Immigrants adrift in the Greco-Roman world?

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Immigrants adrift in the Greco-Roman world?,' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023,

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 under my publications (“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.

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