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Ancient migration stories

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.