BMCR 2022.06.23

Flucht auswärtiger Eliten ins Römische Reich Asyl und Exil

, Flucht auswärtiger Eliten ins Römische Reich Asyl und Exil. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021. Pp. 347. ISBN 9783515130806 €60,00.

Oliver Bräckel’s book Flucht auswärtiger Eliten ins Römische Reich is a revised version of the author’s 2019 Ph.D. thesis submitted to the University of Leipzig. A book on refugees in antiquity is timely and welcome, and Bräckel overall makes a reasonable case that the elites of the Roman Empire were generally open to the idea of accepting political refugees as guests and, in so doing, furthering their own interests.

Following a comprehensive introduction (on this, see further below), chapter 2 lays out some preliminary observations regarding its subject. The main points discussed here are the two terms “flight” and “elite”. In chapters 3 and 4 Bräckel then investigates the source material he identified as relevant for the subject. In essence, both chapters contain case studies of a total of 57 political refugees from either the Hellenistic world (during the Republican period) or the “barbarian” world, that is, the area northwest of the Roman Empire (on this total count of individual cases considered, see p. 255, note 295; this is also the total presented in the tables throughout this volume). Chapter 3 provides a comprehensive initial discussion of these cases. The scope of this chapter is mainly chronological, and the main question asked is how the Roman Empire came to be seen as a safe haven for refugees from Europe and the Mediterranean world. The discussion of this question is central to the author’s overall thesis, elaborated in greater detail in chapter 4, that Rome was seen as such a safe haven. In this chapter, the individual case studies are framed within the wider history of Rome’s rise to a Mediterranean power, its foreign affairs, and its wars. In so doing, Bräckel aims to pinpoint specific events that account for the statistical increase in the number of people displaced to and resettling in Rome, and the probable reasons why they chose Rome as their preferred destination.

Chapter 4 draws on the same source material, but is a more systematic analysis of various categories with regards to the subject of political flight than the previous chronological chapter. Most of the time (unless the analysis does not allow clear distinctions) the treatment of each category starts with a table of cases and applicable subcategories, and is often followed by one or more diagrams, which are meant to supply some statistical groundwork and which are in turn followed by individual discussions of limitations, necessary assumptions, possible source bias, and so on. This chapter discusses the following categories and topics: the relationship of the exiled persons to Rome, the chronology of the incidents, the places of departure, the reasons for flight, places of destination, the reasons for a friendly reception, hospitality and general treatment, the goals achieved (with an examination of the mechanisms behind this success), as well as the final destinies of displaced persons.

Neither chapter includes a summary at the beginning or end, but some subsections end with a short summary of the point just made (e.g., 208, 211-212, 230-231). The book, therefore, ends with concluding remarks which summarise the main points of the analysis and which are generally well argued and acceptable : Rome’s rise to power and external engagements made the city and wider empire a popular destination for political refugees. Elite political refugees tended to appeal first to the senate as a whole and later to individual senators, at a time when the Republic was transformed into the Principate. Within the local elites, it was mostly rulers or members of their immediate families who sought political refuge, but Bräckel acknowledges that this might be due to the interest of the sources in senatorial history. There were just two cases of refugees from a non-political background: one from the arts (philosophy), the other involving a member of a local religious elite. Refugees recorded in the sources were all male; there are only a few instances of women named as members of their support group. A friendly reception may be attributed to mutual interest (for example, to make a case for external military intervention). Refugees, at least those from the Hellenistic east during the Republican period, often continued to have a comfortable lifestyle, but since they had lost their former status in their home community, their final destiny remained insecure. Overall, Rome acted as a “safe haven” for political refugees. The ancient sources are neutral and non-judgmental on political refugees.

The book’s subtitle (Asyl und Exil) is slightly misleading. Perhaps it was the publisher rather than the author who chose it, since it was not part of the original title of the thesis, but the two additions no doubt make up appealing key words. However, rather than dealing with asylum and exile, the book is exclusively concerned with the subject of flight and the most appropriate term with which to describe the book’s subject matter (in English) would be “political refugees” (on this, see p. 29-32). The dates which featured in the original title of the thesis, “2. Jh. v. bis 2. Jh. n. Chr.”, have also dropped out in the final publication, perhaps again for marketing reason, but it is crucial for readers to understand that the thesis specifically deals with the late Republic and the early and high imperial periods and nowhere attempts to look beyond this chronological scope.

There are also some terminological inconsistencies in the starting-point of the book. Throughout his volume, Bräckel uses the terms exile (“Exilant”) and exile location (“Exilsort”) to refer to political refugees. Most scholars of antiquity, however, would use the term exile specifically to refer to the Roman legal term of exilium and the related punishments of relegatio and deportatio, that is, forced relocation carried out by order of some authority, such as a law court, ruler, or other judicial body or person. Bräckel instead has a strong background in the history of the modern period and justifies his taxonomy of flight and exile from contemporary understandings of the terms, drawing on the standard German dictionary (Duden) as the main authority for his interpretation of the term exile (p. 31) and related terms such as asylum (p. 34), while on p. 37 he cites a contemporary political lexicon.

These major conflations both in the title and in the actual analysis of the work make it even more surprising that Bräckle at one point claims: „Das Thema der Exilanten im Römischen Reich wurde bisher in keiner Studie grundlegend bearbeitet“ (p. 13). While there is perhaps some truth in his claim as far as the period under investigation is concerned (especially if “Exilant” is understood in the sense of political refugee), in fact an astonishing number of publications has appeared in recent years, even before Bräckel submitted his thesis, at least if one includes studies on the Later Roman Empire. To name just a few: Daniel A. Washburn,  Banishment in the Later Roman Empire, 284-476 CE, London: Routledge 2013; Julia Hillner, Jörg Ulrich, Jakob Engberg (eds.), Clerical Exile in Late Antiquity, Frankfurt: Peter Lang 2016; Margarita Vallejo Girvés, Juan A. Bueno Delgado (eds.), Confinamiento y exilio en la Antigüedad Tardía, Madrid: Dykinson 2018;  Jennifer Barry, Bishops in Flight: Exile and Displacement in Late Antiquity, Oakland: University of California Press 2019. While the chronological scope of these and other studies on exile in the Roman Empire would probably not have helped Bräckel in identifying his case studies, they most certainly would have been of benefit to sharpen the categories, taxonomy, and theories used in relation to flight and exile. But Bräckel’s bibliography does not even mention such relevant works as Alessandro Barbero, Barbari: Immigrati, profughi, deportati nell’ impero romano, Rome: Laterza 2006; Benjamin D. Gray, Stasis and Stability: Exile, the Polis, and Political Thought, c. 404–146 BC, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015 and Philippe Blaudeau (ed.), Exil et relégation. Les tribulations du sage et du saint durant l’Antiquité romaine et chrétienne (Ier –VIe s. ap. J.-C.), Paris: De Boccard 2008.

Bräckel’s claim that the alleged lack of research on this topic means that there has been no terminological discussion either (p. 16) is, therefore, bewildering when in fact most of the studies just mentioned (and others besides) do discuss the terminology at generous length. Moreover, the reviewer does not feel that Bräckel’s own treatment of the ancient terminology is particularly instructive. For example, the pertinent chapter on central terms (p. 16-32) does discuss the modern terms of flight and of elites, but none of the terms mentioned in the subtitle (exile, asylum). The discussion of the meaning of flight does not include any Greek or Latin terms. Instead, on p. 38 he gives a very brief summary of the meaning of exilium, relegatio, and deportatio, but the Greek key word exoria and its derivatives are missing. On p. 182-183, there is a short acknowledgment that most of the sources use some composite verb of fugio/pheugo to describe flight. On p. 76 Bräckel explains that he sees a distinction between the terms banishment and exile and that only the former describes an actual order of enforced relocation, whereas all the works mentioned above use the two terms almost synonymously. The final paragraph of the book (p. 307) reiterates the point that the book does not deal with asylum and similar phenomena and concludes, somewhat surprisingly given the book’s overall approach to terminology, that it is inappropriate to project a modern taxonomy onto ancient contexts. Why did the author not discuss all these terms in the pertinent chapter or at least provide a cross-reference?

In presenting his material, Bräckel tends to write long paragraphs, sometimes without a great deal of references in support of his ideas (especially in the preliminary section). Thus, p. 24-25 seems to be little more than a paraphrase of Stefanie Dick, “Germanische Eliten in den antiken Schriftenquellen” in: Varusschlacht im Osnabrücker Land, Mainz: von Zabern 2009, 320-322. Page 115-122 (on Pompey) and again 155-161 (on the Marcomanni) are just two examples that continue on without giving the reader the breathing space of a paragraph marker. The reader feels especially lost on p. 124-125, which are apparently based on the source material introduced shortly before, but Bräckel does not provide any reference to a specific source, not even when he explicitly talks about “Hinweise in den Quellen” (p. 125). Furthermore, Bräckel does not always translate Greek and Latin texts (p. 143). One may also wonder whether a study of 57 cases is statistically sufficient to warrant the repeated use of diagrams. The index of sources indicates that the book is reasonably complete as far as historical works for the period covered are concerned, but hardly includes any poetry or fictional texts. Even if fictional, the case of Ascyltus (Petronius, Satyricon 57) comes to mind as a potential stereotype of his day and age. The bibliography is dominated by German-language titles, with relatively few English-language, a total of four Francophone titles, and none in other languages.