Ancient Rome was a city of perhaps a million inhabitants, a level of population that could only be maintained by substantial migration. Many people who died in Rome were not born there. It has been argued that there were exceptionally high levels of mortality (e.g., Walter Scheidel, “Human Mobility in Roman Italy I: The Free Population,” Journal of Roman Studies 104 : 1–26), and that the fertility of migrants was low because family formation was disrupted (e.g., Paul Erdkamp, “Mobility and Migration in Italy in the Second Century bc,” in Luuk de Ligt and Simon Northwood, eds., People, Land, and Politics: Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy, 300 bc–ad 14 , 417–450); Laurens E. Tacoma accepts both views in Moving Romans: Migration to Rome in the Principate. Previous studies of migration to Rome have relied on a limited amount of literary evidence, often written for a specific purpose, and not aiming at factual accuracy even in the case of Seneca, whose family had personal experience of moving to Rome from Spain, and on a large number of inscriptions. Inscriptions are problematic because (among other reasons) only those that contain some indication of a person’s origins can be used. A woman from the fringes of the empire who had a standard Roman name and was commemorated in a standard Latin epitaph might leave no clue about where she came from. As Tacoma regularly acknowledges, people did not necessarily intend to die in the places where they actually died: they might have regarded themselves as temporary migrants in Rome who would return home later in life, but then, as it turned out, not have had the chance to do so. A third type of evidence is now becoming available: scientific analysis of bones and teeth that reveals that people spent parts of their lives in places different from those in which they were buried. Disappointingly little material turns out to be usable, partly because in the period studied by Tacoma cremation was the most common burial rite at Rome. Interpretation can be debatable too; as Tacoma states, “the finding that one person originated from Japan … is remarkable, to say the least” (22 n. 119). Isotopic analysis cannot help to identify people who migrated seasonally for work, and could give misleading results because of bones being taken back to the place of origin for burial. Tacoma acknowledges that this will be an important source of information in the future, but argues that it is not so yet. Some recent scientific studies (e.g., Tracy L. Prowse et al., “Isotopic Evidence for Age-Related Immigration to Imperial Rome,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 132, no. 4 : 510–519) have emphasized that children migrated, presumably in family units, but Tacoma still sees younger, unmarried males as forming the bulk of the free migrant population. Tacoma’s main addition to what has previously been a largely empirical area of study is the application of a variety of interdisciplinary theories and models, drawn from geography, historical demography, and social theory. This includes what he labels “guestimates” about some of the numbers and proportions involved. They can be useful, at least for relative proportions and a sense of scale, as long as they are not taken out of context (it is always tempting to use the figures from a table without reading the pages of analysis behind them). Tacoma combines various figures to calculate that “something between slightly over 60,000 and 245,000 persons in Rome were immigrants” (70). The range is so broad that it is not much help. As Tacoma shows, there are some groups that must have been very significant numerically but can seldom be detected in surviving evidence: seasonal and temporary laborers and imported slaves. These make up the bulk of the 60,000–245,000 persons, but the suggested figures cannot be more than “controlled speculation” (63). Tacoma divides migration into the categories of voluntary, forced (i.e., slaves), and state-organized (mainly soldiers). The book was presumably completed before the migration of refugees became a dominant topic in Europe. Very few people, even slaves, can be shown to have reached Rome from outside the empire in his period. He is certainly right that “the Roman state had no migration policy” (105). Sometimes specific social or ethnic groups consisting largely of migrants were expelled from the city, but that was not motivated by any particular stance on migration per se, and the expelled groups were able to return sooner or later; “negative community definition was the main aim” (103). Tacoma identifies ten types of migration, nine of which were to some extent voluntary (people usually chose to join the army or go to Rome for education or trade); even the poor chose to move to Rome rather than anywhere else “as a last resort” (42) because they expected, rightly or wrongly, to find some sort of economic opportunity. Most types of work for males were open to both slaves and free men, but for free women “the number of possible occupations will have been severely limited” (195), and women were more likely to come to Rome in existing families or in order to form new ones. The image of a multicultural Rome is currently popular, but Tacoma rightly questions whether “cultural diversity was cherished by immigrants” (206). Jews retained a strong sense of community many generations after most of them had actually been migrants, as Tacoma briefly acknowledges (206), but they were exceptional. Evidence for truly migrant cults is limited; Isis and Jupiter Dolichenus were cults with local origins in Egypt and Commagene, respectively, but they became popular among people who had no connection to those regions. Trading stations linked to specific cities were mainly relevant to those involved in business. Network theory “helps us understand the weak sense of community among the immigrants” (240). Studies of modern migration usually include interviews with migrants themselves. The lack of anything equivalent from the Roman world has led some writers to fill the gap with imaginative reconstructions. Tacoma has gone somewhat in the other direction: his migrants are almost entirely anonymous, and discussion of individuals usually takes place in the footnotes. Nevertheless, he has added significant depth to our understanding of Roman migration, and the large number of “forthcoming” works in the bibliography shows that the subject is moving forward rapidly. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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