Migration has been a constant feature of human history, all over the globe. And Classics is full of examples, both of voluntary movement and of forced displacement – and, of course, everything on the spectrum in between. As Professor Elena Isayev has pointed out (in ‘Hospitality, A Timeless Measure of Who We Are?‘ and Migration, Mobility and Place in Ancient Italy), mobility was the norm not the exception in antiquity. This is reflected in some of the best-known texts in the Classical canon: while Homer’s Odyssey centres around its Greek hero’s long journey home from the Trojan war, Virgil’s Aeneid follows the fortunes of a refugee from Troy (Aeneas) and his efforts to find a new place to call/make home.

Odysseus and Aeneas were far more privileged migrants than most refugees today. The UNHCR estimates that there are currently 100 million people experiencing forced displacement around the world, many as a result of conflict, persecution or human rights abuses. In the UK at present, people seeking entry to the country have been declared ‘not welcome’ by the government, whose hostile anti-immigration policies are matched with toxic anti-immigration rhetoric. Those who do brave terrifying Channel crossings or reach the UK by other means, find themselves in a challenging and often lengthy processing system: asylum applications currently take approximately 2-3 years to be reviewed, and while they wait applicants do not usually have the right to work, which means that they often struggle to support themselves. Added to that, migrants often face xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling, whipped up by both politicians and the media. 

As our reading and guest lecturers pointed out, the ways in which we tend to talk about migration are often clinical, focused more on statistics than personal voices and experiences. By looking at migration in the ancient world, we can discover a plethora of narratives and experiences that can help reinvigorate interest in modern issues and generate empathy and understanding. Differences between ancient and modern discourses and experiences of migration are also instructive because (as Elena Isayev explained to us) they can help unsettle assumptions and challenge preconceptions. As Dr Lina Fadel notes in a recent podcast on this topic, we are not experiencing a ‘migration crisis’ as such but rather a ‘crisis of storytelling’ around migration – and this is something that Applied Classics can help address. 

We have been very inspired by the Applied Classics projects which Professor Elena Isayev has been running, and we strongly recommend reading her brilliant article on ‘Between Hospitality and Asylum: a historical perspective on displaced agency‘ as an excellent example of how ancient material enhance how we think about and address this modern challenge. You also can hear Prof. Isayev discuss her ‘Applied Classics’ work in this podcast, which was recorded for a project being run by the Visualising War and Peace project, looking specifically at how we visualise forced migration.

We hope that you enjoy browsing the posts below. They outline just some of the ways in which students at St Andrews have begun using ancient material to reflect on modern aspects of migration.