Evocations of classical parallels and examples in current discussions of migration and its consequences in Europe have been pretty well uniformly unhelpful and polemical, designed above all to evoke the image of civilisation under threat from hordes of savage barbarians massing on the frontiers and threatening to swamp “our way of life”. It’s a little disconcerting; for so many years, following the general trend of the scholarship, I’ve been encouraging students in my Late Antiquity unit to shift their conception of the period from “barbarian invasions” to “migrations”, emphasising the fact that the majority of the Visigoths et al were seeking to join the Roman Empire, not sack or overthrow it, refugees from war and probably environmental crisis and climate change – and now it seems that this has become the prevalent view, but with all the fear and hostility associated with the “invasions” thesis now transferred across to migrants. Whereas once the manner in which these (relatively small numbers of) non-Romans entered the Empire was the crucial historical question, it now appears that any incursion of The Other from Outside is regarded as a threat unless proven otherwise.
I’ve been meaning for several months to write something about a much earlier discussion of migration and its impact, that offered by Thucydides in his account of very early Greek history:
In earlier times there were constant migrations, any group readily moving on from its present land each time they were forced out by others who happened to be superior in numbers. There was no trade, no secure communication with each other bu land or sea. Each group grazed its own land for subsistence, not building up financial reserves or farming the land, as it was never known when someone else might attach and take it from them… The best land always had the most changes of population… It was the quality of the earth which led to an imbalance of power and the resulting internal quarrels which destroyed communities, as well as the greater risk of aggression from outsiders. Certainly the thin soil of Attica kept it largely free of such internal strife, so the original population remained. And here is substantial proof of my argument that migrations prevented comparable development elsewhere… [1.2.1-6; translated by Hammond]
Stability and community good, migration – especially economic migration – bad; so far, so Brexit. The image of the migrant as rootless, feckless and primitive, driven solely by the search for personal gain, and contrasted with the stable and prosperous dweller of civilisation, dates back a long way. It’s worth stressing that this is a world before the development of the polis; while these people are described by Thucydides as failing to achieve anything much because of their constant mobility, it’s also the case that they are willing to be mobile because they have not yet achieved anything much – they have not yet enjoyed the benefits of stability, security and community, and so are not giving these up in moving. Much of the rest of Thucydides’ account shows the suffering experienced by those who have enjoyed a communal existence but are forced from their homes by war, destruction and the general upheaval of the times. In a developed world, mobility may be bound up with opportunity, but just as often it is a sign of crisis and social failure.
To return to Thucydides’ account of early Greece, the great exception is of course Athens, with this rationalised version of the old autocthony (“born from the soil”) myth – the same people always lived there, and this gave them strength, despite (or even because of) the relative poverty of the soil. However, this was not the basis for a dogmatic, exclusive ‘Athens for the Athenians, if you haven’t got soil in your blood you’re not welcome’ attitude; on the contrary, in this context – the existence of a measure of stability and security – migration becomes a source of prosperity:
And here is substantial proof of my argument that migrations prevented comparable development elsewhere: the most powerful of those forced out of the rest of Greece by war or civil strife resorted to Athens as a stable society. These new arrivals, admitted to citizenship, directly increased the population of the city from its original size, so that later, with Attica no longer able to support them, colonies were sent out to Ionia. [1.2.6]
Just as with the growth of early Rome (the story of Romulus’ asylum), and with well-known modern episodes of refugees from war persecution enriching other states through their talents, energy and knowledge (Huguenots in the 17th century, Jews in the 20th), people are an asset if they’re given the opportunity. As Walter Scheidel has discussed, the basic assumption in antiquity was that more people are always a good thing; more labour, more taxes, more potential soldiers, and if things get tight – because in a pre-industrial economy dependent on organic energy, the availability of land is a serious constraint – you can always send them off to found colonies and extend the city’s power and influence that way instead.
It’s an approach which finds echoes in the modern Australian points system for migrants (inexplicably proposed this week by the Brexit campaign as an alternative to the current UK system), which aims to enhance the nation’s prosperity by recruiting energetic and skilled as new citizens. It’s the opposite of the idea of the organic, integrated community where everyone needs to know everyone else and so numbers have to be limited – likewise an ancient Greek conception. In practice, Athens became steadily more exclusive over time, restricting access to citizenship and its privileges (someone in the DWP is probably reading up on metic status as we speak, and kicking themselves that it can’t be applied to EU citizens) – but in the fourth century we find Xenophon offering a similar line on the benefits of drawing on the untapped resource that is immigrants wanting to play their part in the community of which they’ve become members:
Instead of limiting ourselves to the blessings that may be called indigenous, suppose that, in the first place, we studied the interests of the resident foreigners. For in them we have one of the very best sources of revenue, in my opinion, inasmuch as they are self-supporting and, so far from receiving payment for the many services they render to states, they contribute by paying a special tax.[Poroi 2.1]