Roman Forum with many columns and grass

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Roman Forum, Rome, Italy. Photo taken from the Palatine Hill.  

A current trend is the surprising notion that many men think frequently about the Roman Empire– something that speaks to the enduring appeal of a society that thrived over 2000 years ago.  I am also a big fan of Roman History, and this trend inspired me to explore Roman immigration laws and how they were used to develop Roman society, first under the early Roman Republic, and later as it transitioned to an Empire.  

The Roman Republic and the Roman Empire are renowned for their enduring influence on the course of Western history, spanning centuries of innovation, governance, and conquest. While much is known about their military conquests and political structures, the immigration laws of these ancient civilizations are equally fascinating. 

As Rome grew from monarchy to humble republic to unrivaled empire, the Roman people developed a winning formula for ending wars, fostering stability and achieving widespread, lasting economic success: They extended citizenship to non-residents of the capital.  Although they, unfortunately, practiced slavery, slaves could eventually earn citizenship as well.  Finally, Rome’s failure to adequately handle a refugee crisis in the 4th Century AD was one of the factors that led to their downfall.  In this two-part blog post, we will explore the immigration laws at the foundation of Rome, the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, shedding light on how they managed their diverse population and handled foreign inhabitants.

People walking in front of a large stone building

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A newlywed couple outside of the Roman Colosseum built between 69-79 AD by Emperors Vespasian and Titus. 

Rome’s Foundations

Rome from its beginnings was an inclusive society and immigrants were welcomed. According to tradition, Rome had been founded in the eighth century B.C. as an asylum, a Latin word meaning “sanctuary for refugees.” Indeed, Rome’s foundational myth was as a City of Refuge and Asylum. According to Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, Aeneas fled the burning city of Troy after its fall and embarked on a journey that eventually led him to the Italian peninsula. He is said to have established a settlement on the banks of the Tiber River, laying the first foundational stone for Rome. Aeneas’ arrival symbolizes the fusion of Trojan and Italian cultures, setting the stage for Rome’s unique identity as a city that bridged the gap between East and West.

The next chapter in Rome’s foundation story unfolds with the legend of Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who were abandoned at birth and nurtured by a she-wolf before being found and raised by a shepherd. As they grew, the brothers were driven by a shared destiny to found a city of their own. Yet, a disagreement over the city’s location led to a fateful quarrel, with Romulus ultimately killing Remus. This mythological narrative encapsulates the themes of power, ambition, and destiny that would come to define Rome’s early years. Romulus, having claimed the city, gave it his name, Rome, and laid the groundwork for the future greatness of the Roman Republic.

Ancient Rome:  An Empire of Immigrants, Part 1

Pictured above: The Capitoline Wolf, portraying Rome’s founding myth of Romulus and Remus suckling from a She-Wolf.

Early Rome- A Refuge For Everyone

Early Rome served as a refuge for various groups and individuals for a variety of reasons, and this played a significant role in the city’s growth and development. Rome welcomed political exiles from neighboring regions. When individuals or groups faced persecution or political turmoil in their own territories, they often sought asylum in Rome. This practice helped the city attract a diverse population of exiles and dissidents, contributing to its multicultural character. Rome was also home to a substantial population of slaves during its early history. Some slaves managed to escape from their owners and find refuge within the city’s walls. Once inside Rome, they could seek protection and, in some cases, even gain their freedom.

Early Rome was also tolerant of various religious beliefs, and individuals facing religious persecution elsewhere often found sanctuary in the city. The Roman government was generally accepting of different religious practices, which allowed for the coexistence of various faiths within the city. Finally, Rome’s growing economy and status as a major trading hub attracted migrants and refugees looking for economic opportunities. Many people from surrounding regions came to Rome in search of work and a better standard of living.

The Roman Republic: A Mosaic of Peoples

The Roman Republic, which lasted from 509 BCE to 27 BCE, was characterized by its expansion and the assimilation of various peoples into its territories. Rome’s immigration laws during this period were relatively open compared to later eras. Roman citizenship was not solely based on place of birth but could be acquired through various means, such as serving in the Roman military or being granted citizenship as a reward for contributing to the Republic.

One notable piece of legislation during the Republic was the Lex Canuleia in 445 BCE. This law allowed for intermarriage between Roman citizens and non-citizens, known as peregrini, fostering a sense of unity and integration among the diverse population. It was a significant step toward the gradual incorporation of different communities into Roman society.

A mosaic on the floor

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Mosaic of the God Neptune from a Roman Villa in Cordoba, Spain.  Until, the Edict of Milan of 313 AD, which adopted Christianity as the official Roman state religion, Rome was primarily a polytheistic civilization, where people recognized and worshiped multiple gods and goddesses.  Rome was originally quite accepting of different religions, although this changed during the Imperial Era, where Jews, Christians, and other religious minorities were persecuted.