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Ancient and modern

How ancient Rome turned immigrants into citizens

As Livy explains, it was Rome’s boast that from early times they understood the virtues of intelligent dealing with outsiders

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

In the migration crisis, the EU is currently acting just like the ancients, as if border controls did not exist, though the mass, peaceful migration we see today was not a tremendously common occurrence then.

The reason is that in the ancient world, every male was a potential warrior. So in conflict they would either fight to defend their land and, if they lost, be killed or sold into slavery, or they would flee, en masse, as Germanic tribes did into the Roman Empire in the 4th century ad, escaping the Hun onslaught. Since this represented a potential threat, Romans fought off some, but welcomed others, giving them land and status in return for service in the army. Many did well out of it.


At the individual level, however, there was constant movement of people wanting to better themselves. Places like Rome acted as a magnet, and in one instance Rome had to send back arrivals from local Latin states which complained of losing manpower so fast that soon ‘towns and farms would be deserted’. As for foreigners, Romans were prejudiced, but not racist. Those with talent who did in Rome what Romans did could do very well. Acculturation was the key.

It was Rome’s boast that from early times they had understood the virtues of intelligent dealing with outsiders. Livy tells the story of Rome’s peaceful takeover of the town of Alba (c. 650 bc), whose leaders had broken oaths of loyalty to Rome. The town was to be razed to the ground, but the Albans were assured that they would be made welcome. Livy movingly describes the natural feelings of despair among the inhabitants as they abandoned their homes and gods and saw their town being destroyed, but goes on: ‘Rome grew on Alba’s ruins.’ The Albans were made citizens and settled on the Caelian hill, their chief men became senators, and prestigious squadrons of Alban soldiers were formed.

The emperor Claudius (ad 41–54) said that Rome’s success lay in knowing how to turn outsiders into allies. The EU countries now have a chance to show they can do the same.


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