BMCR 2001.07.07

Foreigners at Rome: Citizens and Strangers

, Foreigners at Rome : citizens and strangers. London: Duckworth with the Classical Press of Wales, 2000. xiii, 360 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715629522 $49.50.

Issues of immigration are especially prevalent in today’s media headlines. North Americans and Europeans alike are attempting to deal with the increasing number of foreigners in their populations. Foreigners constitute individuals of various racial, ethnic, religious, and financial backgrounds who face certain legal restrictions when they migrate to a new a country. For example, the reviewer, a Canadian citizen employed at an American institution of higher learning, is deemed a “Resident Alien.” With such a designation, the resident must pay taxes on income earned in the country of residence yet she is not legally a citizen. How then does she fit within or acculturate into American society? It is these very issues—ethnicity, self identity, social and legal status—that David Noy handles in his account of foreigners living in the ancient city of Rome.

Noy is no stranger to scholarship on ethnicity and self-identity in antiquity. Besides publishing numerous articles on Roman law and Judaism in the Greco-Roman world, he is the author of a two volume work entitled Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe (Cambridge 1993-1995) and has co-authored, along with William Horbury, Jewish Inscriptions of Greco-Roman Egypt (Cambridge 1992). Noy’s work on Judaism has served as an excellent point of departure for his most recent work, Foreigners at Rome. This is a much needed study that examines the role of foreigners in Rome, primarily during the empire. By drawing on the epigraphic and literary evidence, Noy effectively establishes what ethnic presence there was in the capital, the types of jobs foreigners were employed in, and how immigrants integrated into Roman society. Noy outlines consistently and carefully his objectives, methodology, and limitations throughout this work. This book will certainly appeal to those interested in ethnicity in the ancient world and serve as a good source for those searching for comparative material on foreigners in other disciplines.

Noy divides the book into three main sections. The first, “Evidence and ancient attitudes,” lays down the methodological groundwork for his study and attempts to define the social and legal status of the foreigner in Rome. He also discusses demographic issues by examining what proportion of foreigners made up the population, whether these foreigners were citizens, and the various reasons for increases in immigration. The second section, “Moving to Rome” outlines the types of individuals who would have immigrated to the capital, reasons for and motivating factors behind moving, and what happened to an individual upon arrival. Section three, “Living at Rome” examines the ethnic experience in the city and to what degree foreigners maintained their ethnic identities. The author also includes an appendix that cites the names of foreigners, their role in the inscription (commemorator or deceased) and reason for their inclusion in the appendix. A glossary has also been included in the back of the book for technical terms appearing in the text.

Noy defines a foreigner as “someone who was born outside Italy and moved to Rome, but continued to have a ‘home’ (in their own thinking or in other peoples) elsewhere (xi).” The author is correct to define his terms at the onset of the work and makes the valid point that the meanings for the word foreigner in English are far more widespread than they are in Latin. To facilitate the reading for a non-specialist in Roman law, Noy needs to make the legal implications clearer in his definitions. Peregrinus, for example, as Noy states, is a foreigner or stranger and a citizen of a state other than Rome (1) and in terms of the social hierarchy occupied the position somewhere between slave and citizen (24). What he does not emphasize is that someone deemed peregrinus in the eyes of the law did not lay claim to any political rights, was excluded from the military and could not make a will. A peregrinus, moreover, could only be instituted as heres if written into the will of a Roman soldier. Some peregrini possessed the legal right to marriage ( conubium); others, the legal right to take part in commercial transactions ( commercium).1 As early as the late Republic thanks to increased commercial activity legal distinctions between citizen and foreigner became more relaxed.2 Provincialis as Noy has defined refers to someone who is the “inhabitant of a province as opposed to an inhabitant of Italy” (1). It is also important to mention that birthplace also is crucial to understanding this term. One may reside in a province without it being the person’s original birthplace.3

Noy emphasizes several aspects concerning foreigners that have not been adequately covered in the secondary literature, namely, motivating factors for moving to the capital, familial relationships, political and economic climate for expulsion, and preservation of foreign identity. The reviewer welcomes Noy’s comparative approach when discussing ancient migration patterns to Rome. By focusing on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants to the United States and Europe as comparative models, Noy reveals that immigrants moved to Rome for economic prosperity and the move itself did not often involve a move directly from point A to B; instead, an individual would have taken up residence in interim spots where similar ethnic or religious groups resided (53-55, 262).

Another valuable contribution is the author’s assessment of familial relationship types appearing on the epitaphs of foreigners of either civilian or military status. The focus on the Roman family is not new, but an analysis of the foreign make-up in the family is.4 Noy finds that depictions of the nuclear family where all the individuals are immigrants are few (67-68). His evidence reveals that civilian males are frequently commemorated by individuals not related to the deceased; parents commemorate deceased sons more frequently than daughters; husbands more frequently commemorate wives than wives do husbands. Relationships between brothers appear quite frequently especially in the case where the brothers served in the military. Noy believes that references to brothers indicate a “real relationship” rather than “a term of endearment” (70). The author makes legitimate claims here; however, his points could have been further substantiated by the literary sources. Brothers serving in the army who had had illustrious careers not only embodied military glory but also enhanced the family’s reputation.5

Finally another interesting discussion is the political and economic climate for expulsion of foreigners from Rome. Noy carefully documents the references to expulsion from the Republic to the fourth century C.E. to reveal that food shortages seem to play a key role. Groups singled out for expulsion typically shared common religious values, nationalities or occupation (41). Noy is prudent to observe that it was not in Rome’s best interest to consistently push out foreign groups from the city. Measures, although infrequent and sometimes misleading, were taken to encourage foreigners (namely, doctors and teachers) to move to the capital.

Praiseworthy is Noy’s overview of the types of foreign groups residing in the capital. Despite its appearance at the end of the work, this section is the most comprehensive for our understanding the composition of Rome’s foreign population. Noy organizes the evidence according to geographic region (e.g., Gaul and Hispania, Central and Eastern Europe, Greece, etc.). Within each section, Noy examines the reasons for migration within a historical context, whether or not individuals established a distinct cultural community as shown by civic or religious institutions, and how individuals referred to their homelands in epitaphs or dedicatory inscriptions. What becomes evident is that Noy’s Rome is one filled with a rich and vibrant foreign community, a feature often overlooked in much of the secondary literature dealing with the city of Rome.

Bibliographic references related to the study of Roman family and freed slaves are minimal in this work. The reviewer concurs with Noy’s claim that contemporary scholars rarely make reference to foreigners in their accounts; however, there are a few places where references, insubstantial as they might be, would have served to strengthen Noy’s points.6 For example, Noy frequently mentions foreign freed slaves, yet Susan Treggiari’s influential work, Roman Freedmen during the Late Republic (Oxford 1969) and A.M. Duff’s, Freedmen in the Early Roman Empire (Oxford 1928) do not appear in the bibliography.

Despite Noy’s modest assertion that the evidence presented can by no means tell everything there is to know about foreigners in the city of Rome, he has done an admirable and erudite job of assembling the material at hand to inform his readers about the foreign inhabitants of Rome, the motivating factors for their arrival, and their contributions. The author has brought a new dimension to the city of Rome by revealing the rich and diverse cultural heritage that played a formidable role in the life of the city. This study will offer a very good foundation, moreover, for examining the foreign element in Italian municipalities and colonies found in Italy as well as in the provinces.


1. Adolf Berger, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law (Philadelphia 1953), s.v. peregrinus. Hereafter, EDRL; Jane Gardner, Being a Roman Citizen (London and New York 1993), 186-188; A.N. Sherwin White, The Roman Citizenship, 2nd ed. (Oxford 1973), 268-269

2. EDRL, s.v., ius gentium.

3. D. 50.15.190; EDRL, s.v., provincialis.

4. The bibliography on Roman family is extensive to say the least. Two more recent works include Beryl Rawson and Paul Weaver (eds.), The Roman Family in Italy: Status, Sentiment, Space (Oxford 1997); Jane Gardner, Family and Familia in Roman Law and Life (Oxford 1998).

5. See Cynthia J. Bannon, The Brothers of Romulus: Fraternal Pietas in Roman Law, Literature and Society (Princeton 1997), 138-148.

6. For a reference to children who are peregrini, see Paul Gallivan and Peter Wilkins, “Familial Structures in Roman Italy: A Regional Approach,” in Rawson and Weaver, The Roman Family, 239-279.