Around the time of the EU referendum, I wrote a review of Moving Romans: Migration to Rome in the Principate by Laurens E. Tacoma. Ancient migration has been very prominent in my work recently: the Greek in Italy project just hosted a conference on ancient migration and mobility in May this year, and this book helped add another perspective to a lot of the questions we were asking during those two days. If there’s anything I’ve learned from Tacoma and the speakers during the conference, the population of the Roman Empire was highly mobile. Migration in Europe is far from new.
There are, of course, lots of different kinds of migration that we need to consider when thinking about the ancient world, and one thing I liked about Tacoma’s book was that he considers many different categories without excluding any of them from the picture. On the one hand, the migration that we hear about the most in literary sources is elite migration, particularly the movement of Roman men to lead armies and take up administrative posts in the provinces. Since many of these posts traditionally lasted for a year or two, this made the elite very mobile across long distances. But, even with their extensive entourages, these aristocratic men made up a tiny proportion of the population.
In the epigraphic record, the mobility we’re most likely to see is that of soldiers and, sometimes, other highly mobile professions like actors, musicians, merchants and craftsmen. Soldiers in particular punch above their weight when it comes to putting up tombstones for each other, and they are much more likely than other groups to include details that indicate movement, such as their regiment, where they came from and where they served.
In terms of numbers, the largest group of permanent migrants were those who were forced into migration through slavery. Slaves were not all migrants, though, as many were deliberately bred or fathered by their owners – that is the brutal reality of chattel slavery. But many were brought into or across the Roman Empire by force – hundreds of thousands at the height of the Roman Empire. This was a big part of how the city of Rome maintained its huge population.
But Tacoma also points out that we can’t exclude non-permanent forms of migration from the picture. Many rural communities had seasonal migration patterns for pasturing their animals, often covering very large areas over the course of the year. Similarly, it was common for young men in their late teens and twenties to be mobile before their marriage around age 30. (Free women often married in their early to mid teens, so their economic opportunities were more limited – unlike young early modern women, who, as Tacoma points out, were as much a part of the mobile workforce as young early modern men, and often spent their youth in domestic service before getting married in their late twenties.) These mobile, economically active men might join the army for a while, or go to a larger town or city, or to Rome, seeking employment for a few years. A lot of previous work have not counted this as “migration” as these people did not usually intend to move permanently. But for some of them the move did turn out to be permanent, either because they decided to stay, or because they died before they could return home.
Using a variety of methods, from demography to isotopic analysis of skeletons’ teeth, Tacoma ends up with a total migrant population of about a quarter to a third in the city of Rome. (Not far off the foreign-born population of modern London, which is around 37%.) He emphasises the possibilities of demographic models, and particularly the ways in which we can make comparisons to early modern London. This is detailed stuff, which Tacoma explains brilliantly – I really recommend the book for that aspect alone.
From my point of view, it’s the possibilities for language contact which are really exciting here – though it almost always went undocumented. In the city of Rome, there are very few languages attested other than Latin and Greek. There are a few Palmyrene inscriptions at one or two individual shrines (you can see a couple of examples in the image above) and, in later centuries, some Hebrew, but the huge mix of languages that must have existed is lost to us. Many slaves, for example, would either have spoken Greek (at least as a second language), or would have had to learn Latin very quickly, with few opportunities to speak their mother tongue, and certainly no motivation to write anything down for us to find. All the same, Tacoma’s work shows that we should be thinking of the city of Rome as a diverse and mobile place.
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