Recently, I’ve been reading a book entitled Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome, by Arthur Eckstein. I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit and, along with its succeeding volume (which I accidentally read first), they form an excellent defence of the Realist school in international relations as applied to the ancient world. The current volume addresses the rise of Rome (basically between 350 and 188 BC) from being a not-very-successful local power to ending up as the last man standing in the Mediterranean-wide system crisis that began with the collapse of the Ptolemaic dynasty starting in 207 BC.
One gratifying aspect to this work is that Eckstein bucks a lot of modern trends by defending Rome from charges of being exceptionally bloodthirsty and predatory. Indeed, as he goes to great lengths to explain, Rome was basically par for the course with regards to diplomatic and military aggressiveness in the Hellenistic world. The converse to this is that because Rome wasn’t exceptionally aggressive, that can’t be used as an explanation for Rome’s eventual success in becoming the system-wide hegemon of the ancient world. So how did Rome end up coming out on top?
The question isn’t as ridiculous as it might seem in retrospect. We should remember that while it’s “obvious” to us now that Rome would become master of the world, this wasn’t nearly as apparent at the time. Rome lost as many important battles as it won over the two hundred years prior to its defeat of Antiochus III in 188 BC. As late as the Hannibalic War (aka the second Punic War), Rome’s prosperity and survival were a near run thing. Yet, throughout it all and despite the occasional defection, Rome’s system of alliances in Italy remained more or less intact and allowed Rome to keep replacing the manpower it lost in disasters such as Cannae and Lake Trasimene. But what exactly made Rome different, and more successful, in the anarchic Mediterranean international system of the Hellenistic world?
The answer(s), of course, are multifaceted due to the complexity of the system as a whole and Rome as a unit-level participant in that system. But one predominating factor that Eckstein identifies is the Romans’ exceptional willingness to absorb outsiders into their polity, as compared to most Greek cities which were unwilling to extend citizenship even to citizens of neighbouring cities who had been residents for decades. This gave Rome an increasing access to greater and greater resources, especially manpower. However, as Rome’s hegemony in Italy grew, Roman citizenship began to become more notional and less based on ethnicity and birth within the Ager Romanus.
Now, those of us in the Dissident Right, myself included, would probably start to get a little suspicious of someone promoting this view of immigration, at least on its face. But there are some mitigating factors here that really do not make this as bad as it sounds. Notably, what is not being suggested here is the sort of post-1965 American style mass paper citizenship that we’re used to seeing promoted whenever someone talks about immigration. Rather, there are several factors that worked to make immigration during the Middle Roman Republic beneficial to Roman society (keep in mind that what follows doesn’t really apply to later eras of more extensive Roman imperialism). Also note that I am including as “immigration” the absorption of other polities into Rome’s central Italian hegemony, as these were functionally being added to the Roman state, even if they weren’t all packing up and moving into the city of Rome itself.
First, there is the fact that immigration into the Roman polity involved the assimilation of those who were being introduced. Central Italian city-states apparently already had a long-standing tradition of movement between cities so the concept of outsiders joining your polity did not invoke the horror that it does for many today. But, there was simply no notion entertained that foreigners being introduced into Rome would form their own ethnic enclaves or interest groups. You became Roman or you didn’t stay. Your loyalty was to the Roman state or you were out.
Second, immigration into the Roman state did not involve mass migration or movements of populations as a whole. Rather, it more often than not involved coopting out-group aristocrats who could come under home-grown sponsorship that aided their assimilation to Roman norms and traditions. As such, there was no issue of Roman society having to digest huge masses of foreigners of varying assimilability. Rather, they were bringing in talented and exceptional individuals and families that already shared a good deal of the assumptions and characteristics of upper-class Roman society. There’s little wonder that many of these individuals and their descendants ended up reaching the highest levels of Roman power, including consulships and service as censors and the official priesthood.
Third, Roman immigration involved requiring members from out-groups (as well as various types of allies being added to the Roman hegemony) to contribute to and serve Roman society. They were called upon in times of war. They contributed their wealth and labour for the promotion of the public good. They weren’t merely there as economic mercenaries enriching themselves and sending money to their relatives back home. They were asked to make positive contributions to their society as a whole, just like any other Roman citizen would be.
Lastly – but perhaps most importantly – Roman immigration during this period involved people from close and related cultures and language groups. As I noted a few years ago, the closer an immigrant group is in culture, mores, and language to its host group, the easier it is for them to be absorbed, and can be added in larger numbers than those from groups who are very alien to their host society. Keep in mind that when we talk about immigrants entering Roman society during this time, we begin by talking about other Latins from Latium, who all actually spoke the same language as the Romans and held the same religious beliefs (indeed, Rome was involved in pan-Latium religious and social festivals with these). Later, we’re talking about adding other closely-related Italic groups such as Sabines and Umbrians and Samnites. The nearby Etruscans were perhaps the most distant in that they spoke a non-Italic language, though they still also shared many other cultural similarities with the Romans.
So we’re not at all talking about some ancient analog to the “invade-the-world-invite-the-world” flood of hostile, inassimilable third worlders that typifies “immigration” into Western countries today.
Rather, we see that the Romans were able to find a successful balance between openness and exclusivity. By closely regulating the terms under which individuals could directly join their society and groups of foreigners would be associated with it, Rome managed to utilise the talents and resources of these while avoiding the pitfalls that befell many multiethnic empires, both in ancient and modern times. Rational leadership in Western countries would look to emulate this model, seeking to attract individuals or small groups who could benefit our nations while avoiding the floods of…not useful…masses that are currently being imported by The Powers That Be. Rome benefited from this which helped to set her on the path to greatness. Adopting a rational immigration policy could help western nations regain their own greatness after our own collapse and the start of the next cycle.