Case Studies

Foreigners at Hellenistic Rhodes

The metic or free foreign resident of a Greek city is often though of as someone who left a life behind to start again in a new city. But how far did they actually go?

In the Hellenistic period the city of Rhodes situated on the northern promontory of the island of the same name rose to become an important commercial hub and a clearing house for goods coming in from all corners of the Mediterranean. “Come to Rhodes”, went a saying, “and you’ll search no longer”.

The city was also home to a substantial population of free foreigners, that is, citizens of other city-states that had settled in Rhodes and left their individual mark on the city. Consider, for instance, Pythokritos of Eleutherna on Crete, a favourite sculptor of the Rhodian elite (still held in regard), or Isigone of Ephesos, who earned the title of benefactor from her association, or her husband Aristoboulos from Termessos, who put on three public choral performances, or Danais, the Knidian garland-seller who made a lasting impression on a certain Mikkylion of Oitaia as he made his way to Egypt.

Similar stories can be told of foreigners settled in most Greek cities, but the goal we pursue in Migrants and Membership Regimes is to situate migrants and migration within broader historical interpretations, that is to say we want to investigate the social, political and economic forces that shaped migration. That is not always easy, but looking for patterns of migration is a good place to start.

Mapping Foreigners in Rhodes

To answer this and other questions I looked to Rhodes’ necropolis which extended southward from city’s walls – a recreational space full of monumentalized grave complexes some of which belonged to Rhodes’ famous private associations. Taking death in Rhodes as a proxy for life lived in Rhodes I tallied up the funerary inscriptions discovered in the Rhodian necropolis from about 200 BCE to 100 CE, cleaned up the data a bit to avoid obvious distortions and plotted the ‘home cities’ of Rhodes’ free foreign population on a map. Each yellow dot represents a city from which hailed one or more persons buried in Rhodes, and the bigger the dot, the larger that city’s contingent.

The result is interesting in several ways. First of all, the other large, commercial cities of the Eastern Mediterranean, Antioch, Alexandria and Ephesos, were well represented. this is hardly surprising and perhaps an indication that the data is not impossibly biased. Others, such as Phaselis, Selge and Soloi are somewhat surprising and therefore point a way foreward for future research.

More important, however, is the general pattern of a large concentration of ‘cities of origin’ along the Southwestern seaboard of Asia Minor (both in terms of density of cities and share of cases) more or less opposite Rhodes. A substantial number of foreigners living Rhodes, it would seem, were actually not that far from their ‘home cities’. This encourages us to think about the experiences of free foreigners in a new way and in one that allows for the possibility that some resident aliens were regular visitors to their native cities or even divided their time between that and their adoptive city. This has potentially wide-ranging consequences for our understanding of ‘the metic experience’ (metic or metoikos being a Greek technical term for resident alien) and for social, political and economic life in the Greek city-states. I have explored this question further in a paper and forthcoming article.

Two Important Asterisks

Ancient historians work with degrees of probability rather than absolute certainty and analyzing epigraphic material in bulk is fraught with methodological challenges. A few notes on the map and the data which lies behind it are necessary.

First of all, the map is diachronic representing individuals who lived (and died) at Rhodes over approximately three centuries c. 200 BCE to 100 CE. At any given time the map may have looked very different. In addition it should be borne in mind that some foreigners had been born in Rhodes and not migrated anywhere. Secondly, the funerary inscriptions included in the tally are those which contain explicit mention of a person’s citizenship (such as ‘Timo of Syrakosia’ or ‘Menodoros son of Herakleitos of Halikarnassos’). Single names, of which there are many, have not been counted.

A few further notes about the underlying data:

  • The data consists of about 350 names of men and women buried outside the city of Rhodes whose inscribed grave markers (predominantly stone chests to house the remains) include a so-called ‘ethnic’, that is, a name component specifying their city of origin.
  • names from non-funerary contexts were excluded.
  • Individuals carrying ‘regional ethnics’, that is, ‘ethnics’ referring to regions rather than political communities are not represented in this map.
  • Blood relations were excluded. Family members are often buried together or share a grave marker, and so might inflate the number of cases from their city.
  • Herakleotai, that is citizens of Herakleia were excluded. There are simply too many places with that name, and no way of telling to which one (or ones) the Herakleotai of Rhodes belonged.

Further Reading

Boyxen, B. Fremde in der hellenistischen Polis Rhodos: zwischen Nähe und DistanzKlio. Beihefte, Neue Folge, Band 29. Berlin: De Gruyter. 2018.

Maillot, S. ‘Foreigners’ Associations and the Rhodian State’ in Gabrielsen, V. and Thomsen, C.A. (eds) Private Associations and the Public Sphere. Proceedings of a Symposium held at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 9-11 September 2010. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy Press. 2015.

Thomsen, C.A. ’The ”Thirteenth” Deme of Lindos’ in Nowak, M. (ed.), Tell Me Who You Are: Labeling Status in the Graeco-Roman World. Studia źrółoznawcze. U schyłku starożytności [= Late Antiquity: Studies in Source Criticism] 16. 2018.

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