Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.28

Elio Lo Cascio, Laurens E. Tacoma (ed.), The Impact of Mobility and Migration in the Roman Empire. Proceedings of the Twelfth Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Rome, June 17-19, 2015). Impact of empire, 22.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. xii, 265.  ISBN 9789004334779.  $125.00.  

Reviewed by Eric E. Poehler, University of Massachusetts Amherst (

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Migration and human mobility, even within academic discourse, are issues of no small consequence. A recent social media dust-up between Professors Mary Beard and Nassim Taleb over the accuracy of a cartoon depicting black people in Roman Britain quickly transformed into a head-shaking display of identity politics, disciplinary turf guarding, and gleeful trolling. It is within this milieu, like it or not, that The Impact of Mobility and Migration in the Roman Empire arrives into academic discourse. Happily, it is up to the challenge. In it the reader will find a fascinating world of movement: invasions and repopulations; soldiers on route to conflict zones or work details; embassies flowing to and from Rome; businessmen and pilgrims hugging the coast and crossing the open sea; new provincial senators arriving at Rome or departing for some distant appointment.

The editors begin the volume by situating the topic within the historical sources and do so in pursuit of a general theory of ancient mobility. The attempt not only sets the tone of the subject matter’s importance, but also reveals the range, if not the abundance of available sources. At the same time, these sources can offer neither equivalences to modern terms of debate nor an ancient definition of mobility as a phenomenon. Lo Cascio and Tacoma find no relief in modern theory either, acknowledging the explanatory power of connectivity theory, but dismissing it as too general to assess the Roman era’s intensified interconnectivity. In the end, they conclude “that there is as to yet no proper framework for writing Roman migration” (18).

Continuing the focus on theory, Woolf explores the concept of enclosure – of enveloping territory and putting its people to work for the empire. Many empires recognized their populations to be massive labor forces and moved them en masse to locations where they were most needed. After an overview of forced labor migrations in other empires, Woolf describes the many, smaller scale ways in which people were moved (e.g., as slaves, captives, colonists, or exiles) within the Roman empire before concluding that although emperors had the authority and capability to force mass migrations, they did chose not to do so. In a final section, Woolf speculates on answers, but finds none particularly convincing. This leaves the reader at a loss, but also with an opportunity.

A kind of inversion of Woolf’s question is de Blois’, which considers how invaders caused forced migrations in the provinces of Dacia, Moesia Inferior, and Thrace in the late 3rd century CE. A lengthy military history sets the stage for de Blois to describe the conditions that produced these refugees, the depopulated areas such out-migration created, and the need to force new migrants back for both strategic and economic reasons. A key assumption here is that warfare created depopulation, an idea that rests on – it seems – a single site’s history (Nicopolis ad Istrum) and a paucity of historical material. Similarly, much is (admittedly) conjectural in the specifics of how the officers engaged in such military conflicts moved across the empire to take up their commands. Birley examines the epigraphic evidence for the mechanisms of military selection and transfer, focusing on a group of officers dispatched from Britain to Judea. Herz’s chapter follows logically, exploring the question of how the Roman army was deployed in peacetime and what effect the shape of that deployment had on mobility. As he demonstrates, filling needed appointments of officia in the provinces was a continual struggle. Herz ends on a broader note, putting a spotlight on the army as the only instrument of civil power in many places and, further, that the centurionate was its most effective and flexible tool.

Werner Eck’s fascinating chapter on the impact of the senate’s changing role in the empire, the rules for new senators, and the mobility the role required deserves close reading. Eck begins with the financial impact that an influx of provincial senators had on inflating prices for housing stock and land supply, as well as the absence of that wealth from the senator’s home province. This mechanism not only shifted wealth to the center, but also created mobility via new systems of patronage. Additionally, senatorial assignments often required relocation for themselves, their large professional and personal staffs, and families. Eck also ends on a broader point – recalling Herz’s in the previous chapter – that senators were an important instrument of the imperial system, even if the senate was not. Torregaray Pagola’s chapter is the capstone to this series of chapters (4-7) that deal with a small number of people moving often very far for specific purposes who often also impact the mobility of others. In this case, the subject is the movement of embassies within the empire and the difference in efficacy between those originating in eastern or western empire. Of particular interest is the image Torregaray Pagola presents of state power on the move, both the consent of the ruled and the consideration of the ruler.

Shifting the discussion to approach, Tacoma provides a careful and critical analysis of three methodologies - osteology, epigraphy, and literature – to show that, when applying the strictest criteria, migrants at Ostia are harder to identify than had been recognized previously. Taking these approaches in order, Tacoma deconstructs Prowse’s isotopic analysis of teeth and bones,1 revealing a potential flaw in the interpretation that potentially leaves one-third of the data unexplained and compounds the problem of sample size, which was already a concern. An unsympathetic reviewer (which I am not), however, might accuse Tacoma of the same error in selecting only the best 100 tombs from the Isola Sacra for epigraphic analysis. Still, the trend he identifies seems stronger than sample bias: fewer than 1% of inscriptions explicitly mention a migrant and textual analysis of the inscriptions suggests the same. The anecdotal nature of individual lives in literature, in this case St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, and the difficulty in extrapolating from them is considered in the final section. Tacoma concludes by saying we are in a methodological “blind alley” with multiple interpretations pointing in multiple directions, but rejecting the notion that therefore “anything goes”.

In one sense, Gambash’s chapter on cabotage picks up where Tacoma’s ended, on the observation that “much migration was stepwise and many stays were temporary” (153), making much mobility invisible. Here, the notion of connectivity is revived and usefully distinguished from mobility. Using the story of Paul’s journey to Rome, Gambash illustrates how connectivity is a mechanism for mobility and how cabotage is one means of activating that mechanism. In another sense, this chapter’s position in the book is unfortunate for its proximity to Tacoma’s critique of an over-reliance on ur-narratives. Reliance on textual evidence continues in Carucci’s exploration of women’s mobility and the risks they faced, and it is perhaps an effect of the genre that we are hard pressed to find much in the way of genuinely gendered dangers. Even more tightly focused on specific texts – in this case papyri – is Koestner’s excellent investigation of movement into and out of Alexandria as well as the restrictions on movement that certain classes of workers experienced. Once again, mobility is paired with and elaborated by another concept, in this case integration, which helps to explain how social networks such as guilds and ethnic colonies prevented the expulsion of some members even as other ‘foreign’ residents were removed.

The last chapters deal with legal issues surrounding mobility and migration. In the first, Benoist addresses the temporal effects of empire and mobility on juridical terminology. Here, the terms coloni and incolae become entangled and inverted over time as the colonists become inhabitants. So too, it seems, do the valences of these terms become blurred as some individuals sought to acquire the legal burdens of a “colonist” in order to take up its greater social status in relation to Rome. Finally, Moatti considers how the Roman state administered the movement of people, seizing upon a paradox: at the same time that Roman law was acknowledging the reality of greater human mobility by inscribing protections for legitimate travelers, it was also impinging upon the legal system’s only mechanism of good faith, the actual presence of the individual. Taking aim at the term peregrinatio, and later briefly upon incolae (without, apparently, incorporating Benoist’s work), Moatti finds that Roman law sought to control individuals rather than borders, addressing specific examples rather than defining general principles.

Without doubt, this collection of papers – with the inevitable variation in the strength of each – is a success and its editors as well as those of the series are to be commended. Indeed, one can easily see from the citations in this volume to its immediate predecessor in the Impact of Empire Series2 how the steps built in one volume become stairs in the following. Even within this success, however, there are areas of concern that rise above nitpicking. The first such concern is that too many papers trawled the historical sources, making interesting observations along a theme, but in the end did not reach a significant conclusion. Herz is most explicit about this method and its expected result: his goal is to show the diversity of Roman administration and to produce a ‘working model’ for further analysis (81). Such models and the analyses required to make them are still desired. So too is a greater diversity of approaches. The volume suffers, if only somewhat due to the high quality of the research, from being over focused on history and historical sources. Every contributor is an historian and only two self-describe in multi-disciplinary terms. To a lesser extent, this is also true of the series, which has turned to art historical and numismatic concerns on occasion, but its attention has overwhelmingly been focused on administration, the military, and frontiers.

In particular, the absence of archaeological contributions is striking because, in one of the strongest chapters of this volume, Tacoma relies on heavily archaeological research to triangulate to his methodological critique. Such imbalance is equally surprising in the series: of the twelve workshops organized thus far, only eleven papers (based on their titles) have an obvious archaeological focus and of these only nine were published. Some might argue that to deal with a particular site or class of artifacts might be too specific or lead into another blind alley. Such focus, however, would be no more ‘in-the-weeds’ than the deep dives into legal terminology or the careers of individual commanders, both of which admirably proved their relevance to this topic. Moreover, I believe (admittedly as an archaeologist) that archaeological modes of interpretation as well as its evidence might add to the historical concepts of connectivity and integration already explored. For example, and building off of Gambash’s frame of cabotage, I wonder if we modelled people more like amphorae whether it might be easier to imagine a better framework, one that considers not only movement to a location, but also all the movement through that location as well. This modest critique, then, is as much for future workshops as it is for this volume.3

In the end, Lo Casio and Tacoma have curated a fine collection of papers painting a remarkable picture of human movement in the Roman world. It is also picture that Prof. Taleb is unlikely to welcome.

Table of Contents

Preface, Olivier Hekster.
List of Figures and Tables.
List of Contributors.
1. Writing Migration, Laurens E. Tacoma and Elio Lo Cascio.
2. Moving Peoples in the Early Roman Empire, Greg Woolf.
3. Invasions, Deportations, and Repopulation: Mobility and Migration in Thrace, Moesia Inferior, and Dacia in the Third Quarter of the Third Century AD, Lukas de Blois.
4. Viri Militares Moving from West to East in Two Crisis Years (AD 133 and 162), Anthony R. Birley.
5. Die Mobilität Römischer Soldaten in Friedenszeiten, Peter Herz.
6. Ordo Senatorius und Mobilität: Auswirkungen und Konsequenzen im Imperium Romanum, Werner Eck.
7. Diplomatic Mobility and Persuasion between Rome and the West (I-II AD), Elena Torregaray Pagola.
8. Bones, Stones, and Monica: Isola Sacra Revisited, Laurens E. Tacoma.
9. Between Mobility and Connectivity in the Ancient Mediterranean: Coast-Skirting Travellers in the Southern Levant, Gil Gambash.
10. The Dangers of Female Mobility in Roman Imperial Times, Margherita Carucci.
11. The linouphoi of P. Giss. 40 II Revisited: Applying the Sociological Concept of Ethnic Colonies to Alexandria's Linen-Weavers, Elena Koestner.
12. Coloni et Incolae, vingt ans après: Mobilité et identité sociales et juridiques dans le monde romain occidental, Stephane Benoist.
13. Migration et droit dans l’Empire Romain: Catégories, contrôles et intégration, Claudia Moatti.
Index Nominum 247
Index Geographicus 251
Index Rerum 255
Index Locorum 258


1.   Prowse, T. L. “Isotopes and mobility in the ancient Roman world,” in L. de Ligt and L. E. Tacoma (edd.). Migration and Mobility in the Early Roman Empire. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. 205-233.
2.   L. de Ligt and L. E. Tacoma (edd.). Migration and Mobility in the Early Roman Empire. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016.
3.   Volume 23 of the Impact of Empire series includes several archaeologically focused papers, but originated out of a different research program and (apparently) without a preceding workshop. K. Verboven and C. Laes (edd.). Work, Labour, and Professions in the Roman World. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017.

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