Amid all the rising anxieties in Europe about refugees, it is worth remembering that people from Syria have been moving far and wide for thousands of years. Many centuries ago people from what is now Syria had spread as far as the distant edges of the Roman Empire, where they married locals and lived their lives among strangers.
Important evidence for perhaps the longest journey in the Roman world is a poignant and beautiful tombstone of a British woman found in the town of South Shields in the north of England. It honours a woman called Regina (Queen, or most probably Queenie, a pet name that was perhaps derived from her Celtic name that might have included the word “rigan” or queen.) The tombstone, which dates from around 180 CE was commissioned by her husband, Barates of Palmyra. The inscription suggests that he once owned Queenie but freed her from slavery and married her.
She died aged 30. Barates commissioned a tombstone that shows her with the clothes and symbols of a virtuous and prosperous Roman matron, one hand holding spinning tools, the other opening a jewel box. An inscription tells us that she was a Catuvellaunian, the largest tribe in southern England. Beneath the Latin, and with greater confidence in both language and fluid carving, is a short and plaintive inscription in Aramaic: Regina, the freedwoman of Barates, alas.
So how did she end up married to a Syrian? Nobody knows, but Catuvelaunians, who come from an area just north of London, had gone north to repair forts along Hadrian’s Wall and families were known to sell their daughters into slavery even though this was illegal. Barates’ own tombstone was found not far away. It is a simpler affair saying he died aged 68 and was either a soldier or a seller of military regalia. He died in the mists of northern England, a long way from home.
Judith Weingarten, author of a book on Palmyra, writes about Barates and Regina here. Mary Beard’s SPQR, A History of Ancient Rome also mentions Barates as an interesting example of how far Romans moved around their empire. You can see a video from Newcastle University about Regina and Barates here.
photos from: judithweingarten.blogspot