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

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.

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.

 

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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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.