SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard describes Rome as perhaps the first great society of immigrants:
in one episode of the Aeneid, the hero visits the site of the future city of Rome and finds it already settled by primitive predecessors of the Romans. And who are they? They are a group of settlers under a certain King Evander, an exile from the land of Arcadia in the Greek Peloponnese. The message is clear: however far back you go, the inhabitants of Rome were always already from somewhere else.
As with the U.S., some of the immigrants arrived as slaves:
Roman slavery was in some respects as brutal as Roman methods of military conquest. But for many Roman slaves, particularly those working in urban domestic contexts rather than toiling in the fields or mines, it was not necessarily a life sentence. They were regularly given their freedom, or they bought it with cash they had managed to save up; and if their owner was a Roman citizen, then they also gained full Roman citizenship, with almost no disadvantages as against those who were freeborn.
The scale was so great that some historians reckon that, by the second century CE, the majority of the free citizen population of the city of Rome had slaves somewhere in their ancestry.
At a very rough guess there might have been between 1.5 and 2 million slaves in Italy in the middle of the first century BCE, making up perhaps 20 per cent of the total population.
Where would the Romans have come down on the question of refugees?
Edgy in a different way was the idea of the asylum, and the welcome, that Romulus gave to all comers – foreigners, criminals and runaways – in finding citizens for his new town. There were positive aspects to this. In particular, it reflected Roman political culture’s extraordinary openness and willingness to incorporate outsiders, which set it apart from every other ancient Western society that we know. No ancient Greek city was remotely as incorporating as this; Athens in particular rigidly restricted access to citizenship. This is not a tribute to any ‘liberal’ temperament of the Romans in the modern sense of the word. They conquered vast swathes of territory in Europe and beyond, sometimes with terrible brutality; and they were often xenophobic and dismissive of people they called ‘barbarians’. Yet, in a process unique in any pre-industrial empire, the inhabitants of those conquered territories, ‘provinces’ as Romans called them, were gradually given full Roman citizenship, and the legal rights and protections that went with it. That culminated in 212 CE (where my SPQR ends), when the emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the empire a Roman citizen.
Romans would probably not have been impressed by our cashflow-negative wars:
There were also important consequences for Rome itself of military success overseas. The literary revolution was only one part of it. By the mid second century BCE, the profits of warfare had made the Roman people by far the richest of any in their known world. Thousands upon thousands of captives became the slave labour that worked the Roman fields, mines and mills, that exploited resources on a much more intensive scale than ever before and fuelled Roman production and Roman economic growth. Bullion by the barrow load, taken (or stolen) from rich eastern cities and kingdoms, poured into the well-guarded basement of the Temple of Saturn in the Forum, which served as the state ‘treasury’. And there was enough left over to line the pockets of the soldiers, from the grandest general to the rawest recruit. There was plenty for Romans to celebrate. Some of the cash was ploughed into new civic amenities, from new harbour installations and vast warehouses on the Tiber to new temples lining the streets, commemorating the assistance of the gods in securing the victories that had brought all this wealth. And it is easy to imagine the widespread pleasure when in 167 BCE Rome became a tax-free state: the treasury was so overflowing – thanks, in particular, to the spoils from the recent victory over Macedon – that direct taxation of Roman citizens was suspended except in emergencies, although they remained liable to a range of other levies, such as customs dues or a special tax charged on freeing slaves.
Upset by today’s expensive elections and politicians pandering to the lowest common denominator?
Electioneering at Rome could be a costly business. By the first century BCE it required the kind of lavish generosity that is not always easy to distinguish from bribery. The stakes were high. The men who were successful in the elections had the chance to recoup their outlay, legally or illegally, with some of the perks of office. The failures – and, like military defeats, there were many more of those in Rome than is usually acknowledged – fell ever more deeply into debt. That was Catiline’s position after he had been beaten in the annual elections for the consulship in both 64 and 63 BCE. Although the usual story is that he had been leaning in that direction before, he now had little option but to resort to ‘revolution’ or ‘direct action’ or ‘terrorism’, whichever you choose to call it. Joining forces with other upper-class desperadoes in similar straits, he appealed to the support of the discontented poor within the city while mustering his makeshift army outside it. And there was no end to his rash promises of debt relief (one of the most despicable forms of radicalism in the eyes of the Roman landed classes) or to his bold threats to take out the leading politicians and to put the whole city to flames.
Plotting resistance to the Trumpenfuhrer?
If the assassination of Julius Caesar became a model for the effective removal of a tyrant, it was also a powerful reminder that getting rid of a tyrant did not necessarily dispose of tyranny. Despite all the slogans, the bravado and the high principles, what the assassins actually brought about, and what the people got, was a long civil war and the permanent establishment of one-man rule.
More: read SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome