Ancient Rome Open City to Refugees: Antique Republics and Inclusive Citizenship

A story in the Britsh press about archaeological investigations in Rome that suggest the city is about 150 years oldler than its legendary foundation in 753 BCE reminds me of the apparent characteristic quality of early Rome, its openness to refugees, vagrants, and everyone in search of a new home.  At least this is the impression we get from Livy’s History of Romeand it makes sense given that Rome did keep getting bigger as as a city and greater in the reach of its power through alliances ansd aborption. We can also think of how the foundational mythology, we see in Virgil’sAeneid, represents Rome as the product of refugees from Troy.

Romans do not appear to have had the Greek tendency to only accept citizenship through inheritence, or the Carthaginian tendency for an ethnically distinct originally foreign elite to rule over a hetereogneous body of ordinary citizens from the region.  The story of Romulus and Remus itself suggests that Roman sovereignty originated with an elite that maybe came in part from outside, but soon became part of the whole population of the city.The openness of Rome appears to have been maintained through expansion in Italy, then imperial expansion across the Mediterranean world during the Punic Wars, and on throughout the Emperors. The second Rome, Constantinople, was filled with the marginals of the Empire willing to move to a new home and new oppotunities.

The open status of the city of Rome was a feature of the Imperial and early kingly, as well as Republican periods, but that it was a feature of  the Republican period, should cause us to challenge some assumptions about Republican political theory resting on ideas of  small self-contained city state unwelcoming to foreigners.

The Skinner-Pettit style of Neo-Roman liberty, or Roman republicanism, does not really capture this, as the orderly institutionalism of Pettit’s approach in particular, is far too ordered and rationalised to accommodate the tensions and strains that arose from the incorporation of new inhabitants into Rome. The failure of the Republic to resolve those tensions led to to its transformation into a politcal autocracy, in the period from Marius to Augustus, but we should not ignore its approximately five centuries of life, in a form of life much more disorderly and conflicted than the Cambridge School or Pettit suggest, at least in their more stereotypical moments.

Arendt’s ‘Athenian’ republicanism, which does refer to the most open of the Greek city states is more appropriate for understanding these features of Rome, regardless of her suspicions of the Roman understanding of politics at the theoretical level. It is Arendt who did more than any other political thinker of any time to make us think about refugees and stateless people, and how such situations are linked to the worst abuses of state power.Sadly Arendt’s concerns in this area are all too relevant at present, even in the most established democracies.

It follows then, or so I believe, that very classically grounded republican political thought is less in conflict with individualistic liberal, including libertarian, political thinking than is often presumed, particulary with regard to open borders.

Of course, we should avoid idolatory of Ancient Rome or Greece, to the excluson of other republics in the region. As suggested above, Carthage is a model worth considering, in part because it did allow for pluralism of some kind in the composition of the ciitzen body, if in a rather herarchical manner.

No doubt, the People and Senate of Rome were not always delighted by newcomers. Of course, many of those ‘welcomed’ to Rome were slaves. Even there, we can offer the qualification that slaves were often freed, becoming maybe notable philosophers (as with Epictetus) or the fathers of Emperors.

We might also draw out the thought here that Livy’s History of Rome is one of the most important of all books, with regard to political ideas and social philosophy, as well as history,  informing Machiavelli’s view of Rome in the most obvious way in Discourse on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, Vico’s view of Rome and all antiquity in the New ScienceMontesquieu’s view in The Spirit of the Laws and Considerations on the  Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and  their Decline, and so on.

In short, the greatness of Rome drew on its openness to refugees and incomers across bordes. We sould understand the Roman Republic through the waves of newcomers and the creative tensions of life together.

Cross posted at the group blog NewAPPS

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2 thoughts on “Ancient Rome Open City to Refugees: Antique Republics and Inclusive Citizenship

  1. My brain is a little fuzzy right now, but all of the things you write here, that were present in Rome from its infancy, so often overlooked now (for e.g. in Hollywood films that, since the 1930’s from de Mille through to Ridley Scott, have focussed on its imperial excesses and cruelty), all this is exactly the reason I have always loved Rome best. Fell in love with the Re Public as a teenager (with Livy’s and Polybius’ accounts in particular). The sheer scale, the ‘modernity’. the humanity, flexibility and adaptability it was capable of. Its clever, pragmatic, humanistic laws and practices. A model can be perfect, no practice ever is, but this is still the practice closest to my heart. More than any other people before or since, they were able to go elsewhere and simply let cultures be. Provided superstructure and infrastructure, required compliance in return, but let hearts and minds be. Perhaps the secret to their success? Never once properly emulated or repeated since.

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