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

Classicist
Over a year ago

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.