Immigrants and Foreigners in the City of Rome

20 Expulsions from the City of Rome

Siobhán McElduff

Learning Objectives

In this section you will learn about:

  • The expulsions of various ethnic, religious, and professional groups from Rome;
  • The lack of legal protection for immigrants in Rome.

Many immigrants were not citizens and that left them with very little legal protection unless they held Latin status. One action the Romans could take against immigrants was to expel them from the city, and they did so on a number of occasions and with a range of different groups from the Latins to astrologers.

The Latin allies had never anything worse to submit to than (and it was a case of very rare occurrence) the being ordered by the consul to depart from the city. And they had the power then of returning to their own cities, to their own household gods; and in that general disaster no peculiar ignominy was attached by name to any single individual. But what is the case here? Is the consul to banish, by his edict, Roman citizens from their household gods?

Cicero, In Defense of Sestius 30

Livy talks of another expulsion of foreigners in 187 BCE:

In Gaul the praetor Marcus Furius, seeking in peace the appearance of war, had disarmed the Cenomani who had given no provocation: 2 as a result they complained about this before the senate at Rome, and were referred to the consul Aemilius, whom the senate had authorized to investigate and decide, and after engaging in great contention with the praetor won their case. 3 The praetor was ordered to restore their arms to the Cenomani and to leave the province. 4 Then ambassadors from the allies of the Latin confederacy, who had assembled from all Latium in great numbers from every side, were granted an audience by the senate. When they complained that a great number of their citizens had migrated to Rome and had been assessed there, 5. Quintus Terentius Culleo the praetor was instructed to search them out, and, on receiving from the allies proof that any person or the father of such person had been assessed among the allies in the censorship of Gaius Claudius and Marcus Livius or after that censorship, to compel such persons to return to the places where they had been registered. 6 As a consequence of this investigation twelve thousand of the Latins returned home, for even at that time a multitude of aliens was burdening the city.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 39.3-4

Another expulsion of Latins took place in 177 BCE, after citizens of their home towns complained as they were still expected to supply the same number of soldiers despite the fact that many of their citizens had moved to Rome, acted like Roman citizens, and were no longer available to be sent there (somewhat ironically)

Ambassadors from the confederate states of Latium, who, after having ineffectually applied to the former consuls and censors, were at last introduced to an audience, made a powerful impression on the senate. [6] The amount of their complaints was, that “their citizens, having been registered in the census at Rome, had most of them removed there; [7] and that if this practice were allowed, it would come to pass, in the course of a very few generations, that their deserted towns and country would be unable to supply any soldiers.” [8] The Samnites and the Pelignians also said that four thousand families had emigrated to Fregellae; and that neither of these places gave less soldiers on that account. [9] That there had been practised two species of fraud in individuals changing their citizenship: there was a law, which granted liberty to any of the allies or Latins, who should not leave his offspring at home, to be enrolled a citizen of Rome; yet, by an abuse of this law, some did injury to the allies, others to the Roman people. [10] For, at first, to evade  leaving children at home, they made over their children as slaves to some Roman, under an agreement that they should be again set free, and thus become citizens by emancipation;[1] and then those men, who had now no children to leave, became Roman citizens. [11] Afterwards, they neglected even these appearances of law; and, without any regard either to the law or family, passed indiscriminately into the Roman state by migration, and getting themselves included in the census. [12] To prevent this happening again in the future, the ambassadors requested the senate order the allies to return to their respective states, and to provide by a law that no one should make any man his property, or alienate such property for the purpose of a change of citizenship; and that if any person should by such means be made a citizen of Rome, he should not enjoy the rights of a citizen.” [9] Then Caius Claudius, by direction of the senate, proposed a law and issued a proclamation, that “any of the allies and Latin confederates, who themselves, or whose ancestors, had been surveyed among the associated states of Latium in the censorship of Marcus Claudius and Titus Quintius, or at any time since, should all return, each to his respective state, before the calends of November.” [10] Dealing with those that did not obey, was entrusted to Lucius Mummius the praetor. To the law and the proclamation of the consul, was added a decree of the senate, that “the dictator, consul, interrex, censor, or praetor, who then should be in office, before whom any slave should be brought, to receive manumission, should cause the said slave who was about to be made free, to make oath, that the person giving him liberty did not do it for the purpose of his changing his citizenship;” they ordered that he, whoever would not swear this oath, should not be freed. [12] The cognizance and jurisdiction in this business was, for the future, assigned to Caius Claudius the consul.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 41.8-9


It was not just various ethnic groups that could be expelled from Rome; professions could also be targeted. Cicero writes about an expulsion of philosophers in 126 BCE:

They, too, do wrong who would prevent foreigners from enjoying the advantages of their city and would exclude them from its borders, as was done by Pennus[2] in the time of our fathers, and in recent times by Papius[3]. It may not be right, of course, for one who is not a citizen to exercise the rights and privileges of citizenship; and the law on this point was secured by two of our wisest consuls, Crassus and Scaevola. Still, to prevent foreigners from enjoying the advantages of the city is altogether contrary to the laws of humanity. There are splendid examples in history where the apparent expediency of the state been ignored out of regard for moral goodness. Our own country has many examples to offer throughout her history, and especially in the Second Punic War, when news came of the disaster at Cannae, Rome displayed a loftier courage than ever she did in success and never showed a trace of cowardice, never a mention of making terms. The influence of moral right is so potent, at it eclipses the specious appearance of expediency.

Cicero, On Moral Duties 3.11

Cassius Dio reports Agrippa, a friend and eventually son-in-law of Augustus, expelling astrologers, among many other actions, in 33 BCE:

43 1 The next year Agrippa agreed to be made aedile, and without taking anything from the public treasury repaired all the public buildings and all the streets, cleaned out the sewers, and sailed through them underground into the Tiber. 2 And seeing that in the circus men made mistakes about the number of laps completed, he set up the dolphins and egg-shaped objects so that by their aid the number of times the course had been circled might be clearly shown. Furthermore he distributed olive-oil and salt to all, 3 and supplied the baths free of charge throughout the year for the use of both men and women; and in connection with the many festivals of all kinds which he gave — on such a scale, in fact, that the children of senators also performed the equestrian games called “Troy” — he hired the barbers, so that no one should be at any expense for their services. 4 Finally he rained upon the heads of the people in the theatre tickets that were good for money in one case, for cloth in another, and again for something else, and he also set out immense quantities of various wares for all comers and allowed the people to scramble for these things. 5 Besides doing this Agrippa drove the astrologers and charlatans from the city. During these same days a decree was passed that no one belonging to the senatorial class should be tried for piracy, and so those who were under any charge at the time were set free, and some were given a free hand to practice their villainy in the future.

Cassius Dio, 49.43.1-5

Augustus went even further and expelled slaves and gladiators in a time of famine:

Once indeed in a time of great scarcity when it was difficult to find a remedy, Augustus expelled from the city the slaves that were for sale, as well as the schools of gladiators, all foreigners with the exception of physicians and teachers, and a part of the household slaves; and when grain at last became more plentiful, he writes: “I was strongly inclined to do away forever with distributions of grain, because through dependence on them agriculture was neglected; but I did not carry out my purpose, feeling sure that they would one day be renewed through desire for popular favour.” But from that time on he regulated the practice with no less regard for the interests of the farmers and grain-dealers than for those of the populace.

Suetonius, Augustus 42.3

Tiberius expelled astrologers in 17 CE amid panic over a conspiracy to overthrow him involving a Roman aristocrat who was interested in astrology:

Decrees of the Senate were also passed to expel from Italy astrologers and magicians. One of their number, Lucius Pituanius, was hurled from the Rock. Another, Publius Marcius, was executed, according to ancient custom, by the consuls outside the Esquiline Gate, after the trumpets had been bidden to sound.

Tacitus, Annales 2.32

The legal scholar Ulpian provides more information about the law itself:

Also banned is the crafty and stubbornly persuasive fraud of the astrologers. It is not just in modern times that this has been banned: rather, it is an old prohibition. In short, there is a decree of the senate dating to the consulship of Pomponius and Rufus that prescribes exile and property confiscation for astrologers, Chaldaeans, soothsayers, and all who do similar things – or death if the person is a foreigner.

Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum 15.2.1


In the above source, Ulpian makes clear a different punishment for astrologers who were Roman — expulsion — and astrologers who were foreigners — death. How is that difference in the magnitude of punishments between ethnic groups the same today? How is it different?



In 19 CE he expelled the Jews, along with worshippers of Isis:

85 1 Another debate dealt with the proscription of the Egyptian and Jewish rites, and a senatorial edict directed that four thousand descendants of enfranchised slaves, tainted with that superstition and suitable in point of age, were to be shipped to Sardinia and there employed in suppressing banditry: “if they succumbed to the pestilential climate, it was a cheap loss.” The rest had orders to leave Italy, unless they had renounced their impious ceremonial by a given date.

Tacitus, Annals 85

Here is Suetonius describing the same events, along with some dubious claims about Tiberius getting rid of foreign rituals among the Romans.

36 1 He abolished foreign cults, especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites, compelling all who were addicted to such superstitions to burn their religious vestments and all their paraphernalia. Those of the Jews who were of military age he assigned to provinces of less healthy climate, ostensibly to serve in the army; the others of that same race or of similar beliefs he banished from the city, on pain of slavery for life if they did not obey. He banished the astrologers as well, but pardoned those who begged for forgiveness and promised to give up their art.

Suetonius, Tiberius 36.1

Despite this, he was incredibly reliant on astrology as Suetonius also tells us:

69 1 Although somewhat neglectful of the gods and of religious matters, being addicted to astrology and firmly convinced that everything was in the hands of fate, he was nevertheless immoderately afraid of thunder. Whenever the sky was lowering, he always wore a laurel wreath, because it is said that that kind of leaf is not struck by lightning.

Suetonius, Tiberius 69.1


Sources and further reading:

Ripat, Pauline (2011). “Expelling Misconceptions: Astrologers at Rome.” Classical Philology 106: 115-154

  1. Any slave freed by a Roman citizen became automatically a Roman citizen. It seems unlikely that this was happening a lot.
  2. M. Iunius Pennus, [pb_glossary id="620"]tribune of the plebs[/pb_glossary] 126 BCE.
  3. C. Papius, tribune of the plebs 65 BCE, had a law passed that expelled all foreigners from Rome.


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