Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.07.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.07.39

Elena Isayev, Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. 502.  ISBN 9781107130616.  £105.00​.  

Reviewed by Gabriel Zuchtriegel, Archaeological Park of Paestum (


Elena Isayev’s highly important and innovative book on “Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy” is in itself a work that crosses boundaries and is imbued with a sense of movement. It crosses disciplinary boundaries by combining literary sources, ethnographic research and archaeological evidence, and ventures into a realm beyond traditional frameworks by asking new questions.

Isayev’s central point is that “a high level of human mobility was not exceptional among ancient Mediterranean communities” (pp. 3-4). Although Isayev may not be the first to have made this point, 1 she definitely makes it in a strikingly original and convincing way. In her book of over 500 pages, she argues that “migration” - a modern term with its own implications (pp. 8-15)—was the norm rather than the exception in antiquity, and that there was a broad spectrum of private mobility beneath the “top of the iceberg” represented by state-led institutional migration through colonization. While the “everyday nature of mobility” has long been marginalized in the narratives of the Classical world, Isayev argues that migration and mobility were “built into the way that society functioned” and therefore have the potential to open up new insights into the history of the ancient Mediterranean.

As a case study, Isayev looks at central and southern Italy during the first millennium BC, with a clear focus on the Late Republican and Early Imperial period. Before going through the four main sections of the book, a few words on its general outline are called for. This is not a handbook or sourcebook where the reader can look up single historical sites or figures, although there is, of course, an index. Moreover, the book does not use a clearly defined body of evidence. The poems of Catullus are used alongside Etruscan inscriptions, the works of Polybius and pottery sherds from various sites in the Mediterranean, to name just a small selection of the evidence drawn upon by Isayev. While this may appear unorthodox in the field of Classics, I believe that this is actually one of the strengths of Isayev’s book. For it is the combination of a variety of evidence and close readings of local histories that enable her to go beyond traditional assumptions and ideas about ancient migration. If anyone still needed further demonstration that large catalogues and top-down perspectives are not always helpful in reconstructing the historical experience, then this is it.

Besides the Introduction, part I includes a discussion of demography in Italy from the second to the first century BC. Rather than arguing for certain numbers instead of others, Isayev emphasizes the limited value of numerical estimates. The accounts of ancient historians place great importance on colonization and mass deportations, while containing little or nothing on “everyday mobility”. However, as Isayev argues, other forms of mobility and migration emerge indirectly from the sources. The sources actually suggest that “keeping people in one place appears to have been a bigger concern for authorities than trying to keep foreigners out” (p. 65), and thus indirectly confirm the impact of everyday migration on many levels of society.

Part II (i.e. chapters 3-5, as the numbering of the chapters is continuous) deals with earlier forms of migration in the first millennium BC, for which there is little or no numerical data. Mythological narratives and archaeological evidence are used to reconstruct the experience of cultural contact and colonization in the ancient Mediterranean. The opening chapter (Ch. 3: “Routeways, Kinship and Storytelling”) presents some well- known sources in a fresh light, e.g. the stories of Demaratus and Tarquinius Priscus or the foundation legend of Locri Epizephyrii. Chapters 4 (“Mixed Communities: Mobility, Connectivity and Co-Presence”) and 5 (“Why Choose to Come Together and Move Apart? Convergence and Redistribution of People and Power”) analyze settlement patterns, colonial movements and land use in ancient Italy down to the third century BC. Isayev attempts here to develop a historically founded narrative that enables her to interpret a set of phenomena as part of a general trend, as “part of the same process”, as she puts it (p. 186). These include urbanization, centralization and the infilling of territory in Italy, colonization, and the mobility of elite members, artisans, and subaltern groups. She argues that these phenomena contributed to a general pattern of migration and mobility that only changed from the end of the third century BC, when migration was increasingly “orchestrated from a single power-base—Rome—through an interconnected territorial unit—Italy—which allowed for rapid and targeted channeling of human and other resources” (p. 186). It should be emphasized that part II is all but a lengthy “state-of-the-art”-chapter that summarizes the research of others and prepares the ground for the actual argument. It is true that the evidence presented here is not new as such. However, Isayev’s reading of it should be considered truly groundbreaking: She provides a history of urbanization, centralization and colonization in Italy that does not, as so often in classical scholarship, follow a top-down perspective, but brings in the experience of the people who were involved in these processes. Everyone (such as myself)2 who has made similar attempts knows how difficult this is, especially for the early periods—and will therefore appreciate Isayev’s competent and sound handling of the sources.

Part III examines the accounts of two “early witnesses” of migration in Italy: Plautus and Polybius, with the aim of demonstrating that both authors, albeit from very different viewpoints, “depict a world that seems perpetually on the move” (p. 6). Chapter 6 looks at “Plautus on Mobility of the Everyday”, while chapters 7 (“Polybius on Mobility and a Comedy of The Hostage Prince”) and 8 (“Polybius on the Moving Masses and Those Who Moved Them”) deal with Polybius’s work and its wider context. All the chapters are rich in historical and archaeological data used to shed light on the world in which these texts were written. Isayev concludes that “it is perhaps surprising to us, who are daily bombarded with news headlines about keeping migrants out and calls for tougher border controls, that no such concerns are voiced by ancient communities in Polybius’s Histories” (p. 306), and that “‘the foreigner in our midst’ was simply part of everyday life” (p. 307). According to Isayev, for the periods in question we have no evidence of civilians “turned away on account of overpopulation, economic factors or xenophobia”, although “that does not mean that they had equal rights or access to the privileges of the local community” (p. 307). This is probably one of the points in the book that will stimulate further debate. Overpopulation, economic factors and xenophobia may actually have determined social practices and policies without being described with the sort of vocabulary that would make them familiar and recognizable to us.3 However, Isayev’s book does have the merit of making this issue explicit and of moving beyond modernist and simplistic assumptions about ancient migration that have so often characterized modern scholarship and continue to do so.

The fourth and last part deals with the period following the Social War. Isayev stresses that the way in which diversity was “accommodated in a single structure” (i.e. Roman Italy) in the aftermath of the war was “not a foregone conclusion” (p. 311), but rather the outcome of a series of choices. On these grounds, in Chapter 9 (“Social War: Reconciling Differences of Place and Citizenship”), Isayev proposes a historical revision of the Social War “not as an opposition between Rome and Corfinium, or Rome and Italy, but as a contest between two different models of place; how place relates to politics, identity and representation.” This is yet another example of how Isayev’s fresh perspective on the evidence provides stimulating new insights into a period of history that many consider to have been over-analyzed, but which still has much to offer for modern scholarship, as Isayev demonstrates. The same holds true for the remainder of the book, where Isayev engages with “Mapping the Moving of Rome of Livy’s Camillus Speech” (Ch. 10) and “Materialising Rome and Patria” (Ch. 11). Here, Isayev reads the cultural and political transformation of Rome and Italy in the first century BC as a shift from a “relational paradigm” to “a more absolute approach to place” emphasizing “the increasing importance of a site’s spatiality” and making “the land itself meaningful in construction of an identity” (p. 424). Isayev’s approach to place and “place-making” is rather innovative and may also open up new perspectives on the study of other regions and periods of history.

In conclusion, Isayev’s book is undoubtedly a major contribution to the entire field of Classics. Apart from making its case quite brilliantly, it breaks with a number of self-imposed limitations and restrictions (of disciplines, methods, periods, regions …) that have shaped and continue to shape much of Classical scholarship. This book is groundbreaking in the way it engages with the past by taking up current research from other fields and by formulating new models that will stimulate further debate—hopefully also beyond the scope of ancient Italy. It is worth adding that the book, although very scholarly, might also prove useful for undergraduate teaching, as it is written in a very understandable language and deals (especially in the first part) with fundamental issues for the study of Iron Age to Late Republican Italy. In short, it is a must-have for all scholars in this field, and a book which, to my eyes, ranks among the works that have offered a sweeping (and controversial) vision of Mediterranean mobility and connectivity, from Braudel to Horden & Purcell and D. Abulafia.4


1.   See for example Garland, R. 2014. The Ancient Greek Diaspora from the Age of Homer to the Death of Alexander the Great. Oxford/Princeton: Princeton University Press (BMCR 2015.01.39). Irad Malkin (A Small Greek World. Networks in the Ancient Greek Mediterranean. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. BMCR 2012.12.60) has explored similar issues, despite restricting himself to phenomena linked to “Greek Colonization”.
2.   Zuchtriegel, G. 2018. Colonization and Subalternity in Classical Greece. Experience of the Nonelite Population. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.
3.   For example, Isayev cites the works of C. Moatti (cf. Moatti, C. (ed.) 2004. La Mobilité des personnes en Méditerranée de l’antiquité à l’époque moderne: Procédures de contrôle et documents d’identification. Rome: Ecole française de Rome), who has attempted to demonstrate how Roman authorities controlled and restricted migration and access to local communities, but evidently disagrees with some of his interpretations, although she does not always clearly explain on what grounds she does so.
4.   While Isayev cites Braudel and Horden & Purcell, she has not included the edited volume by D. Abulafia: The Mediterranean in History. London: Thames & Hudson. 2003 (BMCR 2004.07.51) in her bibliography. The emphasis on human agency in this volume somehow veers in the same direction as Isayev’s approach. ​

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