society. Considerable differences in the ages of partners seems to have been quite common in Roman times. Pliny the younger married the teenage Calpurnia when he was in his forties. The minimum age at which Roman citizens could marry was 14 for boys, 12 for girls. Slaves were presumably allowed no such indulgence. I have deliberately made Regina two years older than the age at which Roman girls could have consensual sex.

Now read - and enjoy. Publication planned for late 2014.