Immigrants in Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, and Tang China


A review of My Neighbor the Barbarian: Immigrant Neighborhoods in Classical Athens, Imperial Rome, and Tang Chang’an, by Ryan Russell Abrecht.

Ryan Abrecht’s dissertation is an ambitious comparative project that examines immigrant communities in three imperial capitals: Classical Athens (5th-4th centuries BCE), Imperial Rome (1st-4th centuries CE) and Tang era Chang’an (7th-10th centuries CE). Rather than viewing the cultural transformations brought by imperial projects as solely radiating from the center to the periphery, the author applies theories of borderlands to immigrant communities in these urban environments in order to investigate how immigrants changed the empire.

These cities are “urban borderlands at the centers of the empires under their control” (p. 6) and sites of interaction and exchange between diverse groups of peoples. The dissertation seeks to make two related interventions, one in the field of border studies, applying theories of exchange and interaction at borders to sites of interaction within imperial centers, and the second within the growing field of global history. While trained as a historian of the Roman world, by comparing the three cities, the author is able to bring the ancient Mediterranean and Chinese worlds into conversation, despite their substantial differences, and engage in a broader discussion of cultural exchange in the imperial project.

In Chapter 1, “Living on the Edge,” the author provides a brief history of frontier studies, from the late 19th century to contemporary theories on borderlands as a unit of analysis. Abrecht discusses the shift from studies of frontiers—areas which were perceived to be empty, or lands to be conquered—to the study of borderlands as zones of interaction between different peoples (pp. 23-25). The challenges associated with borderland studies as an interdisciplinary field are also discussed, alongside the merits and challenges in using them as a mode of analysis in a historical field. Abrecht points to four points of consensus in the study of borderlands, which will serve as the nodes around which subsequent chapters analyze the urban borderlands that form the central focus of the dissertation: 1) “the primary purpose of borders is to separate and distinguish between different groups of people,” but 2) “every border invites a crossing”; 3) borders serve as sites of cultural interaction and create new forms of “political, economic, and social accommodation,” and 4) borders shift and change depending on political circumstances and migration (pp. 26-31). The study of borderlands thus provides an alternative to state-centered histories which distort the ways different peoples and cultures created spaces for accommodation. The remainder of chapter 1 provides a discussion of the ways in which Romans interacted with non-Romans during the early imperial period in the northern borders of the empire. Abrecht demonstrates that rather than a process of Romanization, where the non-Romans adopted Roman social mores and language, the cultural exchange was more complex, and that the Romans were themselves changed in this process of cultural contact (p. 57). The “borders were permeable” (p. 61) and both Romans and non-Romans living in these borderlands had basic familiarity with each other’s culture, language, and political institutions. Brief mention is made of comparable situations in ancient Greece and China. Abrecht argues that these borderlands are found not only at the territorial boundaries of the empires, but also within urban environments, where immigrant communities fostered similar transcultural exchanges, the focus of Chapters 2 and 3.

Chapter 2, “Centripetal Forces” turns to discuss the development of these immigrant communities in the capital cities of Greece, Rome, and China. The chapter is divided into three parts, Athens, Rome, and Chang’an. Each section provides a brief description of the history of the city within its imperial context, and then goes on to explore the reasons immigrants came to these capital cities and their position within the social and political communities. The foreign population of Classical Athens was largely composed of slaves, in fact the slave population often outnumbered the population of citizens. This imbalance was due to the fact that slaves were almost never granted citizenship, even after being manumitted. The slave population, despite making up the bulk of the foreign population in Athens, left very few traces, appearing in the sources only “as a backdrop” (p. 79). The more visible foreign population in Athens were the Metics (μέτοικοι/métoikoi); free foreigners who had immigrated to Athens, including those who engaged in long-distance trade, crafts, entertainment, and education. The city of Athens was cautious toward foreigners, and the Metics were not permitted to own property; they were not permitted to participate in politics; they had to pay a special tax to live in Athens; and they required an Athenian citizen to vouch for them and represent them in court.

The city of Rome was much more open to foreigners: “as the world became increasingly Romanized, Rome itself became increasingly worldly” (p. 96). While slaves made up a large proportion of the foreign population in Rome, the frequent manumission of slaves, and the comparative ease by which they attained citizenship meant that the line between foreigner and Roman was often blurred. By the 2nd century CE, 60 – 90% of the population of Rome “could trace their ancestry to people who came from someplace else” (pp. 100-101). In addition to the slave population, free foreigners also flocked to Rome, engaging in similar trades with their counterparts in Athens. In Rome, however, these men were able to participate in political life. In Tang era Chang’an, immigrants to the city included many of the same groups as in Rome and Athens, with a few notable differences: chattel slavery was not as common in Chang’an as it was in Athens and Rome, and slaves therefore did not make up a substantial portion of the population, though they were employed in similar contexts. Like Athens and Rome, Chang’an also attracted merchants, artisans, entertainers, educators, and students. But it also attracted another group of foreigners, for Chang’an was an important site of religious pilgrimage. Buddhist monks from India, Central Asia, Japan, and Korea came to Chang’an to worship and exchange and translate texts. Buddhists and Daoists from across China met in the capital, and Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and Nestorian Christians also lived in Chang’an to proselytize and serve the needs of the immigrant communities. Athens and Rome were also both religiously diverse cities, and much of the source material for immigrant communities comes from religious institutions.

Chapter 3, “Small Worlds,” looks at these immigrant communities as urban zones of interaction within the capital cities themselves. In Athens, the Piraeus district was a site of interaction and exchange between citizens, Metics, and short-term visitors. The immigrant communities in Piraeus established their own religious temples and associations, which helped them both maintain their own traditions and negotiate life within the Athenian community. Religious building could also be granted by the Athenian government as a diplomatic tool. At shipyards, taverns, and brothels, foreigners and Athenians could intermingle and cross both physical and social boundaries. In Rome, the Trastevere district, on the far bank of the Tiber river, was one of the most populous districts of the city and had a sizable proportion of immigrants and freedmen. It was a poor and crowded district, but also one of great cultural diversity. Most of the immigrants living in this district shared an Eastern Mediterranean heritage, and developed networks around their shared linguistic and cultural traditions; significantly, Abrecht notes the importance of places of worship—foreign cults that served as centres of immigrant communities. Several immigrant temples, often with bilingual inscriptions, are discussed in terms of not only their religious significance, but also for their position as places where residents could come together with others who shared their heritage.

Immigrant communities in Tang era Chang’an tended to occupy the north-western quarter of the city, due to its proximity to the western market, where many of the immigrants operated their businesses. The Tang city’s system of walled wards and strict nightly curfews made it important to live near one’s place of business. Over time, in the north-western part of the city, these Central Asian immigrant communities developed their own places of worship and community networks. In addition to Buddhist and Daoist temples, Chang’an was home to Zoroastrian, Nestorian, and Manichaean temples and monasteries, often established by imperial decree. In addition to these religious institutions, the markets of Chang’an also catered to foreign taste, in clothing and foods, and some of these tastes spread to the local Chinese population. In Athens, Rome, and Chang’an, immigrants identified themselves both by their cultural heritage and traditions, as well as by their position within their new city, demonstrating complicated cultural identities. In all three of these capital cities, while immigrants tended to inhabit a particular space, they were not confined to this space and had frequent interaction with the Greek, Roman, and Chinese residents in the city. Boundaries, both social and physical, were important because of their ability to be crossed.

Chapter 4, “Urban Borderlands,” demonstrates the ways in which imperial ideologies were expressed in spatial as well as social terms, in each of the three societies, and how the rhetoric of space was intimately tied to the question of imperial power and identity. Culture did not only radiate outward from the capital to the periphery. Immigration, an inherent aspect of imperialism, brought diverse cultures, peoples, and religions into the heart of the empire. In each of these capital cities, immigrants complicated the status quo, forcing the city and its peoples to adapt and evolve with the changing conditions of empire. In some cases, these transformations led to greater transculturation, while in others, as the power of empire waned, cultural clashes and increased immigration led to instances of xenophobia and the suppression of foreign cults and practices. Like the borderlands of the empire, the capitals were zones of interaction, where cultural and territorial boundaries were negotiated, and the diverse peoples living under these empires came into contact.

Ryan Abrecht’s dissertation is an important contribution to the study of urban environments and to the growing field of global ancient history. The application of borderlands theory to urban environments calls into question not only the regulation of space within capital cities, but also the processes of transculturation from the periphery into the heart of the empire. In his deft presentation of the three case studies, Abrecht demonstrates the usefulness of cross-cultural comparisons, and while avoiding universalisms, points to shared processes in the construction of space and culture in the ancient world.

Rebecca Robinson
Department of History and Classical Studies
McGill University

Primary Sources
Sources in Greek and Latin are translated by the author, and provided in their original language in footnotes. Chinese and Japanese sources are given in translation; no characters are provided.
Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum
Inscriptiones Graecae
Inscriptiones Graecae Urbis Romae
Various Greek and Latin Texts (available through the Loeb Classical Library)
Tang dai chuan qi xuan 唐代傳奇選 (Selected Tang Dynasty Stories)

Dissertation Information
University of California, Santa Barbara. 2014. 341pp. Advisory Committee: John Lee, Paul Spickard, Anthony Barbieri-Low.

Image: Silk road figure head, probably Sogdian. Musée Cernuschi, Paris. Source: Wikipedia / Creative Commons

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