The findings of a new DNA study suggest that up to 1 million British men may directly descend from the Roman legions which occupied England and Wales from 43 to c.410 AD.
The study, carried out by commercial DNA testing company BritainsDNA, took samples from 5,000 people and found that up to 4 million men in England and Wales carry distinctive genetic markers on their Y chromosome most commonly found, and likely have their origin, in modern day Italy. It is impossible to prove that these genes were introduced specifically by the Romans, but researchers estimate that they were responsible for at least a quarter of the total.
The size of the Roman forces, comprising men from around the Empire, peaked at around 55,000 during almost 400 years of occupation and they are thought to have accounted for 4-8% of all men in Roman Britain – a much greater proportion than at any other point in history. The DNA markers are much rarer in Ireland, which was not occupied by the Romans, and Scotland where they only briefly occupied some southern regions.
The study identified 5 rare markers on the Y chromosome, which are unusually common among English, Welsh and Italian men. The most prominent marker, Alpine R1b-S28, is found in 13% of Italian men and 6.5% of English and Welshmen, but only among 4.3% cent of Scotsmen and 1.8% of Irishmen. This suggests that 1.6 million English and Welshmen carry the Alpine marker alone, of which half a million may be descended from the Roman armies. A further 2.3 million carry one of the other 4 genetic markers – known as Balkan, Ancient Caucasians, Herdsmen-Farmers and Anatolian.
The findings, which are being presented at the ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ family history roadshow in London today, only represent men whose Roman descent has been passed directly down the male line from father to son. Statistically, the majority of the world’s population will have a Roman ancestor somewhere on their family tree.
Dr Jim Wilson, star of the recent ‘Meet the Izzards‘ TV show and chief scientist of BritainsDNA, said: “Of course each individual person has many other lineages. This implies that a considerable number of women and men descend from Romans in lineages other than their paternal line. We cannot be certain whether any particular individual descends from the Romans but across the population of people in these 5 genetic groups, some proportion of them must, and it could be considerably more than one million.”