Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Human Mobilities, Economic Hubs, and the Dissemination of Religious Ideas

Prof. Dr. Andreas Bendlin


I study the migration of traders across the Roman world. Entrepreneurial mobility appears as a phenomenon of Mediterranean connectivity and globalization, with legal 'integration' of „Pendelmigranten“ in trade cities and port towns. By contrast, one notices a high level of religious difference among social actors, despite the alleged nature of these hubs as 'multi-cultural melting-pots'. Did economic nodes really facilitate the dissemination of religious ideas across different ethnically bounded constituencies?

I study the religious lives of migrants and diasporic communities in the ancient Roman world. Despite the fragmentary nature of the data, we can identify in the Roman literary, epigraphic, and material evidence migrants in the first and, on rare occasions, second generation; we can also identify diasporic communities in the city whose group membership is predicated upon their semantic self-positioning in relation to 'a homeland', whether real or imagined. These individuals and groups may be identified, amongst other criteria, through the deities they worship – deities who may not be those the host society venerates, and whose places of worship are often found in marginal areas of the city.
These social agents developed and maintained multiple ties within organizations, networks, and associations, and to the institutional level of Roman state administration at large. My study of the religious affiliations of migrants and diasporas attempts a detailed insight into the historical dynamics of how this particular subset of social actors shaped those ties, modified affiliations, and how their religious identities took shape in the urban space in the diaspora.
The presence of diasporas in urban centres was a result of significant levels of human mobility and migration in the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean. Not surprisingly, therefore, scholars have turned to the study of migration of minorities as a salient demographic, social, and economic phenomenon, often set against the recent interest in human mobility and 'globalization' in the ancient Mediterranean world more generally. Rome in the imperial period, a metropolis of approximately 1,000,000 city-dwellers of diverse ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds and unequal socio-political status, proffers a particularly suitable locale to study the effects of migration. The vast numbers of migrants – voluntary or compelled, temporary or permanent – arriving in the prospering capital of a tributary, exploitative political system, the archetypal imperial city, has been estimated at approximately 1.25 million for the last two centuries BCE alone. The implications of the Roman population’s size and density, heterogeneity, and migratory patterns for the city’s religion are dramatic: Imperial-era Rome, a densely populated metropolis with highly mobile ethnic, cultural and social networks, becomes a laboratory where religion can be studied as a conduit for (trans-)Mediterranean flows of religious ideas, ritual practices and deities through network ties, which undercuts 'national' or cultural boundaries. Religious practices, ideas and religions spread through trans-local links, usually via trade routes and economic hubs, especially ports and harbor towns. These realities call into question essentialist definitions of what religion in the city of Rome meant.
The local dynamics of how social actors relate to ethnic and religious diversity, however, are less clear – although the latter finds its expression in alternative topographies in the city, which provide to immigrants and to the members of diasporic communities alternative foci of social and religious identity in the city. This scenario becomes particularly pertinent in the case of the members of labor and trade diasporas, who sometimes hold Roman citizenship but nevertheless remain organized primarily along ethnic lines, as Landsmannschaften“ and patronize the gods of their homelands. By the same token, migrants, diaspora populations, and their sanctuaries clustered more regularly in more marginal parts of the city. This record, in hierarchical and strongly status-conscious Roman society, seems to point to significant microscale differentiation and ghettoization across the city, along social, ethnic, and indeed religious lines. Once they had arrived in the city, the members of diasporic communities may well have lived their religion in social, ethnic, and religious 'bubbles', to some extent disembedded from other groups in society.
Migration was a costly and haphazard process at best, probably much more fragmented than is often believed; but its actual impact on the diffusion of religious ideas through diasporas, as ‚information networks', remains unclear as long as we cannot determine to what extent such information was indeed shared between these networks, or to what extent these diasporas actually engaged with one another or their host society. Ethnic and social networks in the city of Rome could develop their own overlapping and yet categorically distinct 'public' religious spheres, and often even created their own loci of communal identification.
During my stay in Konstanz, I investigate economic migration in the ancient Roman world, with producers and traders of goods commuting across the Empire, and the role of ethnic trade diasporas in representing their interests. From an economic perspective, the role of trade and entrepreneurial mobility have been studied as a phenomenon of Mediterranean connectivity and globalization, where one notices a certain level of political and legal 'integration' of economic „Pendelmigranten“ in trade cities and port towns. From the perspective of religious identities, by contrast, one notices a high level of religious difference in these places of contact, despite their alleged nature as 'multi-cultural melting-pots' through which religious information was easily disseminated. Beyond the cliché of the multi-cultural, syncretizing melting-pot, did the social specifics of dwelling in economic nodes – port cities such as Roman Puteoli and Ostia – really facilitate the dissemination of religious ideas across different ethnically bounded constituencies?