Going as far back as the days of the ancient Republic, the city of Rome has always been inhabited by people from everywhere around the Mediterranean Sea, giving the ethnic makeup of ancient Rome a wide diversity.
We see something of this in Suetonius' account of the funerary ceremonies for Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. After describing the way the Romans mourned the loss of the man to whom they gave the title Imperator (though without permission to use the title), Suetonius remarks that the "public grief was enhanced by crowds of foreigners lamenting in their own fashion - especially Jews, who came flocking to the Forum for several nights in succession" ("Divus Iulius", 84, in The Twelve Caesars).
In his book A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome, Alberto Angela draws an interesting picture of the populace of what was then the capital of the world:
Actually, a large portion of the inhabitants of imperial Rome would be categorized today as immigrants or aliens, because they came mostly from the eastern provinces of the Empire; [sic] places located in present-day Turkey, lands that the Romans referred to with the catchall term, Greek (Asia, Galatia, Cilicia, Cappadocia, Bithynia), or from places throughout the Middle East, with Syria in the lead.Considerable numbers of Rome's inhabitants also had North African origins: families from Egypt or from the fertile provinces of Cyrenaica and pro-consular Africa (Libya and Tunisia). Not to mention immigrants from Mauretania (Algeria and Morocco).
He goes on to note that "at least six of every ten inhabitants of the capital (if not more) were not from Rome or from the Italian penninsula," a figure he describes as "astounding," and this when the city had some 1.5 million inhabitants.
Today, the city of Rome is home to some 2.9 million people, about 10% of whom are non-Italians (half of whom come from various parts of Europe). Rome may be the Eternal City, but some things here do change.
The Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton - the first publicly acknowledged black priest in the United States of America - spent six years in Rome at the Propaganda Fide (from 1880-1886) preparing for his ordination to the priesthood. In the January 7, 1889, the Atlanta Constitution published a quote of Father Tolton about his time in the Eternal City, words that were first published in The Washington Post (though the Constitution does not provide the details). The Servant of God said:
I encountered no prejudice whatever and after my ordination celebrated mass for four weeks in St. Augustine’s, Rome, where princes and potentates worship.
As I consider the current situation of the city of Rome, I wonder if he would be able to say these same words today. I hesitate to say I do not think he could.
I was disturbed yesterday to read that a group of angry Romans burned down a refugee asylum last week:
After local residents living in council-owned accommodation in Tor Sapienza, Rome, were told they were facing eviction on Wednesday, tensions with the local migrant population who live at the ‘Smile’ centre at the taxpayer’s expense came to a head as a number of dustbins were set alight. This is not the first time the centre has been targeted – in November last year, locals threw home-made bombs and rocks at the building.Passions were then inflamed by complaints of sexual assault of local girls by migrants. Riot police were in heavy attendance at anti-migrant demonstrations in which residents chanted “the blacks have to go”.
Many of the immigrants from Africa and elsewhere have come to Rome seeking a better life for themselves and for their families, but what they have found here is not what they were promised or what they hoped for:
One Ethiopian from the centre, who said he came to Europe to avoid jail: “I’m afraid and I do not want to stay here anymore but I cannot go home… Outside, people would call us ‘Black pieces of s***’, but inside, with the police cordon, it felt like being back in prison”.
Along one of the routes I take a couple of times each week to buy Dr Pepper, I walk past a revolting bit of graffiti:
|"No negri" is Italian for, "No blacks".
Father Tolton, pray for us and for Rome!