The term “illegal immigrant” is a contentious one today, when the words we choose are weapons in political argument. But it is possible to clear our heads about what will happen, regardless of whatever we think ought to happen, and what we call the people involved. What is happening to the United States of America now is a replay of what happened in the first great republic. Ancient Romans fought over the status of legally defined aliens in their midst for more than fifty years.

The historical comparison gives us a time perspective we lack: we know what happened down that road. The illegal aliens won. In less than 100 years, ethnic and geographical origins ceased to make any difference in Roman society.

The Fight Over Roman Citizenship

Ancient Rome was a self-governing republic.  Citizens had the right to vote, and the duty to serve in the army. Since they won every war for about 300 years, territory under Roman control expanded, first to all of Italy, then to surrounding regions. The pattern was not unlike the small thirteen colonies that became the United States of America; Romans too sent out colonies to settle on conquered territory, including the Wild West of its time, the tribal frontier of  Spain and France. The Roman state became rich in public land-- farmland, mines, forests, etc-- which it could dispose of to its citizens either as property grants or as leases. This meant that Roman citizens did not have to pay taxes, unlike the conquered peoples. Roman citizenship was a valuable possession.

Rome began as one of many small Italian city-states, and it expanded by making treaties with others. Since independent states might ally themselves with an enemy, Roman alliances tended to have strong elements of threat-- they were forced allies, similar to US policy of interfering in the internal government of weaker states during the Cold War. Rome’s allies were required to send troops in time of war (which was most of the time) and to pay for military expenses. Thus being a Roman ally had considerable disadvantages; they were “friends of Rome” but definitely not citizens. Among other things, they were not allowed to marry Roman citizens, since that would provide a legal path to citizenship (again, some similarities to American laws). Hence there was considerable pressure from the allies, especially those attached to the Roman armies, to be treated like Roman soldiers who shared in the spoils of war.

Roman conservatives resisted widening the franchise. Their center of strength was the Senate, the upper body of the Roman legislature, which appointed most of the officials and generals. Senators were from the long-standing patrician families; but new members of the Senate could be appointed, and so there was some upward mobility-- from former plebian families that had become wealthy and distinguished, and even ex-slaves and former allies who had risen in importance. Conservatives, however, looked down on the newcomers, as merely vulgar rich (although the old families were rich too), and above all lacking in the heroic virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice that made up their historic (and somewhat mythological) self-image.

The True Roman Self-Image of their Heroic Past: Oath of the Horatii


The Real American Self-Image of the Heroic Past

Over time, the aliens squeezed through the cracks. The Roman army kept getting larger, as its conquests grew. War casualties, especially in the long fight against Carthage (264-146 BC), its most powerful rival, created a need to raise more soldiers from the allies, and more of them were rewarded by becoming integrated in the Roman legions. Roman soldiers were serving longer and farther away from home, and the small farmer-citizens who were the basis of the militia lost their land; hence they migrated to the city of Rome itself, where they joined in the popular assembly, exercising their voting rights, and more importantly, made a riotous crowd that pressured the decisions of the Senate. What to do with impoverished citizens became a standing problem. One solution was to plant colonies, rewarding ex-soldiers with land from conquered peoples. At first these were in Italy itself, where citizens lived in enclaves next to locally self-governing communities of non-citizen allies-- a condition that made the legal distinction into a form of ethnic segregation. Roman colonists could vote and seek favors from the Senate, but only if they traveled to Rome to exercise their right-- since voting was done only in the public assembly.

Rome’s city population also swelled by an influx of non-citizens-- favor-seekers, merchants, professionals, entertainers. Many such occupational specialists were slaves or ex-slaves. Somewhat surprisingly, being a slave in an important Roman family was a path to upward mobility, since slaves did most of the household and administrative work (being a slave in agriculture or mining was a different story) and many of them were eventually freed as an incentive for loyal service. Since old Roman conservatives looked down on business, ex-slaves became part of the growing capitalist class. Most important of all was a class of capitalists who leased the state's public land, since they had the capital to achieve economies of scale in working large plantations, mines, timber, and importing the food supply to feed the population of Rome. It was a minimalist state in most respects. Rome owned vast properties but had few public officials, and they were appointed to very short terms. Hence most public enterprises were leased out; capitalists undertook to collect taxes, advancing cash for state needs and squeezing what they could out of subject peoples. The New Testament gives us a glimpse of these Roman citizens out in the provinces: Jesus offended local ethnic loyalties by converting tax collectors; and Paul himself was a Roman citizen.  Since the most important state organization was the army, the biggest state-related business was supplying it with weapons, armor, food, ships, and harbors.  Rome thus developed its “military-industrial complex”, similar to the US since late 20th century in outsourcing as much as possible to private contractors.

The illegal alien problem came to a head after 146 BC, when Rome emerged as the hegemon, the dominant state in Mediterranean world. Partisan factions developed in the Roman elite itself; conservative defenders of the old Republic, but also a “democratic” party in favor of redistributing public land, handouts to the poor, and widening the franchise. These were not merely idealists; they had a strong practical concern, that the basis of the old Roman army-- self-sufficient small farmers-- was disappearing and needed to be revived. This the reformers never did achieve; but army reform and franchise reform tended to go in tandem. Leading liberals often came from the ranks of the most successful generals, like Marius and Caesar.  The first famous reformers were the Gracchus brothers, who ran for the highest office under proposals to extend the Roman franchise to at least some of the nearby Italian allies.  Tiberius Gracchus was killed by a crowd of angry senators in 132 BC, as was his brother Gaius ten years later.

The younger Gracchus did succeed in passing a law instituting the dole:  the state undertook to import grain to sell to citizens of the capital below market prices. Handouts by the liberal state became permanent, no conservatives being strong enough to brave the crowds’ demand for the staple of food. Rome created the early welfare state, in effect a massive food stamp program. Poor citizens were never supported to the level of the prosperous classes but their numbers as a political force kept them going for centuries on the public dole. Supplying “bread and circuses” became the path to popularity by subsequent Roman politicians. The elite undertook to keep the people entertained by sports and other spectacles, in stadiums and colosseums that Americans imitate today.

Although franchise reform was defeated, one political crisis after another kept opening loopholes for more resident aliens to become citizens. Around 100 BC, Marius reformed the army; eliminating the old militia in which all land-owning citizens were called each year, and putting in its place a standing army recruited from the impoverished proletariat. Soldiers were now long-term volunteers, supported by regular pay, and rewarded by allotment of lands when their 16-year tour was up. Such armies were much more expensive, and generals had to be capitalists in their own right to raise an army, and aggressive conquerors of new territory in order to pay for it. Marius’ nephew, Julius Caesar, would become the great master of this path to success-- a liberal reformer who made an alliance between some of the richest capitalists and the urban poor.

In the meantime, full-scale war broke out over the question of the franchise. In 91 BC, another liberal reformer, Livius Drusus, ran on a program to give the Roman franchise to all Italians. He was murdered before the vote, giving rise to the Social War that went on from 91-88 BC.  It was so called because the Latin word socii  meant allies-- the war of the long-suffering second-class non-citizens. This time the aliens had strong support, in the liberal faction of the Roman elite, and their new-style popular generals. The Social War dragged on for three years, fought in communities all over Italy. It ended in a compromise, since foreign provinces were taking the opportunity to revolt; peace terms offered Roman citizenship to all those who laid down their arms. Another bloody civil war went on down to 83 BC between the conservative general Sulla and the liberal Marius; the democrats were defeated but in the aftermath the franchise was conceded throughout Italy.  Both sides had come to depend too much upon non-citizen communities for soldiers and support; and so many Romans from high ranking families were killed and expropriated in partisan purges that it brought considerable opportunities for upward mobility.

With Julius Caesar, the pattern was repeated on a larger scale, this time outside of Italy. Caesar recruited large numbers of Gauls, Spaniards and others into his legions; and during his conquests he bargained with friendly tribes by offering some form of citizenship. By the time of his assassination in 44 BC, Caesar was planning to erase the distinction between Italy and the foreign provinces. When peace was reestablished in the reign of Augustus Caesar in 27 BC, all this came to pass. Henceforward, Senators were appointed from all over the Empire, irrespective of origin. The highest offices were open to any citizen, without distinction of ethnicity or geography (of course there were other criteria, such as being rich, and above all a supporter of the ruling faction); emperors themselves came from all parts of Italy and the distant provinces.

It was a surprising example of successful ethnic assimilation.  After about 60 BC, most of the famous authors and politicians had been born outside of Rome: Cicero, Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Livy, and Ovid all came from remote parts of Italy. During the following centuries of the Roman Empire, virtually none of the famous names were born at Rome, and they came not only from Italy but from the provinces. At least in the wealthy and educated classes-- the only people that we hear about in the histories-- ethnic distinctions had disappeared. Latin became the universal language throughout the western provinces; all traces of local cultural identities disappeared. In the eastern part of the Empire, where the provinces had  been under Greek-speaking rulers, Greek continued to be spoken but Latin was used in official matters. With the end of a few areas of die-hard resistance, one hears no more of ethnic nationalist movements. The upper classes and the upwardly mobile, at any rate, lived their lives as Romans.

And They All Lived Happily Ever After?

Well, not exactly. The rich kept on getting richer, the poor more displaced from anything except seeking handouts. Generals became politicians and vice versa. Although the ethnic citizenship issue was settled, the struggles turned into civil wars over personal power, until domestic peace was finally established by a hereditary monarchy.

I am not suggesting that America’s future will resemble Rome in every respect. The political struggle between liberal democrats and conservative republicans has been much the same in the history of both countries. But there are structural differences: America is much less centered on the military as its main engine of the economy, and we are full of entrepreneurial capitalism of a kind that hardly existed in ancient times. True, there is a tendency for us to emulate-- no doubt unconsciously-- the Roman practice of franchising out all sorts of government functions, including military logistics, to capitalist big business, thereby making the upper classes even more a recipient of the government dole than the poor.  But this does not drive the economy to anywhere near the extent it did in Rome. And since our government and military are much more bureaucratically organized than in Rome, there is little basis for a struggle between generals bringing about the downfall of the Republic.

My point here is what the illegal alien struggle in Rome tells us about ourselves. Roman conservatives fought against extending citizenship even more violently than their American counterparts. But they still lost. True, the conservatives had the law on their side; and they were right when they accused reformers and ethnic aliens of breaking the law. But the laws were made in their own interest by the conservatives, and their unwillingness to reform made the struggle turn outside legal channels.

The country which is the world center, where wealth and power is concentrated, is inevitably a magnet for those who are poorer and less privileged. Sometimes the magnet does it own expanding, just as the Roman alliances and conquests brought more territory under Roman control, and attracting even more people to Rome. The USA expanded in much the same way, from colonial times, through the Indian Wars, to the Spanish-American War (when we got Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines). Today’s struggle to secure the Mexican border is the same struggle that started in the 1830s, only then it was ethnic Anglo-Americans who settled on Texas land that the Mexican revolution had inherited from the Spanish empire. All the borders that we are militarizing now against illegal aliens-- from Texas and the Southwest to California-- were part of the peace treaty that ended the Mexican-American war in 1846, including the Rocky Mountains states on up to Oregon. It was the biggest land conquest in our history; but the geography is the same and people are still moving across it.

A wealthy and powerful country attracts outsiders not only for economic reasons, but because of its prestige. Its lifestyle becomes the dominant one, setting the standards others imitate, and especially when its citizens have the most rights. Its magnetic attraction for outsiders operates whether peacefully or in the aftermath of its conquests. It has been the same with the other great colonial empires, England and France, both of whose homelands became flooded with immigrants from their former colonies. 

The Future 

Bottom line: as long as the USA is rich and dominant, immigrants will keep on coming, by legal means or illegal.

And the historical lesson is there is nothing that can be done to stop it. Nothing humane, at any rate; doggedly conservative states that stake their identity upon ethnic purity become the nastiest of regimes; when they succeed, it is only through the moral outrages of ethnic cleansing and genocide. America is unlikely to go that route, above all because we have already gone through so much ethnic assimilation in the past so that universalism has become one of our celebrated values.

The Roman comparison shows a silver lining. Despite their violent struggles over citizenship, the aftermath was surprising rapid in putting the issue behind them. Within a generation after full citizenship was granted, ethnic divisions were no longer important for Romans. If we can get to the same resolution, the time-table of our future should be about the same.


Ancient sources, especially Polybius; Appian.
Especially good is the synthesis in Michael Mann, 1986, The Sources of Social Power,  
Vol. 1, chapter 9.
P.A. Brunt, 1971. Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic.
Keith Hopkins, 1981. Conquerors and Slaves.
C. Nicolet, 1980. The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome.
Michael Rostovtzeff, 1929. A History of the Ancient World.
Paul Harvey, “Birthplaces of Latin Authors,” The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature.