Is It a Stretch to Compare Today’s Immigrants With Roman Slaves?

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New U.S. citizens take the Oath of Allegiance during a special naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services District Office in the Manhattan borough of New York City, November 13. Mike Segar/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Eidolon site. It is the second of two articles that should be read in order. The first part can be found here.

The distrust of immigrants I explored in my previous article is rooted in more than just (unfounded) fear of violence. After all, violent immigrants can be arrested and imprisoned. But what about law-abiding, productive immigrants?

In a way, they seem even more frightening because they can, ostensibly, displace natives by taking away their jobs.

This suspicion also existed in Rome, although instead of undocumented immigrants, Romans were afraid of their slaves. But do immigrants — especially undocumented ones — really come and take jobs?

My sense is that the frightened responses to Rome’s job-consuming slaves and today’s job-consuming immigrants are variations on the same theme: those rendered vulnerable by the prospect or reality of economic loss are encouraged to demonize the powerless, and sidelined in the ensuing discussion are the ethical commitments that stem from the geopolitics of migration.

I’m not the first to suggest that the “illegal”/undocumented immigrants of today or yesteryear are akin to Rome’s slaves. In April 2006, a letter to The Providence Journal equated slave labor in ancient Rome with undocumented immigrant labor today. Since then, multiple writers have revisited the analogy, usually substituting American slaves for Roman ones. For example, the 2012 Encyclopedia of Global Studies entry on “undocumented persons” opens with runaway slaves in pre- and post-revolutionary America.

I do not make this comparison lightly, but I believe that it is both fair and illuminating. By “fair” I do not simply mean “historiographically justified;” I also mean “ethically sensible” in the sense of being properly attuned to the dimensions of human suffering on all sides of the comparison.

And by “illuminating,” I mean that the kind of comparison plotted here and previously is not a presentist gimmick — it is a means of using the present to re-read the past so that this newly conceived past can then inform our present. It clarifies something about the importation of slaves to Rome and the migration of undocumented labor to the United States.

With well over a century of extra-peninsular military campaigns under its belt, the Roman Republic of the Gracchi teemed with slaves. This kind of large-scale population transfer was common in pre-modern states and empires: Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Achaemenids, Athens and Sparta, Alexander the Great, the Hellenistic dynasts, the Romans — the list can easily be expanded to encompass the eastern end of Eurasia.

In each case, imperial dominance regularly entailed the relocation of substantial numbers of people. Much of this migration was forced and/or mediated through enslavement. The traumas generated by this involuntary movement are detectable in all sorts of ancient texts, from the Hebrew Bible — “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong” (Leviticus 18:33) — to Roman comedy .

At least three quarters of a million human beings were enslaved in the years 297–167 BCE as a direct consequence of the Roman conquest. While numbers are harder to come by for subsequent decades, the devastation unleashed on Carthage and Corinth in 146 and the conclusion of the protracted Spanish campaigns at Numantia in 133 probably resulted in the enslavement of tens if not hundreds of thousands more.

Through slavery and colonial resettlement, the Roman imperial machine shuffled bodies around on a massive scale. This shuffle generated paperwork expressly concerned with documenting and regulating human travel.

To be sure, Rome and other polities of the ancient Mediterranean had nothing on 21st-century states when it comes to systems for tracking and controlling the movement of bodies. We live in the age of the surveillance state and its wealth of digital and biometric monitoring devices (as I was reminded when sharing my fingerprints with the US immigration service last week). But passports and visas did exist in antiquity.

In Plautus’s The Captives, two characters briefly discuss obtaining a passport (syngraphus). A clause in a Roman senatorial decree passed some years after Plautus’s death authorized the issuing of travel visas (grammata philanthropa) to residents of several Greek towns. Special bureaucratic controls operated in connection with Egypt, both before and after the Roman takeover.

The geographer Strabo indicates that already under the Ptolemies one could not leave Alexandria “without a passport” (aneu prostagmatos: Geo. 2.3.5). The policy seems to have been maintained when Egypt passed into Roman hands — the second-century CE “Gnomon of the Idios Logos,” a handbook providing legal guidance to officials in Egypt, specifies the prefect as responsible for the “cases of persons departing by sea without a pass” (§ 64 = Lewis and Reinhold II, 301).

In a third-century CE letter recovered from the garbage dumps at Oxyrhynchus, we see the procedure for obtaining such a pass at work: a woman originally from Asia Minor writes to the prefect of Egypt for clearance to sail out of Alexandria’s port “according to the usual practice” (P. Oxy. 1271 = Lewis and Reinhold II , p. 282).

Perusing the letter, I find it hard not to read just a hint of boredom into its last clause. Having spent parts of the past few months writing letters and assembling forms for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, I can almost hear her sighing. But I’m also reminded that already among the Romans, human mobility and bureaucratic documentation were interrelated.

Which brings us next to slaves: the original undocumented.

My terming slaves “the original undocumented” gestures at a paradox. On the one hand, the Roman imperial machine generated paperwork that documented the scale of subjugation (hence the survival of figures for some of the major enslavements) and facilitated the sale of slaves (hence legally regulated contracts, some of which also survive).

On the other hand, for those who experienced it, Roman slavery was a condition of profound and miserable undocumentation. Slaves could not register their presence or preferences by voting. They could not initiate any legal or financial transaction without the express permission of their owners.

Many of them, bound to farms with little to no prospect of relief, have left us with no documentary trace of their existence. The only hope for slaves lay in manumission, a process that often involved the physical destruction of the old documentation of the slave’s purchase and the generation of new documentation attesting to the now-freed person’s civic status (see E.A. Meyer, Legitimacy and law in the Roman world, p. 120 with citations).

But in spite of how grim the slaves’ plight seems to us, Romans still found reason to resent them. According to the imperial historian Appian of Alexandria (no stranger to migration himself), the Roman on the street began to grumble that these migrant slaves were taking the jobs. This grumbling was based on the following facts:

1. As the Republic expanded — first to the limits of the peninsula and then beyond them — rich Romans had started gobbling up conquered land and consolidating smaller farms into larger ones. Since these rich Romans preferred to use newly arrived slaves, native peasants eventually found themselves displaced from land on which they and their families had worked for generations.

2. This cheap slave labor, combined with the slaves’ high birth rates, crushed the employments prospects of Rome’s lower-class freeborn.

3. Legal attempts to curtail these actions proved to be fruitless. Most of the wealthy who had profited from this economic transformation had grown politically powerful and could afford to ignore or obstruct legislation.

Eventually, however, a populist politician arrived on the scene, bemoaning the fate of the lower-class freeborn peasantry and appealing to them through demagogic speeches that denigrated these slaves as unreliable, disloyal and prone to crime (Civil Wars I.7–16). This populist politician, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus — elder brother of the Gaius who made a cameo in Part I of this series — was the Roman version of Donald Trump.

Now, I could choose to compare Gracchus to Senator Ted Cruz, who, at the Republican debate in Milwaukee, reiterated the received wisdom about undocumented immigration: it “drive[s] down the wages of millions of hard-working men and women.”

Or I could reach across the party aisle and compare Gracchus to Senator Bernie Sanders, who in July declared that the reason why corporate America “likes immigration reform” is because it wants to “bring low-wage labor of all levels into this country to depress wages in America.”

I could even leap back to the Gilded Age and compare Gracchus to Samuel Gompers, the pioneering union leader and long-serving president of the American Federation of Labor, who, at the turn of the 20th century, warned his fellow Americans that “the importation of Japanese coolie labor” threatened to “supplant [theirs]” (Los Angeles Times , May 8, 1900).

Whomever we choose as our benchmark, the point remains: populism past and present has embraced the proposition that the importation of low-wage labor pushes down wages (and eliminates opportunities) for the native-born.

The economic and geopolitical forces funneling migrants to the United States are analogous to those at work in other imperial systems throughout history. For that reason alone, it’s well past time we understand that the subjection of undocumented immigrants — through the pairing of disenfranchisement with the threat of arbitrary violence — as a form of enslavement. And it’s well past time for us to recognize our own responsibility in shaping the economic factors that led to that enslavement.

In August of this year, Iowa’s Jan Mickelson, a conservative radio host, mused aloud about turning undocumented people into “property of the state” and forcing them to build a border wall. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the fear of reactivating a form of slavery allegedly prompted Bernie Sanders to vote against a 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Whether consciously or not, then, some are already inclined to see undocumented laborers as hovering perilously close to slavery. But the signs of this inclination in and of themselves don’t motivate or justify my eagerness to read Rome’s slaves as today’s undocumented. My real justification lies in the “econ-speak” common to the framing of marginalized labor in both contexts, and the use of such econ-speak to indulge a form of oversimplification.

For both Gracchan Rome and 21st-century America and Europe, the claim that the immigrant influx automatically and inexorably led to a deterioration of the prospects of the native-born isn’t based on the most lucid — or airtight — economic reasoning.

Generations of professional and amateur Roman historians accepted Appian’s account and its echo in Plutarch (TG 8.1–3) without batting an eyelid, but in 2004 Nathan Rosenstein dealt a serious blow to the structural integrity of the consensus view.

More recent work has shown not only that the Roman economy experienced substantial growth in the period of the Gracchi and afterwards, but also that such growth benefited the displaced peasants who were making new lives for themselves in Italy’s cities and towns (see now chs. 7–9 of Kay’s Rome’s Economic Revolution).

Meanwhile, studies of the economic impact of modern immigration on American society refute any one-dimensional characterization of migrants as job-takers. The gist of these studies: even if some categories of undocumented immigrants temporarily suppress the real wages of some sectors of the population (and this is a big “if”), in the aggregate these immigrants produce and consume at rates that generate substantial short- and long-term economic benefits for themselves and for the native-born.

It’s not just that undocumented immigrants take the (say) fruit-picking or toilet-cleaning jobs that native workers won’t do; it’s also that they enhance the standard of living for natives by contributing to the social safety net (the undocumented have paid $100 billion into Social Security over the last decade) and committing crime at considerably lower rates than the native-born.

Even the Cato Institute— not a think-tank with which I usually find myself in agreement —has emphasized that to fixate on the supply of workers as “the prime determinant of wages ignores much”: “Worker productivity is also influenced by the type and quantity of capital in the economy, the differences between immigrant workers and native-born workers, and the availability of technology.”

Without the full modern toolkit for theorizing macroeconomic labor developments, many ancient Romans would not have fully grasped the nuances of this argument. But even in their predominantly agrarian economy, some of the logic would have held true.

Among the “undocumented” of the Gracchan period and those afterwards were slaves whose skills and training, potentially applicable to a whole new range of economic enterprises, set them apart from the average Roman worker. At the same time, that average Roman worker profited both directly and indirectly from the unskilled immigrant labor that generated surpluses in grain, wine and oil. These surpluses were important preconditions for the rise of ancient Rome’s middle class.

But to insist solely on the economic “value” of immigrants conceals the operation of econ-speak as an instrument of discursive control. Having now patted myself on the back for summoning Foucault, let me be clearer about what I mean.

In Appian’s account of the popular discontent that launches Tiberius Gracchus to the tribunate, the “economic” is never innocently economic. It’s hitched to tropes that work together to create and sustain an ideology.

One trope invokes personal deprivation: YOU, farmer or city-dweller, are being deprived of something that was yours by birthright. The second invokes social decline and your stake in it: Rome was great once, because of people like you; let’s make her great again.

The clincher comes with the third trope, which tacks between the first two and brings them into direct alignment: the immigrant is the invader and leech, the taker and not-maker, the cause of decline.

Forget whatever loss and deprivation the immigrant or refugee has already suffered. Any empathy its contemplation may stir up is swiftly obstructed by the specter of the menacing new figure who snatches up all the jobs.

We can’t ask the sturdy Roman Marcus whether he really liked eking out a meager existence on a farm. We can read the rhetoric preserved in Appian as a strategy of misdirection: Marcus, before you begin wondering why you were eking out that meager existence in the first place, before you raise your fist at the machinery of empire that enriched your politicians without enriching you, let me bring to your attention those filthy Syrian slaves working the fields and taking a regular beating from their overseer. Lazy, shifty, good-for-nothing, hyper-fertile — hate and blame them.

In Rome and 21st-century America, the appeals to lost jobs and the accusations leveled at those who allegedly took them dodge harder, more searching questions. What are our ethical and political obligations to those displaced by imperial power and/as capital?

In our personal and societal choices, how do we implicate ourselves in — and thus become responsible for — such displacements? How do we acknowledge and shoulder that responsibility?

At no point in the most recent Republican debate’s seesaw action on immigration were any of these questions formulated with anything approaching rigor.

Lately, a passage from Aelius Aristides’s Roman Oration has stuck to me like gum: “One can see so many cargoes from India, or, if you wish, from Arabia Felix, that one may surmise that the trees there have been left permanently bare, and that those people must come here to beg for their own goods whenever they need anything” (§12 = Meyer and Reinhold II, p. 123).

His words echo Roman imperial expropriation’s capacity to generate desire, agony and even desperation on the part of those whose homelands it stripped bare as a direct consequence of its power.

Some weeks ago, I was criticized for naming Americanization as a driver of undocumented migration to the States. “If people anywhere like American jeans or music or movies,” began the sarcastic retort, “they have been colonized by an imperial power and have the right to claim the United States as their new homeland.”

I was hoping to spot American burgers on this list: arguably few things are more frightening than the ecological catastrophe being precipitated by our burger-loving ways and their likely contribution to future waves of migration driven by climate change. But even in the form of jeans-music-movies, the failed reductio ad absurdum skates past the many ways “Americanization” unleashes destructive power on communities and states around the world.

For one, Americanization isn’t just about other people’s love for American products — it’s about how American demand for products incentivizes economic realignments grounded in expropriation. While typing the first draft of this essay on my iPhone, I couldn’t help thinking about the extent to which my purchase of Apple products has made me party to an infrastructure of economic exploitation that not only shifts employment networks at the site of production (China) but also sends some people into migratory motion towards the countries whose native-born laborers have seen job opportunities dry up partly as a result of that same infrastructure.

Of course, the destructive power unleashed by empires past and present isn’t strictly economic in nature and outcomes. The Define American project and its architect, the undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, have made regular and powerful use of a pithy postcolonial slogan that captures the dynamics of this power perfectly: “We’re here because you were there.”

I hail from the Dominican Republic, which over the course of the 20th century experienced one US military intervention that set the stage for the emergence of a brutal dictatorship and a second that greased the wheels for a return to authoritarianism.

Much like the Romans, American boots on the ground (and their European colonial predecessors) have turned places into deserts and called that peace — one of the many reasons why characterizing and even caricaturing undocumented migrants as voluntary law-breakers is farcical.

In many cases, the undocumented are compelled to move. They have no other choice. They are refugees, even when enforcers of a hard distinction between migrants and refugees insist otherwise.

Perhaps by now you’ll have decided that all this comparative work simply illustrates that there’s nothing new under the sun — plus ça change. And that’s fine. But I hope that, when read together, the two pieces persuade you — if you need persuading — of the bi-directionality of Classics: a field in which the continuously shifting conceptualization of the deep past is locked in a recursive and critical relationship with the deep present. Comparison, when done right, can destabilize.

I want to close on a more personal note. Because the movement of human bodies across borders has shaped and continues to shape the discipline, classicists have real skin in the game when it comes to debates over migratory policy.

Several towering figures of 20th-century Classics were actual refugees: Eduard Fraenkel, Arnaldo Momigliano and Anna Morpurgo Davies. In my undergraduate years of indecision, the life stories of my own professors (quite a few of whom were immigrants, following knowledge like a sinking star no matter where it — and the available jobs — took them) informed my decision to major in Classics. Ever since, I have taken great pride in belonging to a field that, despite its many warts of privilege, is rooted in the immigrant experience.

Not all aspects of that experience are gravy. After all, as Judith Hallett has shown, the “international” traffic in Classics left generations of American classicists with the feeling that they didn’t quite rise to the standard of their European counterparts (“Writing as an American,” Compromising Traditions).

The presence of foreigners in American classics programs isn’t always viewed as cause for celebration. As inoculation against those sentiments, I offer an antidote in the form of injunction: that Classics remain committed to the self-reflexive analysis of migrant bodies, undocumented as well as documented. Especially in the age of Trump.

Trained as a Roman historian at Princeton, Oxford and Stanford, Dan-el Padilla Peralta is a Mellon Research Fellow in the Society of Fellows and Lecturer in Classics at Columbia University. In the fall of 2016 he will begin a tenure-track appointment in Classics at Princeton. Undocumented, his memoir of growing up without legal immigrant status in New York City, was published in July by Penguin Press. His monograph on Roman Republican religion is under contract with Princeton University Press.

The author would like to thank Michael Fontaine for comments on an earlier draft, a warm and engaged audience at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for their immensely stimulating feedback, and Hidetaka Hirota (Columbia) for the Samuel Gompers reference.