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Ancient and modern

The Romans got it right on immigration

No matter where you came from, as long as you adopted the Roman way, you could go right to the top

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

1 October 2016

9:00 AM

As the UK prepares for Brexit into the big wide world outside, it has been pointed out that the Foreign Office is sadly lacking in people with hard experience of that world, and even more lacking in people from that world. But if the Romans can do it, surely we can too.

Whatever else the Romans were, they were not hung up about race. That did not mean they admired all foreigners. The satirist Juvenal was cynical about the Greeks, who would happily turn into anything you wanted them to at the drop of a hat; and doctors observed that different environments produced not only different physical make-ups but also different mentalities — often unattractive ones.

But Romans seemed to think that none of that mattered as long as Johnny Foreigner learned the Roman way. That would turn him into a good, honest Roman, as people from all over the empire discovered, from Britain to Syria, from Africa to Armenia, from Greece and Asia to the Danube.

To take one example: the Roman army was full of provincials, who found it a very good way to become a Roman citizen and make (with luck) a decent living. They came from all over: Gaul, Spain, Belgium, the Balkans and so on. Provincials who worked their way up to high position in the army could also find themselves in positions of considerable political power.

Septimius Severus, for example, was from a family in Carthage (North Africa). His grandfather had held high position in the African town of Leptis Magna when the Roman emperor (born in Spain) was Trajan (d. ad 117).

When Septimius was born (ad 145), the family already had two senators in Rome. His civilian career (governor in Pannonia, north of the Balkans) and military experience brought him to the imperial throne in ad 193.

The rise of Maximian was even more dramatic. During the military power struggles of the 3rd century ad, he became co-emperor with Diocletian. His origin? Son of a Serbian shopkeeper.

Rome was a world where you could make good. So is the UK. Brexit needs the best the world can offer. Bring them, and their experience, in.

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