Metaphors move—and displace—people. This paper starts from this premise, focusing on how elites have deployed metaphors of water and waste to form a rhetorical consensus around the displacement of non-elite citizens in ancient Roman contexts, with reference to similar discourses in the contemporary Global North and Brazil. The notion of ‘domestic displacement’—the forced movement of citizens within their own sovereign territory—elucidates how these metaphors were used by elite citizens, such as Cicero, to mark out non-elite citizens for removal from the city of Rome through colonisation programmes. In the elite discourse of the late Republican and early Augustan periods, physical proximity to and figurative equation with the refuse of the city repeatedly signals the low social and legal status of potential colonists, while a corresponding metaphor of ‘draining’ expresses the elite desire to displace these groups to colonial sites. The material outcome of these metaphors emerges in the non-elite demographic texture of Julius Caesar’s colonists, many of whom were drawn from the plebs urbana
and freedmen. An elite rationale, detectable in the writings of Cicero, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and others, underpins the notion of Roman colonisation as a mechanism of displacement. On this view, the colony served to alleviate the founding city—Rome—of its surplus population, politically volatile elements, and socially marginalised citizens, and in so doing, populate the margins of its empire too. Romulus’ asylum, read anew as an Alban colony, serves as one prototype for this model of colonisation and offers a contrast to recent readings that have deployed the asylum as an ethical example for contemporary immigration and asylum seeker policy. The invocation of Romulus’ asylum in 19th century debates about the Australian penal colonies further illustrates the dangers of appropriating the asylum towards an ethics of virtue. At its core, this paper drills down into the question of Roman colonists’ volition, considering the evidence for their voluntary and involuntary movement to a colonial site and challenging the current understanding of this movement as a straightforward, series of voluntary ‘mass migrations’. In recognising the agency wielded by non-elite citizens as prospective colonists, this paper contends that Roman colonisation, when understood as a form of domestic displacement, opens up another avenue for coming to grips with the dynamics of ‘popular’ politics in the Republican period.
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