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Thu 18 July 2019
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The 2nd Century tombstone near Hadrian’s Wall tells a story as exotic as anything out of Game of Thrones, the epic love story of a woman from Hertfordshire and her partner from Syria.

Recently I have found myself increasingly looking to the Roman Empire for intriguing stories. This is not out of some feeling that we’re in the same sort of grandiose, dramatic terminal decline that it experienced. Rather, the echoes I sense are much more human, and intimate in scale.

The story of ‘Regina’ and Barates is one that reinforces the idea that cross-cultural relationships have been a feature of life for thousands of years – even here in Britain.

Take the story of ‘Regina’, or ‘Queenie’.

In 1878, among the excavated remains of the Hadrian’s Wall fort known as ‘Arbeia’, near South Shields, a 2nd century tombstone was found depicting a Roman woman, dressed well and looking quite wealthy.

This wasn’t unique in itself. Women and children made their home on Hadrian’s Wall in equal or greater numbers than the Roman troops stationed there. They lived in a community called a ‘vicus’ situated outside most forts.

What was unique, however was the inscription accompanying the relief.

Latin: ‘To the spirits of the departed (and to) Regina, his freedwoman and wife, a Catuvellaunian by tribe, aged 30, Barates of Palmyra (set this up).’

Palmyrene:
Regina, the freedwoman of Barate, alas.’

Different Worlds Collide

What this tombstone suggests is a love that involved the crossing great distances, and different social barriers.

‘Regina’ (a nickname, kind of like ‘Queenie’) had the least distance to travel – she was a Catuvellauni, a woman of the tribe who made modern Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire their home.

It’s probable that as a slave, she was sold to those heading north to man and service the wall. This could have been for a number of reasons – poverty, a feud, recrimination for some kind of rebellious act. All we know is that she made it to what is now South Shields.

Barates had further to travel. He hailed from Palmyra, a city adjunct to the Roman province of Syria.

Palmyra benefited greatly from the Silk Road trade, and it is almost certain that Barates was a trader, enabling the flow of goods such as oil, spice and other goods to markets on and around the wall.

Life at the Edge

Wikimedia Commons

For much of the Roman period in Britain, Hadrian’s Wall represented the northernmost tip of Roman influence, although the Antonine Wall would attempt to push that further.

For both ‘Regina’ and ‘Barates’, this must have seemed a totally different world than that which they had born into. While it wasn’t exactly an inhospitable environment, there was a certain wilder, more lawless feel – think a greyer, most overcast ‘Deadwood’.

For Barates, especially, this was a long, long way from the grandeurs of his birthplace – once one of the world’s most beautiful, monumental cities.

While we can never know the exact circumstances of how they met, and their early time together, what is clear that he thought enough of her to buy her freedom – not an insignificant cost – and marry her, granting her a greatly improved lot in life.

Home is where the heart is

We can be reasonably sure that ‘Regina’ and Barates had a good few years together before she died at aged 38, presumably of illness. We can imagine them living together outside the fort of ‘Arbeia’, serving the troops and their families, and taking on the challenges of life at the frontier.

You have to wonder what they talked about, what experiences they shared. How

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The erection of such a gravestone, especially by a foreign trader, indicates a particular strength of feeling that indicates deep love and affection. This was no mere trifle of a memorial, comparatively!

We know that Barates survived ‘Regina’ by some decades. His tombstone was found during excavations at a fort at Corbridge, near Newcastle – he lived to the age of 68.

Perhaps he felt the need to pack up and move on from ‘Arbeia’, to get away from the memory of his lost love?

Love Conquers All

The story of ‘Regina’ and Barates is one that reinforces the idea that cross-cultural relationships, far from being a recent phenomenon, have been a feature of life for thousands of years – even here in Britain.

Whatever the differences in our cultures, people have, and will find connections, basic attractions that bring them together, to make a life together.

That is something that we should be thankful for, not least for the wonderful, evocative stories it provides.

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