Teaching the Ancient Migration Experience

Introducing immigration into the Classics classroom is part of the discipline’s ongoing commitment to represent the ancient Mediterranean’s diversity more clearly to our students. As Suzanne Hakenbeck has argued, much of our recent archaeological and historical work on the ancient Mediterranean has underrepresented the role of migration. Nineteenth century scholars like Christian Jurgenson Thomsen (famous for the creation of the problematic Three Age System) tended to characterize European cultures as static, and twentieth and even twenty-first century research has done little. Consequently, peoples on the move have been considered problematic interlopers, harbingers (or, if you ask Edward Gibbon, agents) of the downfall of great empires. More often, however, migrant histories are left out altogether. This omission leaves students with a partial view of the ancient world, one that problematically equates modern nation-states with ancient peoples and presents human mobility as a modern phenomenon.

More recently, some scholars have tried to shine a light on mobility, migration, and its role in the ancient Mediterranean world. Over the summer of 2017, I participated in an NEH Summer Institute on migration in late antiquity at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, directed by the Richard Talbert and Michael Maas. Over the course of the month, my 29 fellow Summer Scholars and I engaged in vigorous and productive debates about the nature of migration in this period from several methodological perspectives.

The challenge came that fall, when I applied my knowledge to a seminar course at Bucknell University entitled “Migration and Immigration in the Classical World.” Focused on the Hellenistic and Roman periods, this course focused on developing a critical and theoretical vocabulary for discussing migration, analyzing primary and secondary sources related to the topic, and strengthening writing and communication skills. The course had only 5 students, which allowed me the luxury of close consultation with my students as they navigated this difficult topic. I organized readings thematically, devoting units to xenia, ethnicity, diaspora, economic migration, and wrapped up the term with a focus on “state-sponsored migrations,” a polite term for forced migrations driven by imperial administrations and war.

Discussions in the last unit proved to be the most challenging. We began with a discussion of slavery as a major mover of peoples. Teaching slavery in antiquity is always difficult, but I felt strongly that students needed to consider how dislocation and migration would have factored into the slave experience. As part of these sessions, I relied on my training as an archaeologist and art historian to highlight the lived experience of ancient slavery. Using Walter Scheidel’s articles on human mobility in the Roman Empire, I asked students to break into pairs and reconstruct the journey that people captured during Roman military campaigns might have traveled as they entered into bondage. I then shared with them objects and buildings that have been associated with ancient slavery, from slave collars to the potential slave market in the Eumachia Building at Pompeii. These objects ground discussions of slavery and help students engage more concretely with the horrors and lived experiences of ancient people. But they also help us to understand the material impermanence of people and challenge the idea that those who move are not worth counting.

Teaching this topic also requires an extra level of attention to classroom culture. Pedagogical research has suggested that building an environment of trust and respect in the classroom is critical to student learning, particularly for students who come from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds. For a university like Bucknell, which traditionally serves students of privileged backgrounds, part of my challenge was to push students to see beyond their own experiences, to imagine what it would be like to migrate across the ancient Mediterranean. Building these cultures is an ongoing part of my pedagogy, one that requires a deep commitment to modeling the types of behaviors and inquiries I want my students to see. Sometimes this meant ensuring that one student did not speak over another, but it also meant gently correcting students when they used outdated or offensive terminology and asking uncomfortable questions about the present. In the spring, I will teach this course again to a larger and more diverse set of students, which will require a deeper and more concrete commitment to developing a positive and respectful classroom culture.

The most important thing we can do when we teach this topic, however, has little to do with the past. Gibbons’ idea of the “barbarian hordes” still rings through in much modern news coverage of immigration into the US and Europe. The first unit of the course, which focuses on critical vocabulary, asks students to think about the language used to describe immigration. Paired with a presentation on Syrian migrants in contemporary Greece and a film screening of a modern film on migration across the US-Mexico border, my students found resonances between ancient and modern migrations. These connections prompted valuable discussions about cultural boundaries, the value of human life, and the political and cultural rhetorics surrounding migration that were the highlight of the semester. As I prepare to teach this course again, this time to a larger and potentially more diverse group of students, my goal is to bring out the commonalities between antiquity and modernity even further.

Lindsey A. Mazurek



One thought on “Teaching the Ancient Migration Experience

  1. This course sounds great, thanks for sharing it.

    In the fall 2018 issue of the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, I will have an article coming that argues we should look at Aeschylus’ The Suppliants and Euripides’ Trojan Women for ethical models of how we (in the US and Europe) should respond to the immigration crisis. Although the essay probably doesn’t add much to what you already know, it might be another good resource about how ancient texts and performances can resonate in the present.


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