The First Eastern European Immigrant

by Josephine Balmer

As Article 50 is triggered, let us remember just how long European immigrants have been in Britain…


Colchester inscriptionNigel Farage might have been concerned about Romanians moving in next door but, as an inscription from Roman Colchester reveals, eastern European immigrants have been part of the British landscape since the first century A.D.

In 1928 workmen building new garages on the site of the main Roman cemetery in the town uncovered the fragmented funeral stele of Longinus ‘Sdapezematygus’, an auxiliaryman from Sardica, the modern Bulgarian city of Sofia. Remarkably the figure’s missing face – possibly hacked off during the revolt of Boudicca in 60/1 – was then discovered over seventy years later in 1996 during a dig by the Colchester Archaeology Group. One of the earliest Roman tombs in Britain, Longinus must have died between the invasion of Claudius in A.D. 43, who established Colchester (Camulodonum) as his initial legionary capital, but before the legion withdrew in 49.

Longinus (3)In his funerary sculpture, Longinus is depicted on his horse with his cavalry chain mail tunic and small round shield, brandishing his spear while a defeated British tribesman cowers beneath his horse’s hooves. The damaged text of the tomb’s inscription translates literally as follows: Longinus, Sdapeze s[on of] Matygus, duplicarius, of the 1st cavalry squadron of Thracians from the district of Sardica, aged 40, with 15 years service, lies here. His heirs erected this under his will.

Here we learn that Longinus, presumably his adopted Latin name, was a dulpicarius, a ‘double pay’ junior officer, such as a standard bearer or centurion’s deputy; by birth he is from Thrace, a region which covered northern Greece, Turkey and a large part of Bulgaria.

In the following poem, Longinus’s brief inscription has become a fourteen-line sonnet which incorporates other source material about early Roman Britain such as the prized British Agassian hunting dogs described by many ancient sources, as well as the island’s reputation for good quality wool – and oysters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many classical writers also had much to say about the new province’s disappointing weather.

A Thracian Auxiliaryman at Colchester

They never managed to pronounce my name;
as I’m tall, I was always just ‘Longinus’
though my father was Sdapezematygus,
a Thracian, from Sofia. Can’t complain:
I was on double time. The days were dank
but the oysters were good. I bought a cloak
plus a new hunting bitch, Agassia,
with squat little legs, sharp teeth and soft paws
(the wife and kids back home would have loved her).
Fifteen years I served with the cavalry
across the east – Syria, Scythia –
at forty it ends here. Remember me:
I was part of the advance, one of the first.
Your ancestor. My bones still feed this earth.