Immigrants to the Eternal City


Who walked the roads leading to Rome? Thousands of immigrants. Some came willingly, others did not. (Christian Science Monitor)

Use our resources to learn more about life in ancient Rome.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit, including the Word on the Via—profiles of immigrant life in ancient Rome.

Thousands of Europeans, Asians, and Africans migrated—or were forced to migrate—to Rome. Map by National Geographic
Thousands of Europeans, Asians, and Africans migrated—or were forced to migrate—to Rome.
Map by National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • Researchers recently analyzed skeletons from two ancient Roman necropolises. How do they know these skeletons were not native to Rome?
    • Researchers analyzed strontium, oxygen, and carbon isotopes in the skeletons’ tooth enamel for clues into the food and water they consumed. Click here to learn more about how archaeologists study tooth enamel for clues about ancient life.
      • Strontium isotopes reveal altitude. Old mountains, like the Alps, show higher levels of these isotopes than younger mountains, like active volcanoes.
      • Oxygen isotopes indicate the source of water human beings drank from when they were growing up. A local isotope range for ancient Rome is difficult to estimate, the authors say, in part because Romans often consumed and irrigated with water from a variety of sources: local rainwater, river water, groundwater, and water transported from far away through sophisticated aqueducts.
      • Carbon isotopes help indicate a person’s diet. Researchers say the carbon isotopes in the ancient Roman skeletons hint a “diet of acculturation.” In other words, once they were in Rome, immigrants ate like Romans: grains, beans, meat, and fish. (Archaeologists can even determine Roman neighborhoods by the grains residents consumed—wheat was popular in one area, millet in another.)



  • So, new evidence shows that people from the Alps and the Maghreb immigrated to Rome. Did native Romans, indigenous to what is now Central Italy, ever emigrate—leave Rome for the outer reaches of the empire?
    • Yes, all the time. Soldiers serving in the formidable Roman military often left for years at a time, and many stayed and raised families in the places they were stationed: Britannia, Gaul, Hispania, Judea. Families also moved out of Rome for economic reasons—to seek greater social or financial opportunities, establish businesses, or find trading partners.


  • Why is the new research documenting migrants in Roman necropolises so innovative?
    • The new findings document the migration patterns of Rome’s poorer residents. Previous research (and the historic record itself) has focused on the movement of Rome’s wealthiest residents—those who could afford to engage in tourism. Researchers say “The historical record is notoriously biased towards elite men with money, power, and literacy and may not represent accurately the lives of the average voluntary immigrant or slave.” This research expands the historical record.


  • How do researchers know the skeletons belonged to people from poor economic or social backgrounds?
    • Burial in a necropolis was customary for the lower classes (elites were interred in mausoleums like this one), and the burials lacked valuable grave goods, such as decorations, markers, or objects.



Christian Science Monitor: Who walked the roads to Rome? Isotopes provide clues

Nat Geo: Ancient Rome resources

Word on the Via: Who walked the roads to Rome? Travel back in time to get the Word on the Via about life in ancient Rome

(extra credit!) PLoS One: All Roads Lead to Rome: Exploring Human Migration to the Eternal City through Biochemistry of Skeletons from Two Imperial-Era Cemeteries (1st-3rd c AD)

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