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Why Ancient Rome Needed Immigrants to Become Powerful

April 3, 2019 in History

By Barry Strauss

How “Roman” was the Roman Empire? Well, by some measures: not very.

As the Roman emperors sought to expand and strengthen their empire, they recognized that immigration was a means for both. Although the Roman elites sneered at immigrants, the emperors welcomed them into the labor force and military, keenly understanding that for the empire to grow and thrive it had to have new blood. Not only was the populace changing but the emperors themselves came from diverse backgrounds, from Spain to Syria.

Their legions contained ever fewer Italians, let alone Romans. Rome became a melting pot, in many ways as much a Greek city as a Latin one, and with African, Celtic, Egyptian, German and Jewish populations as well. But not everyone was pleased with the emperors’ approach to immigration.

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Writing in the late first century AD, for example, the poet Juvenal invents a character who can’t bear how Greek the city of Rome had become, what with its Greek-speaking population and their customs. He complains in frustration, “For a long time now the Syrian River Orontes has flowed down into the Tiber.” For that matter, some Greeks were equally xenophobic, like the Greek satirist Lucian (second century AD), who scorned coarse Roman patrons. But snobbery could not stem the tide of change.

An ancient Roman military parade. Immigrants comprised much of the Roman army.

Between roughly 300 BC and AD 200, millions of immigrants came to Italy. Most arrived in chains, as slaves, the victims of Rome’s wars of expansion or of piracy. But others came of their own free will, either to seek their fortune or to lose themselves in the anonymity of a big city; with a population of about a million, Rome was the largest city in Europe or the Mediterranean. In this cosmopolitan place, people of various backgrounds and skill sets saw opportunities abounding.

The emperors embraced the newcomers, less out of idealism than out of self-interest. Rome had conquered most of its empire under the Republic (509-31 BC). In those days, a narrow elite drawn from a few noble families in the city of Rome governed the empire and considered most of its millions of inhabitants as subjects to be exploited. That was not sustainable, and the Caesars knew it. They came to power with the support of people from outside the old elite, primarily …read more


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