Ancient and modern

On immigration, are we doing as the Romans did?

Londoners may find parts of imperial policy rather familiar

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

Last week it was suggested that the questions asked of London mayor Sadiq Khan had nothing to do with racism, but more with multiculturalism. As St Ambrose could have said, ‘If you live in Rome, live in the Roman way; if elsewhere, as they do there.’

Until the large-scale irruption of Germanic tribes fleeing the Huns in the 4th century AD, eventually ending the Roman empire in the West, Romans had been fairly relaxed about immigrants, temporary or permanent. Many came under compulsion: hostages, prisoners of war and slaves, this last group keeping wages low across a range of service industries. Rome itself actively welcomed foreign doctors and teachers, while lawyers, diplomats, the power-hungry and soldiers smelled advantage there.

Craftsmen, from sculptors to makers of luxury goods, flooded in, as did commodity traders (grain, wine, oil, etc). Foreign actors, dancers and sportsmen (e.g. charioteers) made Rome a top destination; so too prostitutes and peep-show artists like Gabbaras from Arabia, at 9ft 9in ‘the Tallest Man in the World’. Young men looking to make good greatly outnumbered women and the old; over time, friends and relatives joined them. London knows the feeling.

Though plenty of Romans griped about them, no foreigner came to Rome to pose a threat. Their sole purpose was to better themselves, learning the Roman way. After a generation or so, incomers were largely assimilated. In a polytheistic world, religion created few problems; the Jews, who did not fit this pattern, simply kept themselves to themselves. There were expulsions, usually caused by food shortages, but they never lasted long.

Those deemed to threaten Rome (e.g. Christians) soon moderated their tune. When in Rome, you rendered unto Caesar… or else.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Tom Holland will give a Classics for All lecture on ‘The End of the Roman Empire: a Mirror for our Times?’ in London on 13 June. Contact

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Show comments
  • Lothlórien

    Controlled immigration is needed in the UK – knowing exactly who is coming in and what kind of benefit they offer the country is of the utmost importance. Instead we have uncontrolled immigration where many go unchecked and pose a danger to communities, jobs and welfare – a bit like this nutter who was let in (with rape convictions) and attempted to kill an innocent bystander.

    • whorya

      Its a “Lot” like that nutter……

  • LB

    You forgotten the big bit.

    First Rome invade, then allowed in the immigrants.

  • railman

    And look what happened to the ‘Romans’ ….. Now a piece of history, destroyed by the greed of their elected leaders and the immigrants they welcomed…..remind you of Britain today, any one ?

    • Paul Wonnacott

      Their leaders weren’t elected

      • whorya

        And neither will ours if we remain in the EU………..

  • Paul Wonnacott

    Normans did the same, reduced all the Saxons and Celts to serfs and brought in foreigners to do the nice jobs, it was one of the feudal system’s ways of disempowering the native people, after a couple of generations all the leading churchmen had been replaced with non Saxons

  • Bob Hunter

    The issue is nothing to do with colour, race or creed it is to do with the fact that the UK has one of the most densely populated areas in Europe, why do the immigrants not want to go to France. Germany, and anywhere else?, surely its not just benefits. Also note it is the creators of the disruption in the Middle East who are not receiving its dangers = The USA. Was it not better when Saddam,Gadaffi etc were in charge of this strange area of the world no on else belongs in.