Migration has been a constant feature of human history, all over the globe. Antiquity is full of examples, both of voluntary movement and of forced displacement – and, of course, everything on the spectrum in between. As ancient historian Professor Elena Isayev has pointed out (in ‘Hospitality, A Timeless Measure of Who We Are?‘ and Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy), mobility was the norm not the exception in the ancient world. This is reflected in some of the best-known texts in the Classical canon: while Homer’s Odyssey centres around its Greek hero’s long journey home from the Trojan war, Virgil’s Aeneid follows the fortunes of a refugee from Troy (Aeneas) and his efforts to find a new place to call/make home.
Odysseus and Aeneas were far more privileged migrants than most refugees today. Even so, their stories and the experiences of many other forced migrants from antiquity can shed valuable light on how we view and respond to migration in all its forms today. By exploring ancient examples of mobility and displacement, we can compare the different challenges that refugees and asylum-seekers have faced in different periods and places. We can weigh up the various factors that triggered their migration, from war or enslavement to environmental change or loss of income. And we can look critically at how different communities have understood their responsibilities and treated people seeking refuge or a new home. Differences between ancient and modern discourses of migration are particularly instructive because (as Prof Isayev notes in this podcast) they can help unsettle contemporary assumptions and challenge preconceptions. Ancient migration stories are a rich resource for reflecting on our habits of visualising forced migrants and migration in the 21st century.
The following posts offer some glimpses into how forced migration was experienced by different people in Greco-Roman antiquity. They do not offer an exhaustive account – and we are conscious that they focus primarily on the West and do not look much beyond Europe. We hope to remedy this as our research develops and we welcome suggestions for sources and stories of ancient experiences of migration from all around the world. In the meantime, we hope that these posts show the value of using the deep past as a mirror through which to interrogate the present.
In 2022, a group of three University of St Andrews students, Chloe Dabbs, India Goodman and Anna Pilgrim, developed The Hospes Project as part of their work on Applied Classics. The project uses the power of storytelling and the ‘draw’ of Classical antiquity to raise awareness about modern migration experiences and to address toxic rhetoric and… Read More
In this podcast interview, Prof. Elena Isayev discusses ancient concepts of mobility, migration and place, and how they can be of value in reframing how we think about and respond to different experiences of migration today. An ancient historian by training, Prof. Isayev’s early research focused on social organisation and mobility in southern Italy from the… Read More
Undergraduate Research Assistant Holly Axford has been researching ancient narratives of displacement. In this blog, she writes about the representation of women displaced by war in Ancient Greek epic and tragedy. You can read another blog by Holly on ancient experiences of migration here. ‘By means of such genres as theatre, including puppetry and shadow theatre,… Read More
Undergraduate Research Assistant Holly Axford has been researching ancient narratives of displacement. In this blog she writes about ancient attitudes to supplication and hospitality, and how class and gender impacted on ancient experiences of migration and forced displacement. Individuals and groups in the ancient world left their native lands and sought shelter elsewhere, either temporarily… Read More