Immigrants and Foreigners in the City of Rome

17 Rome as a City of Immigrants

Learning Objectives

In this section you will learn about:

  • Rome’s founding narrative as a place of asylum for men and as a forcible abductor of women;
  • The level of Rome’s immigration and the complexity of the various ethnic groups in the empire’s greatest city;
  • Attacks on Roman citizens from outside the city as outsiders and untrustworthy.


The following section includes references to sexual assault. Rome as a society was founded on the conquest, plunder, and assault of the surrounding communities, as expressed in their creation lore. Sadly, women as rape victims tend to appear quite frequently in early stories, when they appear at all.

Rome was traditionally said to have started as an asylum for runaway slaves, exiles, and others who could not return to their home cities for various reasons, as its first and legendary king, Romulus, needed citizens fast. Unfortunately for him it turned out that most of those who turned up were men, and women were necessary for there to be a next generation of Romans, and so the narrative of free(ish) immigration soon turns into a tale of abduction and rape of neighbouring women:

The Roman state had now become so strong that it was a match for any of its neighbours in war, but its greatness threatened to last for only one generation, since because they had no women there was no hope of children and they had no right to intermarry with their neighbours. Acting on the advice of the Senate, Romulus sent envoys amongst the surrounding nations to ask for alliances and the right of intermarriage on behalf of his new community. These said that these cities, like everything else, sprung from the humblest beginnings, and those who were helped on by their own courage and the favour of heaven won for themselves great power and great renown. As to the origin of Rome, it was well known that while it had received divine assistance,[1] it did not lack courage and self-reliance. There should, therefore, be no reluctance for men to mingle their blood with their fellow-men. Nowhere did the envoys meet with a favourable reception. Whilst their proposals were treated with disdain, there was at the same time a general feeling of alarm at the power so rapidly growing among them. Usually they were dismissed with the question, “whether they had opened an asylum for women, for nothing short of that would secure for them intermarriage on equal terms.” The Roman youth could barely tolerate such insults, and it began to look like there would be war.

Livy, From the Founding of the City 1.9

Romulus solved that problem by abducting and raping the women from a neighbouring people, the Sabines, at a giant set of games he had organized. Rome eventually expanded its citizenship to include those people and other Latin tribes, and eventually all of Italy. It also gave citizenship to local elites in the provinces, to soldiers in its auxilliary forces after they had served a set number of years, to all slaves freed by Roman citizens, and some others on individual bases. However, many Romans loathed foreigners and resented any expansion of Roman citizenship, even if they themselves had benefitted from such an expansion. They even had problems with Roman citizens who were born 70 miles outside Rome, like Cicero, and those issues were increased when Roman emperors began to be born to Roman citizens overseas, much to some people’s discomfort.


In the Late Republic accusations about people who didn’t come properly from Rome were part and parcel of political invective and abuse, exemplified by this story from an ancient biography of the orator and politician Cicero.

There was a certain Octavius, too, who was reputed to be of African descent; to this man, who said at a certain trial that he could not hear Cicero, the orator replied: “And yet your ear is pierced.”

Plutarch, Life of Cicero 26.9

Cicero himself was attacked for being an outsider to Rome, as Plutarch also tells us right after the above story:

Be aware also that this following excerpt contains an example of slut-shaming. Unfortunately, as our society has an incapacity to comprehend or to accept women’s sexualities, so did ancient Rome

Again, in a dispute with Cicero, Metellus Nepos asked repeatedly “Who is your father?”[2] “In your case,” said Cicero, “your mother has made the answer to this question rather difficult.”

Plutarch, Life of Cicero 26.9

Cicero came from the town of Arpinum, which was 100 km south east of Rome — not exactly a vast distance; it had been give Roman citizenship in 188 BC, over 80 years before Cicero was born. But still when people faced him in court they had no problem labelling him an outsider, a non-Roman. During a particularly vicious law case, Lucius Manlius Torquatus, accused Cicero of aiming at being a foreigner and king (another common accusation in Rome):

And if, jurors, it is fine for me and you to be considered foreigners by the rest of the patricians,[3] still nothing ought to be said about this ‘stain’ by Torquatus. For on his mother’s side his is a citizen of a municipal town; a man of a most honourable and noble family, but still he comes from Asculum. Either let him, then, show that the Picentians alone are not foreigners, or else let him congratulate himself that I do not put my family before his. So do not in the future call me a foreigner, in case I get you a stronger response; and do not call me a king, in case you are laughed at.

Cicero, In Defense of Sulla[4] 25


The following contains accounts of RACISM, XENOPHOBIA, BIGOTRY

Like many modern racists some in Rome blamed foreigners, whether they came there willingly or not, for their own woes. In the following the poet Juvenal, a bigot of the first water, who hated all outsiders (he also, for good measure, hated women — in fact there was little that he did not hate) attacks various groups from the east that he believes are why he cannot make decent money as a satirist.

Since at Rome there is no place for honest pursuits, no profit to be got by honest work (I have less money to-day than yesterday, and to-morrow I will make even less) I plan to emigrate to the spot where Daedalus put off his wearied wings,[5] while I still only have a few grey hairs and my old age is green and erect; while something still remains for Lachesis[6] to spin, and I can bear myself on my own legs, without a stick needed for my right hand. Let us leave our native land. There let Arturius and Catulus live. Let those stay in it who turn black to white; for whom it is an easy matter to get contracts for building temples, clearing rivers, constructing harbours, cleaning the sewers, setting out funerals, and selling under the spear.[7]

Romans! I cannot tolerate that the city has become Greek — and yet how small the amount here is even of the dregs of Greece! The Syrian river Orontes has long since flowed into the Tiber,[8] and brought with it its language, morals, and the crooked harps with the flute-player and its national tambourines, and girls made to stand for hire at the Circus Maximus. Go there, anyone who wants a barbarian whore with an embroidered turban. That rustic of yours, Quirinus, takes his Greek ‘off to dinner’ cloak and wears Greek medals on his neck smeared with foreign oil. One has left behind steep Sicyon, another Amydon, a third Andros, another Samos, and yet another Tralles, or Alabanda, to swarm to the Esquiline,[9] and the hill called from its osiers,[10] destined to be the very vitals, and future lords of great houses. These have a quick wit, desperate impudence, a ready speech, and more rapidly fluent even than Isaeus.[11] Tell me, what do you think he is? He has brought with him whatever character you wish—grammarian rhetorician, geometer, painter, trainer, fortune-teller, ropedancer, physician, wizard—he knows everything.

Tell a hungry little Greek go to heaven! He’ll go. In short, it was not a North African, a Sarmatian, or a Thracian that took wings, but one born in the heart of Athens. Shall I not shun these men’s purple togas? Shall this person take precedence to me in signing his name, and recline pillowed on a more honourable couch[12] than I, though imported to Rome by the same wind that brought the plums and figs? Is it completely worth nothing that in my infancy I inhaled the air of the Aventine, and fed on Sabine berries? Why add that this nation, most deeply experienced in flattery, praises the conversation of a moron, the face of a hideously ugly friend, and compares some weak fellow’s crane-like neck to the brawny shoulders of Hercules holding Antaeus far from his mother Earth, and is in raptures at his squeaking voice, which sounds much like that of the cock as he leaps on the hen.

Besides, there is nothing that is held sacred by these people, or that is safe from their lust. Neither you wife, nor your virgin daughter, nor her suitor, still unable to shave, nor your son, untouched before this. If none of these are to be found, he assails his friend’s grandmother. They aim at learning the secrets of the house, and from that knowledge be feared. And since we have begun to talk of the Greeks, let’s move on to their schools of philosophy, and hear the foul crime of the more dignified cloak. It was a Stoic that killed Bareas–the informer, his personal friend–the old man, his own pupil–bred on that shore on which the pinion of the Gorgonean horse lighted. There is no room for any Roman here, where some Protogenes, Diphilus, or Erimanthus reigns supreme; who, with the common vice of his race, never shares a friend, but keeps him entirely to himself. In exact proportion to the sum of money a man keeps in his chest, is the credit given to his oath. Though you were to swear by all the altars of the Samothracian[13] and our own gods, the poor man is believed to despise the thunder-bolts and the gods, even with the sanction of the gods themselves. Why add that this same poor man furnishes material and grounds for ridicule to all, if his cloak is dirty and torn, if his toga is a little soiled, and one shoe gapes with its upper leather burst; or if more than one patch displays the coarse fresh darning thread, where a rent has been sewn up. Poverty, bitter though it be, has no sharper pang than this, that it makes men ridiculous. “Let him retire, if he has any shame left, and quit the cushions of the knights, that has not the income required by the law, and let these seats be taken by the sons of pimps, born in some brothel or other! Here let the son of the sleek crier applaud among the spruce youths of the gladiator, and the scions of the fencing-school.

Who was ever allowed at Rome to become a son-in-law if his estate was inferior, and not a match for the dowry of the young lady? What poor man’s name appears in any will? When is he summoned to a consultation even by an aedile? All Roman citizens that are poor ought long ago to have emigrated in a body. Difficult indeed is it for those to emerge from obscurity whose noble qualities are cramped by narrow means at home; but at Rome, for men like these, the attempt is still more hopeless; it is only at an exorbitant price they can get a wretched lodging, keep for their slaves, and a frugal meal. A man is ashamed here to dine off pottery ware, which, were he suddenly transported to the Marsi and a Sabine board, contented there with a coarse bowl of blue earthenware, he would no longer deem discreditable. Here, in Rome, the splendour of dress is carried beyond men’s means; here, something more than is enough, is taken occasionally from another’s chest. In this fault all participate. Here we all live with a poverty that apes our betters. Why should I detain you? Everything at Rome is coupled with high price. What have you to give, that you may occasionally pay your respects to Cossus?[14] So Veiento[15] may give you a passing glance, though without deigning to open his mouth? One shaves the beard, another deposits the hair of a favourite; the house is full of venal cakes.[16]

I need to live in a place where there are no fires, no nightly alarms. Ucalegon[17] is already shouting for water and removing his possessions: the third story in the house you live in is already in a blaze. Yet you are unconscious! For if the alarm begin from the bottom of the stairs, he will be the last to be burnt whom a single tile protects from the rain, where the tame pigeons lay their eggs.[18] Codrus had a bed too small for his Procula, six little jugs the ornament of his sideboard, and a little can besides beneath it, and a Chiron reclining under the same marble, and a chest now grown old in the service contained his Greek books, and mice gnawed poems of divine inspiration. Codrus possessed nothing at all — who denies that? Yes all that little nothing that he had, he lost. But the climax that crowns his misery is the fact, that though he is stark naked and begging for a few scraps, no one will lend a hand to help him to bed and board. But, if the great mansion of Asturicus has fallen, the matrons appear in mourning clothes, the senators too, the praetor adjourns the courts. Then it is we groan for the accidents of the city; then we loathe the very name of fire. The fire is still raging, and already there runs up to him one who offers to present him with marble, and contribute towards the rebuilding. Another will present him with naked statues of Parian marble, another with a masterpiece of Euphranor or Polycletus.[19] Some lady will contribute some ancient ornaments of gods taken in our Asiatic victories; another, books and cases and a bust of Minerva; another, a whole bushel of silver. Persicus, the most splendid of childless men, replaces all he has lost by things more numerous and more valuable, and could reasonably be suspected of having himself set his own house on fire.

Juvenal, Satire 3


Does Juvenal’s rant about foreigners resemble any modern attacks on foreigners or ‘outsiders’ in your own society? If so, why do you think that might be?

There are people from Chios, Galatia, Bithynia, and more who are unhappy with their fame and power among their peoples, and cry because do not wear the shoes of the patrician. But if they get them, they cry because they are not yet a praetor, and when they are praetors, they cry because they are not consul, and when consul they cry because they didn’t get the position earlier.

Plutarch, On the Tranquility of Spirit 10

Sources and Further Reading:

Due to Rome’s size and status as head of the empire, it was home to many different groups, some of which lived there for generations, so there is a lot of bibliography out there. Unfortunately much of it was written by people who thought that allowing the wrong sort of people (Easterners, Jewish people, Africans, Spaniards, etc.) into Rome led to its downfall and so you have to wade through quite a bit of offensive comments to get at the information. We have not included such works here, but you will encounter them if you look further.

Haeussler. R. 2013. Becoming Roman? Diverging Identities and Experience in Ancient Northwest Italy.

Noy, David. 2000. Foreigners at Rome: citizens and strangers. London.

Tacoma, Laurens. 2016.Moving Romans: Migration to Rome in the Principate. Oxford

  1. Supposedly Romulus’ father was the god Mars, who was in early Rome, an agricultural god. Their mother was a Vestal Virgin sexually assaulted by Mars.
  2. Implying that his father was a slave; others claimed that his father was a fuller, a person who cleaned clothes.
  3. Romans were divided between plebeians and patricians. Patricians had once been the most powerful group in Rome, controlling much of the elected positions, though that had changed considerably by Cicero's day.
  4. The son of the Dictator (and famous) Sulla.
  5. Cumae, near Naples. Daedalus was from Athens and his feat in creating wings to fly on is mentioned again below.
  6. One the three Fates, who span the threads which were the individual fates of everyone.
  7. The spear was a traditional sign of a slave sale in Rome.
  8. The river that ran (and still runs) through Rome.
  9. One of the seven hills of Rome.
  10. The Viminal Hill, the least important of the seven hills.
  11. A famous Greek orator.
  12. Romans dined reclining on couches, and the closer yours was to your host’s couch, the more honour was being done to you.
  13. Samothrace had a temple complex to the ‘Great Gods’.
  14. Otherwise unknown, but presumably means to refer to a noble who is hard to get access to.
  15. A senator and close advisor of the emperors Nero and Domitian among others.
  16. A type of gingerbread, presumably given as a gift.
  17. In myth a Trojan whose house was among the first to be set on fire by the Greeks when they left the Trojan Horse and began to set fire to Troy. His name began to be used as shorthand for any neighbour whose house was on fire.
  18. The attic rooms: the top floor of a Roman apartment building was the cheapest to rent.
  19. Two famous Greek sculptors, hence these would be priceless, like someone giving you Michelangelo’s David and his Pieta.


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