Roman Empire: gold standard of immigration

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YOU'VE SEEN the phrase a hundred times: "the world's longest boundary between a First World and Third World country." But hearing those words the other day, as the immigration bill seemed to be falling apart in the Senate, my thoughts turned not to the 2,000-mile border of the United States and Mexico but to ancient Rome's 6,000-mile border with … well, its border with everywhere.

There's a widespread view that the Roman Empire was swept away mainly by a relentless tide of hostile outsiders; we've all heard ugly references to the "barbarian hordes" in today's immigration debates. But the truth is that Rome was the world's most successful multiethnic state until our own — and history's longest lasting one, bar none.

So it's natural to wonder if the Romans might have anything to teach Americans. I'd argue that they do. One lesson is that the notion of "taking control of the borders" is overrated; borders were pliable then, and are even harder to define (or police) now. A second lesson is the importance of nurturing a national culture. It was the source of Rome's power, just as it is the source of ours.

Hadrian's Wall, which crosses the neck of Britain and marked the northern limit of the Roman Empire, gives the appearance of something built to deter an onslaught. That impression is misleading. The wall was not meant to be a Maginot Line; it was designed to be penetrated. It had gateways every mile to encourage traffic. Commerce moved both ways. You would have seen the same pattern at the borders of the empire along the Rhine and the Danube, and elsewhere on the frontier.

Americans today think of a nation's physical border as a static and even sacred sort of artifact — not quite as unchanging, say, as the path of the equator, but significantly more durable than the outlines of a Texas congressional district. Most historians, though, now see Rome's long imperial frontier as a dynamic zone where the interactions of different peoples had transformative repercussions on either side. The frontier, in other words, was a crucible, not a line in the sand.

And it's the same with us, for all the vigilantes grimly uncoiling barbed wire in the desert. What does "border" even mean? Global communications and electronic capital flows have brought borders into the fourth, fifth and nth dimensions. Hadrian's Wall today would have to be supplemented by Hadrian's Firewall.

American borders aren't quite where the map shows them, anyway. For national security purposes, they extend to the docks of Rotterdam and Hong Kong and as high as satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Some borders have simply disappeared. Consider the transnational revolution wrought by the ATM machine. For corporations, borders are a figure of speech.

If borders aren't a bulwark, then what is? Transported back to the Roman Empire, you would see something remarkably uniform from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, from Britain to North Africa. This was so even though the empire encompassed a wide variety of peoples, not all of whom had known their butter knives from their fish knives before coming under Roman rule.

The temples and baths of Londinium resembled those of Cordoba in Spain and Alexandria in Egypt. Roads and coins were uniform. Soldiers all wore something akin to dog tags (as did their horses). Even the statuary from place to place looked the same: At one time there were 20,000 statues of Caesar Augustus on view. All of this was just the physical embodiment of an underlying dynamic — a set of values and a way of life — that rapidly turned outsiders into insiders.

Rome's ability to assimilate newcomers is so well-established that it's easy to lose sight of. And it has been overshadowed, in the history books as well as in movies, by episodes of invasion and mayhem in the final centuries, when the empire's domestic health was already gravely compromised.

But the expansion of the empire to include tens of millions of non-Romans — and then the absorption through immigration of many millions more — was a bigger phenomenon still. Military service integrated some, but Romanization occurred without the help of other tools that Americans take for granted, such as public schools, mass communications, Madison Avenue or even a single language. (The strivers and elites spoke Latin and Greek, but the empire was polyglot.)

It took place because Roman civilization turned out to be a good deal. The historian Tacitus rather cynically recognized its power, observing that what Rome's subjects called "culture" was in fact what kept them in line.

The U.S., too, is an assimilation machine, though one whose efficiency we tend to doubt in the present, and to acknowledge only in hindsight. Looking back, we now know that the U.S. managed to accommodate the huge waves of immigration in the 1850s, the 1880s, the first decade of the 1900s and the 1980s — despite skepticism at each of those moments that it ever could. Every age doubts that it retains the absorptive capacity of ages past, just as every age fails to remember the human heartache and wrenching adjustments that past immigration entailed.

Or the utter determination. My father-in-law came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1920, in his mother's arms, and on his yellowing immigration papers there is the line "Mode of arrival" followed by the typed-in word: "rowboat." My children, now that I think about it, have the kind of ironic heritage that would have been commonplace on the Roman frontiers: One Mexican ancestor came north to the U.S. shortly after one Irish ancestor went south, with Gen. John J. Pershing, to fight Pancho Villa.

In the end, the example of Rome suggests that the most effective long-term stance toward the outside lies less in building walls than in strengthening the foundation of our own society — bolstering not just such tangible structures as education and healthcare and a government free of corruption but also intangible values such as equality, the entrepreneurial spirit and the principles of access and opportunity. If we take care of this, much else will take care of itself.

In the shadow of Hadrian's Wall, archeologists have pulled bits of Roman-era writing from the muck. Many of these scribblings were produced by soldiers who by birth were not Romans and preferred some German tongue. The Latin they wrote is clumsy. But it is Latin, real Latin.

Reading those fragments, I'm reminded of the cards passed out at a demonstration in Washington last year, when thousands of prospective immigrants united to say certain words, which were printed out phonetically. The cards read: "Ai pledch aliyens to di fleg / Of di Yunaited Esteits of America." It was a very American moment — and a very Roman one too.

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