MOVING ROMANS: Migration to Rome in the Principate

Laurens E. Tacoma

Oxford (2016) h/b 304 pages £70 (ISBN 9780198768050)

Moving Romans is a meticulous and highly readable account of migration and migrants in the first and second centuries AD. While T. focuses on the city of Rome itself, his account of ancient migration takes in the whole of the Roman Empire and its relationships with the peoples beyond its borders. This book brings together the latest work in epigraphy, archaeology, demography, linguistics and migration theory to give an engaging account of exactly what we know—and just how much we do not know—about Roman migration.

T. takes an inclusive view of who counts as a ‘migrant’. He argues convincingly that work which excludes categories such as temporary or seasonal migration, migratory professions such as soldiers or sailors, or the forced migration of slaves needlessly cuts out important parts of the picture. He also does not categorise migration, as some past work has done, by the distance moved or the length of time spent away from home; as he points out, even the shortest temporary move can become permanent migration if the migrant dies unexpectedly. Instead, he divides migration into ten main categories: elite migration, including seasonal mobility between Rome and country estates; administrative migration of the elite and their entourages to the provinces for a period of up to several years; educational migration of students to large cities or the Greek East; intellectual migration of teachers, grammarians, rhetoricians, writers and philosophers; itinerant professions such as gladiators, actors, athletes and musicians; seasonal and temporary labour migration; economic migration of the poor, including peasants, returning soldiers and fugitive slaves, to cities and towns; mobility of traders and merchants; forced migration of slaves; and military migration of soldiers. These groups are uneven in their numbers and are represented to differing extents in our sources—the elite and soldiers are much better attested than destitute farmers moving to Rome in pursuit of the free corn dole, for example. There is also the potential for overlap between categories and many families must have experienced several types of migration over the course of their lives.

These ten categories re-surface throughout the book, though they are often reduced to ‘voluntary’, ‘forced’ and ‘state-sponsored’ (that is, military and administrative) migration. T. offers some estimates of the upper and lower limits of the number of migrants in Rome, and the possible relative proportions of these three main categories. While emphasising that there are many unknowns in the calculations, he argues that around 20-30% of the population of Rome were migrants, of which perhaps 25-50% were slaves and freedmen (remembering, of course, many additional slaves were born and raised locally). This is closely comparable to the demographic modelling of early modern cities, which acted as high-mortality ‘urban graveyards’ that were dependent on immigration to maintain their population. T.’s estimates also agree with the available evidence from isotopic analysis of the teeth of skeletons in Rome’s graveyards, which show that around a third of the population grew up outside the city.

Despite the parallels with early modern urbanization, T. is also keen to emphasise that Rome’s social structure made it unique. He argues that Rome’s cross-culturally unusual pattern of early marriage for women and late marriage for men freed up an unattached and highly mobile young male workforce aged 15-30, which may have made up the majority of voluntary and state-sponsored migrants. He also emphasises the structural similarities, in demographic terms, between these voluntary migrants and the slaves who were forcibly brought to Rome—they, too, were mainly young men in their teens and twenties. This reflects the fact that in many cases free and enslaved unskilled men were performing similar tasks and working alongside each other, though T. suggests that freeborn women may have had few opportunities for unskilled work outside the home.

While the quantitative side of this study necessarily involves a fair amount of educated guess-work, T.’s close attention to the detail of individual literary accounts and epigraphic attestations of migration fills out this picture with intricate detail. From Umbricius’ rant in Juvenal’s third satire to the Latin-Palmyrene bilingual inscriptions of the shrine of Sol, we hear a range of perspectives on immigration. Those with an interest in inscriptions might wish for more quotation and analysis of the epigraphic texts, but T. gives extensive references to where the reader should look for more detail. The bringing together of many different types of evidence is what makes T.’s work uniquely valuable.

What T. shows throughout this thorough and well-argued book is that migration was a feature of many lives in ancient Rome, across all social classes. Any readers interested in learning more about this topical debate in Roman history will find Moving Romans illuminating and rewarding.

Katherine McDonald

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