Category Archives: Immigrants

Immigrants adrift in the Greco-Roman world?

What was it like to be an immigrant in the Greco-Roman world? Well, the answer given by many scholars of the past has been that it was not very good at all for immigrants. Without necessarily actually looking at any archeological or inscriptional evidence, some scholars tend to assume that foreigners were faced with significant hardships and feelings of rootlessness. Robert Turcan is somewhat representative of common views when he speaks of a “troubled and drifting world” in which “uprooted people”, particularly immigrants, lived “on the fringes of a disintegrating world” in both the Hellenistic and Roman eras (Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire [A. Nevill trans.; Oxford: Blackwell, 1996], 16-17).

Often this view of immigrant hardship is coupled with overstated notions regarding the decline of the ancient city in the Hellenistic and following eras, which resulted in general feelings of detachment and a lack of social connection. I have dealt with such problematic theories of decline in a full article elsewhere (The Declining Polis? Religious Rivalries in Ancient Civic Context).

It is true that immigrants, foreigners or minorities could, at times, be faced with negative attitudes or treatment associated with xenophobia (fear of foreigners), so there were certainly negative sides to immigrant experience (see ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort). Nonetheless the all-encompassing scholarly picture of immigrants adrift in a disintegrating society does not fit with the actual evidence we have available, at least in the case of Syrian or Phoenician expatriots in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.

My recent research into inscriptions that involve Syrians who settled elsewhere and formed themselves into associations points rather to the ways in which such “foreigners” maintained connections with the cultural traditions of their homeland while also finding a home for themselves in the society of settlement. Syrian immigrants acculturated, to various degrees, to local customs while also sustaining a sense of distinctiveness. In particular, there is a consistency in Syrians’ attention to the “gods of the homeland”. I am developing these ideas further for a forthcoming publication, but you can also see an inscription or two in an earlier post: For the gods of the homeland: Immigrants from Beirut on a Greek island.

In this respect, there are significant commonalities between Syrians and Judeans (Jews) or Israelites (Samaritans) in the ways that they found a place for themselves in cities of the ancient Mediterranean world. See, for example my post ‘Tis the season . . . : Jewish and Roman holidays and my article Acculturation and Identity in the Diaspora: A Jewish Family and ‘Pagan’ Guilds at Hierapolis.

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort

On previous occasions I have discussed some common ethnic stereotypes that were at work when a given Greek or Roman author described the worldviews and practices of other peoples, and sometimes these views were reflected in novels as well (go here or here, for instance). Sometimes peoples outside of one’s own cultural group were viewed as inferior, barbarous, and dangerous. In particular, a common accusation against minority cultural groups was the claim that such “dangerous” people engaged in human sacrifice followed by a cannibalistic meal.

Judeans (Jews) and Christians were among the minority cultural groups accused of such fiendish activity. Thus, for instance, the Roman historian Dio Cassius (writing in the early third century) describes the revolt of Judeans in Cyrene, who were “destroying both the Romans and the Greeks”: he claims that “they would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing” (Roman History, 68.32.1-2 [Loeb translation]).

There were times when Christians, too, were on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes which tried to underline just how dangerous certain peoples were. Minucius Felix‘s second century dialogue presents the view of a critic who claimed that the Christians’ rituals involved the following:

An infant, cased in dough to deceive the unsuspecting, is placed beside the person to be initiated. The novice is thereupon induced to inflict what seems to be harmless blows upon the dough, and unintentionally the infant is killed by his unsuspecting blows; the blood – oh, horrible – they lap up greedily; the limbs they tear to pieces eagerly; and over the victim they make league and covenant, and by complicity in guilt pledge themselves to mutual silence (Octavius 9.5-6 [Loeb translation]; full text online here).

Tertullian, a second century Christian author from North Africa, responded to similar rumours regarding human sacrifice and cannibalism among Jesus-followers with some sarcasm:

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby, nobody’s enemy, guilty of nothing, everybody’s child. . . catch the infant blood; steep your bread with it; eat and enjoy it’ (Apol. 8.2 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian tries to defend the reputation of Christians by drawing attention to how ludicrous he thought such accusations were and by striking to the heart of the reasons for such accusations. He gets at the “rationale” behind the accusations, so to speak. Namely, if one feels that some other group of people are dangerous or threatening, what better way to encapsulate that danger than in depicting the minority cultural group as murderers of “nobody’s enemy” and “everybody’s child”. If they’ll do this to an innocent child, goes the thinking, then imagine how dangerous they are to the rest of us as well. The notion of eating the human body, a child no less, is symbolic of destroying humanity or human society itself.

Similar patterns of demonizing “the other” have been at work throughout western cultural history.

For the gods of the homeland: Immigrants from Beirut on a Greek island

The Greek island of Delos supplies the social historian with an unusually rich source of information regarding immigrant associations in the ancient world (especially for the second century BCE). Seldom can one boast of finding communities of Italians, Samaritans, Judeans, and Egyptians to study in one locale. Added to these many groups were guilds of immigrants from two important Syrian towns, Tyre and Berytos (modern Beirut in Lebanon).

Here I would like to briefly discuss two inscriptions involving the guild of Berytian merchants. These monuments illustrate well the expression of ethnic identity alongside adaptation or acculturation to local ways.

On the one hand is an inscription which shows the continuing importance of the gods of the homeland (Poseidon and, likely, Astarte or Ashtoreth) for this group on Delos:

“The association of Poseidon-worshipping merchants, shippers and receivers from Berytos set up the building (oikos), the pillars, and the oracles for the ancestral gods” (IDelos 1774).

On the other is a dedication not to the gods of the homeland but to the goddess Roma, personified Rome, herself.

“The association of Poseidon-worshipping merchants, shippers, and receivers from Berytos honoured the goddess Roma, benefactor, on account of the goodwill which she has in relation to the association and the homeland. This was done when Mnaseos son of Dionysios, benefactor, was chief of the cult-society for the second time. Menandros son of Melas, Athenian, prepared this monument” (IDelos 1778)

This was set up at the time of Roman ascendancy in this area of the Mediterranean, when Rome was further facilitating the flow of goods to important ports such as Delos. What particularly stands out in terms of identity and acculturation here is the fact that these immigrants honour the divine “mascot” of Rome. Yet they do so precisely because she is believed to have shown goodwill to the homeland of Beirut (in Syria) itself, as well as to these Syrian immigrants abroad.

These are just some of the many indications of continuing attachments to the homeland combined with a sense of belonging in a new home among immigrants in the Greco-Roman world. There’ll be more to come on immigrants soon.

Associations of Immigrants: Thracians and the goddess Bendis near Athens

As I have mentioned, I am presently writing an article on immigrants and immigrant associations in the Greco-Roman world. My primary focus now is on comparing Judean (Jewish) synagogues in the dispersion with other immigrants from the Levant (east of the Mediterranean) who likewise formed associations, especially Syrians or Phoenicians.

Jews were by no means the only group of immigrants who gathered together regularly in associations and maintained important connections with the culture and religion of their homeland. I will save the Syrians for future posts, but thought I’d mention one of our earliest attested cases of a group of immigrants who formed an association devoted to the deity of their homeland: the Thracians devoted to the goddess Bendis near Athens, Greece, in the Piraeus.

Thracian Goddess Bendis with devoteesVotive relief depicting the Thracian goddess Bendis with a number of torch-race victors approaching their goddess (c. 400-350 BCE, now in the British Museum, photo by Phil)

We know very little about the goddess Bendis herself, who is often (as here) depicted in Thracian hunting gear (and with affinities to Artemis the huntress). At the Piraeus there were at least two associations devoted to her, one of them for immigrants from Thracia (north of Macedonia) specifically and the other for citizens of the city. We first catch a glimpse of a group of Thracians requesting and gaining permission from Athens (which controlled the port city of Piraeus) to set up a temple for their goddess somewhere between 434 and 411 BCE.