The Illegal Alien Crisis of Ancient Rome

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

Randall Collins turns his sociological eye toward the “illegal alien” crisis of Ancient Rome and considers its implications for America’s future:

The historical comparison gives us a time perspective we lack: we know what happened down that road. The illegal aliens won; in less than 100 years, ethnic and geographical origins ceased to make any difference in Roman society.

Citizenship had its privileges — and, originally at least, its duties:

Ancient Rome was a self-governing republic. Citizens had the right to vote, and the duty to serve in the army. Since they won every war for about 300 years, territory under Roman control expanded, first to all of Italy, then to surrounding regions. The pattern was not unlike the small thirteen colonies that became the United States of America; Romans too sent out colonies to settle on conquered territory, including the Wild West of its time, the tribal frontier of Spain and France. The Roman state became rich in public land — farmland, mines, forests, etc — which it could dispose of to its citizens either as property grants or as leases. This meant that Roman citizens did not have to pay taxes, unlike the conquered peoples. Roman citizenship was a valuable possession.

Rome began as one of many small Italian city-states, and it expanded by making treaties with others. Since independent states might ally themselves with an enemy, Roman alliances tended to have strong elements of threat — they were forced allies, similar to US policy of interfering in the internal government of weaker states during the Cold War. Rome’s allies were required to send troops in time of war (which was most of the time) and to pay for military expenses. Thus being a Roman ally had considerable disadvantages; they were “friends of Rome” but definitely not citizens. Among other things, they were not allowed to marry Roman citizens, since that would provide a legal path to citizenship (again, some similarities to American laws). Hence there was considerable pressure from the allies, especially those attached to the Roman armies, to be treated like Roman soldiers who shared in the spoils of war.

Roman conservatives resisted widening the franchise. Their center of strength was the Senate, the upper body of the Roman legislature, which appointed most of the officials and generals. Senators were from the long-standing patrician families; but new members of the Senate could be appointed, and so there was some upward mobility — from former plebian families that had become wealthy and distinguished, and even ex-slaves and former allies who had risen in importance. Conservatives, however, looked down on the newcomers, as merely vulgar rich (although the old families were rich too), and above all lacking in the heroic virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice that made up their historic (and somewhat mythological) self-image.

Over time, the aliens squeezed through the cracks. The Roman army kept getting larger, as its conquests grew. War casualties, especially in the long fight against Carthage (264-146 BC), its most powerful rival, created a need to raise more soldiers from the allies, and more of them were rewarded by becoming integrated in the Roman legions. Roman soldiers were serving longer and farther away from home, and the small farmer-citizens who were the basis of the militia lost their land; hence they migrated to the city of Rome itself, where they joined in the popular assembly, exercising their voting rights, and more importantly, made a riotous crowd that pressured the decisions of the Senate. What to do with impoverished citizens became a standing problem. One solution was to plant colonies, rewarding ex-soldiers with land from conquered peoples. At first these were in Italy itself, where citizens lived in enclaves next to locally self-governing communities of non-citizen allies — a condition that made the legal distinction into a form of ethnic segregation. Roman colonists could vote and seek favors from the Senate, but only if they traveled to Rome to exercise their right — since voting was done only in the public assembly.


  1. The Fourth Doorman of the Apocalypse says:

    So can we say that Israel is defying history?

    And the historical lesson is there is nothing that can be done to stop it. Nothing humane, at any rate; doggedly conservative states that stake their identity upon ethnic purity become the nastiest of regimes; when they succeed, it is only through the moral outrages of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

  2. Zhai2Nan2 says:

    So can we say that Israel is defying history?

    We can say that Israel is burning through its diplomatic capital with every nation on Earth, except the USA, which is more loyal to Israel than it is to itself.

    The question is — after everyone believes that the Israelis are completely psychopathic mass murderers — will the rest of the world fear the Israelis and curry favor, or will the rest of the world try to strangle Israel and its enabling muscle — the USA?

    Modern capitalism is somewhat like Bartertown in the Mad Max films, except instead of a midget named Master riding a giant named Blaster, we have a midget named Israel riding a giant named USA.

    Who runs Bartertown right now? Israel-USA. Who will run Bartertown if the USA collapses? That remains to be seen.

  3. Rollory says:

    And the historical lesson is there is nothing that can be done to stop it.

    For an empire, it can not be stopped, because it is contrary to the nature of the empire to stop it. For a non-imperial nation, it can be stopped.

    In Anabasis, Xenophon talks about the Kurds and what a pain in the ass they were for anybody who happened to be invading their mountains.

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