Ancient Rome:  An Empire of Immigrants, Part 2
A Roman Amphitheatre in Malaga, Spain.

The Roman Empire: Evolving Immigration Laws

With the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire in 27 BCE, the management of immigration underwent significant changes. Augustus, the first Emperor, introduced various policies to maintain control over the vast territories and populations. One of his key contributions was the Lex Julia de Civitate in 18 BCE, which regulated the granting of Roman citizenship to non-citizens residing in specific regions.

Under the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace and stability, the Roman Empire saw increased migration and integration of people from various corners of the world. The Roman Empire, at its zenith, boasted a diverse population comprising citizens, non-citizens, and slaves.

However, immigration laws during the Roman Empire were not uniform across all regions. The concept of ius civile (Roman citizenship) and ius gentium (law of nations) coexisted. While Roman citizens enjoyed certain privileges and protections, non-citizens were governed by the laws of their respective regions. This duality allowed for some autonomy among local populations while still acknowledging the overarching authority of Rome.

A person standing on a railing in front of an amphitheater

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Roman Amphitheatre in Fiesole, Italy.
A large stone structure with many round arches with Colosseum in the background

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Interior of the Roman Colosseum.  Many foreign slaves and prisoners of war lost their lives within its walls.

Roman Slavery and Citizenship

The acquisition of slaves was a fundamental aspect of Roman society, and it occurred through various means. Romans obtained slaves through conquest, the slave trade, and even as a result of debt bondage. One of the most common methods of acquiring slaves was through military conquests. When the Roman legions conquered new territories, they often took prisoners of war as slaves. These captives, who came from diverse cultural backgrounds, were forced into various forms of labor, such as agricultural work, mining, household chores, or even entertainment in gladiatorial games. Additionally, the Roman slave trade involved the buying and selling of individuals, and sometimes, desperate individuals would voluntarily sell themselves or family members into slavery to alleviate financial burdens. Debt bondage was another means by which individuals could become slaves, as those who couldn’t repay their debts might be enslaved by their creditors.

While slavery was an integral part of Roman society, it’s essential to recognize that some slaves could eventually attain their freedom and even Roman citizenship. The legal framework for the manumission, or freeing, of slaves existed in Rome. Slave owners could choose to grant their slaves freedom, often as a reward for loyal service or as a result of a personal bond. This process involved a ceremony, and the freed individual was known as a “libertus” (masculine) or “liberta” (feminine). Freed slaves were not considered full citizens immediately, but they were granted certain legal rights and could engage in various aspects of Roman society. Over time, some freed slaves could work their way up the social ladder, accumulate wealth, and even attain full Roman citizenship, though this process was often not without challenges and prejudices.

The Roman practice of manumission and granting citizenship to former slaves was significant because it reflected the complexity of Roman society and its willingness to integrate people of diverse backgrounds into the fabric of the empire. This policy contributed to the gradual diversification of the Roman citizenry and served as an important precedent for future societies that would grapple with issues of slavery, freedom, and citizenship. While many slaves in Rome did not achieve their liberty or citizenship, the fact that some could attain these rights illustrates the dynamic nature of Roman society and its recognition of the potential for personal growth and achievement, regardless of one’s origins as a slave.

Ancient Rome:  An Empire of Immigrants, Part 2
Arch of Titus, Rome, Italy.  Built in the 1st Century AD next to the Roman Colosseum, this Triumphal Arch celebrates Emperor Titus’ Conquer of Jerusalem during the First Jewish War.  This frieze depicts Roman soldiers sacking the Great Temple of Jerusalem and carrying off the Menorah, along with slaves and other plunder.  

Decline of the Empire and the Gothic Invasion

As the Roman Empire began to decline, immigration laws became more stringent in an attempt to preserve stability. Emperors like Septimius Severus imposed restrictions on the movement of people within the empire, particularly along the frontiers.

In 376 AD, a large group of Visigoths (a branch of the Goths) sought refuge within the borders of the Roman Empire, fleeing from another group (the Huns) who were pushing them westward. Rome’s typical refugee policy was to accept some non-citizens for resettlement within the Empire, but to break them up into smaller groups, disarm the men and distribute them throughout the Empire so that they would better assimilate into Roman Society and so that they would not form political or military threats from within.  In 376 AD, the Roman authorities allowed the Visigoths to enter the Empire as a large, autonomous group, and they were not disarmed and dispersed to other parts of the empire to be assimilated.  Instead, the Visigoths settled intact as a distinct people inside the empire, but were poorly treated and inadequately supplied.  This created tension and dissatisfaction among the Visigoths, which eventually erupted into open rebellion.

The conflict escalated when the Roman Emperor Valens decided to confront the Visigoths in battle at Adrianople (modern-day Edirne, Turkey) in 378 AD. The Romans suffered a devastating defeat, and Emperor Valens himself was killed. This battle was a significant blow to the Roman military, as it demonstrated the empire’s vulnerability to external threats.

The defeat at Adrianople and the death of Valens contributed to political instability within the Roman Empire. The frequent changes in leadership and the struggle for power weakened the central authority, making it difficult to respond effectively to external threats.  The Roman military had been facing numerous challenges, including financial strain and a reliance on mercenaries instead of volunteer Roman citizen soldiers. The defeat at Adrianople further demoralized the Roman legions, and the quality of the army declined over time, making the empire less able to defend itself.

The Gothic War also encouraged other outsider groups, such as the Vandals and the Alans, to launch raids and invasions into Roman territory. The empire struggled to repel these incursions and protect its borders. The cost of defending the empire against external threats, coupled with a declining economy and heavy taxation, put immense strain on the Roman population. Social and economic instability contributed to a sense of discontent and weakened the overall resilience of the empire. In the decades following the Gothic War, the Roman Empire was often ruled by multiple emperors, with both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires having their own emperors. This division made it harder for the Roman authorities to coordinate and respond to threats effectively.

While the Gothic War was a significant event in the decline of the Western Roman Empire, it was just one part of a complex web of factors that led to the eventual collapse of the empire in 476 AD. The Roman Empire faced a myriad of internal and external challenges, including economic decline, military weakness, political instability, and other invasions, which all contributed to its gradual decline and fall over several centuries.

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1st Century AD Roman Bridge over the Rio Guadalquivir in Cordoba, Spain.

The immigration laws of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire offer a fascinating glimpse into the ancient world’s management of diverse populations. From the relatively open policies of the Republic to the more controlled measures of the Empire, these laws played a crucial role in shaping the social fabric of these civilizations.  The legacy of Roman immigration laws is still palpable today. The concept of citizenship, as developed by the Romans, has greatly influenced modern notions of national identity and belonging. The Roman model of assimilation and integration of diverse peoples into a single political entity laid the groundwork for the multicultural societies we see today.

Today, as we grapple with immigration issues and the integration of diverse communities, the lessons from the Roman experience still resonate. The Roman story reminds us that immigration laws can be a reflection of a society’s values and priorities, shaping the destiny of nations for centuries to come.

A person and person posing for a picture in front of a stone bridge

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Roman Aqueduct in Segovia, Spain.  This aqueduct was built during the Flavian Dynasty of the late 1st and early 2nd Century, AD.