Ancient Rome's Immigration Policy Reframes Today's Refugee Question

Classicist

Ancient Rome was a very different world from ours, so it does have any lessons to teach us? While we shouldn't model our behavior on any ancient society, Rome's treatment of immigrants is illustrative, says classicist and historian Mary Beard. While Rome's antiquated treatment of women, as subordinates, and the conquered, as slaves, provides us with an "anti-model" for contemporary society, our treatment of immigrants would have struck Romans as very strange.

When Rome was first founded as a city, and in need of citizens, notices were posted throughout the known world that Rome would accept all manner of asylum seekers, be they economic migrants, refugees, or criminals. As Beard points out, there was no such thing as a citizenship test or any other requirements for becoming a Roman citizen. No matter how barbaric Ancient Rome seems to us, its rulers would be aghast, says Beard, at the refugee crisis facing Europe as bodies of asylum seekers wash up on Mediterranean beaches.

It is ultimately difficult to take any direct lessons from history, yet understanding how a society as primitive as Ancient Rome was so welcoming to outsiders can help re-contextualize the world's present refugee crisis. This is especially true for nations like the United States, says Beard, who's foundational myth relies heavily on the right of asylum seekers (European pilgrims) to find new opportunity in new lands.

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Mary Beard:  I think it’s always very hard to learn lessons from Rome, direct lessons. I don’t think that certainly there’s much where we can say oh look, the Romans did that and we should do it too. There are I have to say quite a lot of things that the Romans did extremely badly. I wouldn’t fancy being a woman in the Roman Empire. I certainly wouldn’t have fancied being a slave. So we can see them as offering a rather anti-model of how you should treat women and the conquered. And I think that Rome makes us think differently about some of the problems that we have and which they faced too. One of those most obviously and particularly relevant at the beginning of the 21st century is ideas of migration and citizenship. Currently refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants – one of the biggest crises that certainly the continent of Europe but also the world more widely faces.

I think for me very instructive to look back to Rome and to see in Rome a world where there was no such thing as an illegal migrant. That would have been absolutely incomprehensible to a Roman where there was free movement of people. Where people were granted citizenship by the Romans very freely. There was no such thing as a citizenship test. You didn’t have to salute the flag. You didn’t have to sing the national anthem. You didn’t have to pay a fee. Rome was an incorporating society. And indeed when Rome thought about its very origin, you know, who founded Rome. And they told elaborate fantastic mythical stories like the story of Romulus and Remus. And who founded Rome after being discovered and suckled by the wolf on the banks of the Tiber. Or a different story but equally popular how the Roman race was founded by Aeneus who had been a Trojan hero in the great war between the Greeks and the Trojans at Troy. Aeneus had fled from Troy to find a new city in Italy when his own had been defeated. If you look at those kind of stories you discover that Romans are imagining their origins in terms of being a home for refugees like Aeneus. And very interestingly when Romulus actually found the city that was on the site of Rome itself and he looks around and he thinks, "Help, I haven’t got any citizens." You know, except for a couple of lads and nothing much more.

What does he do? He puts up a notice and sends message around saying Rome is a place of asylum. Any runaway, any criminal, any asylum seeker could come to Rome and be a Roman citizen. Now it’s extraordinary and perhaps rather more like some American founding myths that saw British founding myths. It’s quite extraordinary to see for me a culture which traces its origin back to migrants and refugees and asylum seekers. Now I think it’s very important to say we can’t just take that as a model of what to do ourselves. It would be slightly crazy to say oh, because Rome was an open city and welcomed asylum seekers so should we. We’re living in a different world.

But I think what’s important is simply the realization that there is another culture, back there, that had a very, very different view from the view that we now tend to hold. And it helps you put that view, your own view, in perspective. It helps you to see that view from the outside. The Romans would look at us and they’d look at what’s happening on the beaches of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea, you know, their world. And they would be amazed and horrified just as we are horrified about some of the things that they did.