The case for a path to citizenship for immigrants goes back to ancient Rome



A man exits the transit area after clearing immigration and customs on arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S., September 24, 2017. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan/Files

The United States continues to face the challenge of pursuing comprehensive immigration reform and the question of how to provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country. But the history of the Roman Empire reminds us how important addressing this problem is, and the dangers of mistreating immigrants.

The Roman Empire from the 1st through the 4th centuries was not an easy place for foreigners to call their home. With an unexamined confidence in their own cultural supremacy, Romans created a rigid line – an unmovable wall – between civilization and barbarism. People unlucky enough to find themselves on the wrong side, whether in the Arabian desert or the Danube bogs, were ridiculed for their backward ways.

If you were a foreigner, Rome’s poets, playwrights and writers mocked you for your ethnic dress, ethnic customs and your odd religious professions. “They fall in love almost before they’re acquainted” went one Roman charge against the “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” of Christian believers and the alleged promiscuity and incest that pagans claimed to have seen at their gatherings. Jews who dared to collect alms for their own faith community in Jerusalem were deemed hostile outsiders since their financial support for one another made their civic allegiances questionable, at least in the Romans’ narrow minds. Those men initiated into the fellowship of Egyptian Isis – required to undergo the thoroughly un-Roman style choice of shaving their heads – were ridiculed in popular comedies.

Romans also stereotyped those outside the boundaries of the empire in hostile ways. When the poet Ovid arrived in the Black Sea, he characterized the people of his strange new home as animals – worse than wolves, he said, a sentiment that other Romans shared.

And yet, despite these attitudes and beliefs, the Romans also had a powerful legal mechanism to welcome people from these different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds into Rome’s larger political community. The government extended them citizenship.

Citizenship offered protection from the slave traders, who were notorious for profiting from the sale of humans at the auction block. It also ensured that residents could draw up legally recognizable wills and bequeath property to heirs rather than having it confiscated or sold. More generally, it provided everyday recourse to a judge and jury in the event of a dispute – say, between landlords and renters, money lenders and entrepreneurs, or two aggrieved neighbors should property matters on their farms turn ugly, as they frequently did. The same law in Roman Tunisia applied in Roman Turkey, as it did in all of Rome’s provinces. Because Roman citizens paid taxes on their inherited wealth, the benefits to Rome’s treasury were also, as a result, quite substantial.

Even the staunchest defender of traditional Roman values, Cicero, recognized the benefit to Rome and Romans of extending political invitations to newcomers. That is why, he acknowledged in the 1st century B.C., “from every [foreign] community there exists a path into our own.” As historian Clifford Ando has explained it, Cicero’s point was not only literal but conceptual. Traveling down this road or path, the via civitatis, spoke to the immigrant experience as a journey, one that culminated with both their arrival and their legal acceptance in Rome.

There were important trade-offs, though. By and large, citizenship came through years of military service or through a formal government petition from those with access to power. Veterans earned it as a reward for successful campaigns. By the 2nd century A.D., residents of frontier towns, outside Italy, could and did request it directly from the emperor.

For centuries, grants of citizenship to newcomers made ancient Rome into a multiethnic, multiracial, religiously plural society. It allowed Rome to embark on a common civic endeavor across the Italian Peninsula, uniting, for example, the residents of small hilltop towns and proud ethnic groups whose treasured languages and cultures – like Oscan, Tuscan, Sabine and Ligurian – became part of the warp and weft of Roman identity.

From lands as far away as the Iberian Peninsula or as near as Gaul, such policies eventually brought foreign talent into the government, as Emperor Claudius, himself born in Gaul, famously did in the 1st century A.D. when he expanded the Roman Senate to include men from that region, even with its history of notorious resistance. By the 2nd century A.D., it brought a peace and prosperity across Rome’s territorial possessions in Europe, Africa and the Middle East the likes of which would leave a lasting impression on the 19th century’s leading voice on antiquity, Edward Gibbon, who described the height of Rome’s empire as encompassing “the most civilized portion of mankind.”

Yet, when Romans ended their generosity and stopped welcoming new citizens, their society landed at a critical crossroad. After A.D. 212, no one born outside Roman territory was ever invited to become a citizen. Even as more foreigners, refugees and migrants came into Rome’s lands in these years, seeking the same opportunities that had attracted migrants in the past – better jobs, better quality of life, an escape from civil wars back home – Rome’s government spent exorbitant sums to build massive walls around cities and towns, to keep foreigners out. As the empire grew, a rigid two-tier legal system developed, one for Rome’s citizens and one for the recent arrivals, the peregrini, or “foreigners,” who by one estimate numbered between 1 million and 2 million people by the 4th century A.D. And there was no path to integrate them.

On Aug. 24, 410, a 40-year-old soldier in the Roman army, a Goth named Alaric, born at the river border that divided Roman land from his own, unleashed a stunning attack against the city of Rome after years of failed negotiations to secure political rights for himself and his Gothic people. Politicians had previously told Alaric that there would be no promotion or advancement for him or anyone in his family. With citizenship unattainable, Alaric had reached the limit of what nativist Romans thought possible for those who hailed from the world of the “barbarians.”

In 410, the Goths and their allies, led by Alaric, crashed through Rome’s Salt Gate, one of the 16 gates that provided entry to the capital city, and set fire to temples, houses, apartments and civic buildings, in retaliation for the Romans’ political intransigency. Untold Romans – citizens and noncitizens – died in the sneak attack. The city smoldered for days. Within two generations, as politicians increasingly chose to cede Roman land to the control of foreigners, like the Goths, rather than extend these groups Roman citizenship, the Roman Empire fell apart.

Alaric’s version of what led up to the pivotal historical events of August 410 might be worth listening to right now. For if there is one lesson still waiting to be discovered in the attic of ancient history, it’s that we can’t afford to ignore outsiders’ perspectives on entrenched systems of power and authority. In our modern world, that’s a mistake we shouldn’t still be repeating.

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Douglas Boin is the author of “Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome” (Norton), now available in paperback, and a professor of history at Saint Louis University.



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