Ancient migration narratives

Tuesday 25 October 2022

When we look back to the ancient world, it is important that we are not doing so just to avoid looking around. I agree with Dan-el Padilla Peralta that looking to antiquity can be productive in creating a cycle in which our present informs our reading of the past and, in turn, our new perspective on the past informs our present. In this sense, increasing globalisation and the present refugee ‘crises’ offer a new perspective into ancient exile, diaspora, and forced migration which can reciprocally offer fresh insight into our own times. However, this turn to antiquity needs to be supplementary rather than imposing, to amplify modern voices and issues rather than to speak over them.

In particular, I believe a distinction needs to be made between non-migrants looking to the ancient world to explore an experience with which they have no immediate connection and migrants themselves using antiquity to articulate their experiences and to promote change and understanding from non-migrants. If the ancient world is being evoked thoughtfully as a way into conversations about what forced migration looks like in direct dialogue with our current context, it can hold a productive place in these discussions.

This tendency to look back rather than around is especially desirable when we find ourselves on the wrong side of history. It is always easier to process situations in which your positionality does not incriminate you, whereby your self-image is immune from the discomfort of confronting privilege. I am definitely guilty of this; as a Jewish person, I’ve been excited to learn about exile through studying the Jewish Diaspora in antiquity because it is a context in which I can see myself reflected. Yet, Said’s reference to Jewish people as the ‘proverbial people of exile’ has made me question if looking to the past to confirm this reputation is productive in our immediate context.[i] There are contemporary and urgent experiences of exile in Palestine in which I can also see myself; but this time my identity aligns with the oppressor. It’s much easier to discuss and investigate exile when you see yourself in the victim rather than the victimiser, but using antiquity to reinforce an image of perpetual Jewish diaspora centred on a return to Palestine does little to help those experiencing violent oppression now. Similarly, turning to antiquity spotlights a time in which Britain was distant and irrelevant in most (surviving) migration narratives. To confront current reality, we have to face the fact that much forced migration is a residual result of violent and careless colonisation from which this country profits.[ii] If we are only turning to the ancient world as a paradigm of migration to relieve ourselves of the discomfort and blame of the modern day, this application is inexcusable. 

Because of these potential attempts to erase discomfort, we must ensure that when we draw upon the ancient world, we do not allow ourselves to hold the modern world at an equal distance. Ruth Padel’s ‘The Mara Crossing’ offers an opportunity for examination into what I mean by this. While Padel has travelled broadly, it has always been from the privileged position of a tourist, not a vagabond, yet her poem seeks to understand the timeless experiences of migration, both voluntary and forced.[iii] While I enjoyed her poem, if we are taking it to represent a migrant experience, it is not as progressive as it first seems. Padel is able to compress modern and ancient experiences of involuntary migration into a single phrase (‘Herod / has turned off the internet and mobile phones’), perhaps because they are equally distant from her personal experience. On one hand, this shows that, while the reasons behind migration are individual, migration itself is universal and timeless. However, it can be argued that this universalising treatment can do more harm than good as, in the words of Sara Ahmed, this can conceal ‘how estrangement marks out particular selves and communities’.[iv] In the current context, this is not something that is universal and not all people and communities are at equal risk of displacement. If we use the ancient world to paint migration as a common experience, are we obscuring the ways in which privilege interacts with forced migration? While the poem itself plays a minor role in this treatment, it has to be understood in tandem with the media perception of migrants as depersonalised beings existing in liminal geographic spaces and between individualism and horde identity. 

Aeneas fleeing from Troy: Pompeo Batoni, 1753

This being said, there are similar problems inherent in trying to personalise migrants through appeals to the ancient world. James Nachtwey’s Times cover presents a small group of refugees whom Peralta likens to the Aeneas’ family fleeing Troy. While this comparison is primarily positive, with the Aeneas set-group connoting multi-generational and desperate plight as heroic and sympathetic, there is a danger in positing Aeneas as an illustration of a modern migrant. While Aeneas does start his journey as a refugee, once in Latium, he acts as the invading and murderous woman-stealer stereotype that plagues modern conversations on migration. A similar problem occurs with the Barca Nostra exhibit. While it offers a chilling and jarring expression of the dangerous refugee experience, it could be counter-productive to present the ship as a Trojan Horse. Inside the Trojan Horse were soldiers with the malicious intention of slaughter and a return home. Even in contemporary usage, a Trojan Horse bug is a nuisance at best and destructive at worst. While I appreciate the analogy as a way to contrast the emptiness of the ship with the stories of mythical heroes, I am concerned that filling the emptiness with another story rather than letting it speak for itself might encourage viewers to draw simple parallels and not seek further answers about how these situations differ. However, the difference with these examples is that they are proposed by migrants themselves, so really who am I, a permanent resident in my country of citizenship, to undermine their self-presentation?

This leads me to where I believe the real utility lies in conversations about Classics and migration — with migrants. When migrants utilise antiquity in their own way, the main concerns regarding overwriting contemporary narratives disappear. These feelings of imposition and prioritisation of an ancient past over the marginalised present come through clearly in Boland’s ‘In Which The Ancient History I Learn Is Not My Own’. Rather than supplementary, her education on antiquity is in place of learning her own cultural history. Her poem bites back at the educational system which insisted that learning about the ‘dried-out rivers / and cities’ of the past is more important than the cities of her homeland she is ‘next to forgetting’. Here, Boland is able to satirically criticise the marginalisation of Ireland through reclaiming ancient imagery in a creative expression of her own experience (‘we have no oracles / no rocks, no olive trees’). The Trojan Women Project similarly appropriates ancient texts to express their own experiences but takes a different approach in levying this prioritisation to their own ends. Eberwine explains that the women use the play, not because it is the best and only play expressing the plight of refugee women, but because its canonicity confers respect in a way that the experience of living Syrian women unfortunately does not. The interweaving of their own stories into their retelling exemplifies the supplementary nature of the literary figures; this story is ultimately about the Syrian women’s specific experience. The play is then not an expression of their emotion, but a vehicle to communicate it with an audience in a language they pay attention to. Through knowing the prominence their audience affords antiquity, they can leverage the text’s authority to rewrite the story of Trojan despair into one of Syrian hope.

While this project relies on the feelings and implications already bound up with texts, material culture offers more of a blank canvas for an expression of personal experience. In one of our guest lectures, Professor Sweetman explained that identity expression, especially in refugee children, can be triggered through a prompt, be it art, games, or language. In Irene — A Refugee Story, the decontextualized remains of ancient sculptures and ruins provide this prompt for an interactive expression of the children’s experience of forced migration. This is particularly pertinent around the Mediterranean and in areas where ruins are intrinsic to the landscape. While the classical past should not be treated as the ‘foundation of Western civilisation’ – whatever that really means – it is the specific history of Mediterranean countries which now provide many refugees their first entry into Europe. In this way, in constructing stories which insert themselves into this ancient landscape, the children are able to write themselves a story of a return to comfort and safety which is fundamentally bound to their physical location. This act of creative innovation can thus tie them to their new home by connecting them to its material past.

In conversations about migration, Classics is in a privileged position, as Peralta points out, since many Classicists are immigrants themselves and have an insight into the experience of migration. It is no surprise that the articles I found most useful in writing this blog post were written by Peralta, who is himself constantly addressing his positionality as a migrant. Prioritising and platforming the work of migrants on this topic seems to be the clearest way to use Classics productively in these discussions and to resist contrived connections and impositions. Hopefully, with projects focused specifically on engaging refugee and migrant students, we will see more of this in the future.  I also believe that I and other non-migrants can facilitate these meaningful and productive conversations using the ancient world. But first, we must not only support and amplify migrants’ utilisation of the ancient past, but also acknowledge the inevitable discomfort of how modern migration interacts with personal privilege and use this privilege to pursue change.

[i] Said, 1984, 51

[ii] Fonkem, 2020, 53, 59

[iii] Bauman, 1996, 15

[iv] Ahmed, 1999, 345


Ahmed, S., ‘Home and Away. Narratives of Migration and Estrangement’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol 2, no. 3, 1999, pp. 329-347.

Aquila Theatre, [webpage], available at: (accessed: 18/04/21).

Bauman, Z., ‘Tourists and vagabonds: heroes and victims of postmodernity’, Reihe Politikwissenschaft / Institut für Höhere Studien, vol. 30, Wien, 1996, pp. 1-16.

Biennale Arte 2019: Christoph Buchel, La Biennale di Venezia, [webpage], available at: (accessed: 18/04/21)

Boland, E., ‘In Which the Ancient History I Learn Is Not My Own’, Poetry, 1993.

Born in Gaza, created by H. Zin, Netflix, 2014, available at: (accessed: 18/04/21).

Eberwine, P., ‘Hope Through Tragedy’, Eidolon, [online journal], 20/09/18, available at: (accessed: 09/04/21).

Fonkem, A., ‘The Refugee and Migrant Crisis: Human Tragedies as an Extension of Colonialism’, The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, vol. 109, no. 1, 2020, pp. 52-70.

Critical Connections, ‘Irene- A refugee’s story’, Vimeo, [online platform], available at: (accessed: 18/04/21).

Padel, R., The Mara Crossing, Chatto & Windus, Lo.ndon, 2012.

Peralta, D. P., ‘Barbarians Inside the Gate, Pat I, Eidolon, [online journal], 09/11/15, available at: (accessed: 11/02/21).

Peralta, D. P., ‘Barbarians Inside the Gates, Part II’, Eidolon, [online journal], 12/11/15, available at: (accessed: 08/04/21).

Peralta, D. P., ‘Classics Beyond the Pale’, Eidolon, [online journal], 20/02/17, available at: (accessed: 08/04/21).

Said, E., ‘The Mind of Winter: Reflections on Life in Exile’, Harper’s Magazine, vol. 269, 1984, pp. 49–55.

Trojan Women Project, [webpage], available at: (accessed: 18/04/21)

Venice Biennale: Cristoph Büchel’s “Barca Nostra”, , available at: (accessed: 18/04/21)

(Originally published on the School of Classics blog, 26 July 2021)

Posted in

Related topics

Share this story