Home, we are often told, is where the heart is. However, this adage admits of varying readings. Does it mean that there is a particular geographic location for which each person longs? Or—since we generally keep our hearts with us—does it mean that we are at home wherever we are?
For those of a communitarian bent, the answer is straightforwardly the former. We are born into a particular community at a particular place and time, and it is this that provides us with our identity. “Community describes not just what they have as fellow citizens but what they are … not merely an attribute, but a constituent of their identity,” as philosopher Michael Sandel puts it. Specific communities are so central to who we are that remaining in them is a key human desire. For Sir Roger Scruton, “Human beings, in their settled condition, are animated by oikophilia: the love of oikos, which means not only the home, but the people contained in it and the surrounding settlements.” To such thinkers, people can only leave their settled communities at great personal cost.
We know, however, of one group for whom this is untrue: so-called third-culture kids: children of expatriate parents who were born in one country (perhaps their ancestral home) but raised in another. I am one myself. We do not necessarily identify with our parents’ homeland—since we don’t live there—but nor do we necessarily identify with the place where we grew up since; at some level, we might feel that we don’t fully belong. For us, home is “everywhere and nowhere.” Community is not defined, for us, by the place in which it arises, but by the people it contains. Those children whose parents moved from country to country as they grew up may develop a notion of community as something inherently unstable and with which they may have little or no day-to-day contact.
While third-culture kids might appear to be an artefact of modern, globalised civilisation, we know of children in the past who led similar lives. The earliest surviving piece of Latin writing by a woman is an invitation to a birthday celebration sent by the wife of a Roman serving on Hadrian’s Wall. Like today’s children of expatriates, her son was being raised far from his homeland. The Emperor Gaius is better known to posterity as Caligula (“little boot”) after the uniform his father’s soldiers made for him when he was a child and his family were stationed in Germany. And it is not just military children who lived mobile lives—in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there were so many Venetian merchants and families living in Constantinople that they had their own city neighbourhood, with its own ruler.
History not only gives us reason to doubt the universality of the communitarian claim that place is the wellspring of identity but raises questions about its importance. For if, as Scruton thought, oikophilia were central to the human make-up, we would not expect to see so many people living mobile lives of their own accord as the record reveals. For most of human history, Homo sapiens led nomadic lives by necessity, moving from place to place in small groups in search of food and security. There was no oikos for them to feel philia towards. But even once we had developed settlements, some people found it easy to leave them.
We know this because of the extensive historical and archaeological record of trade. Movement of goods requires movement of people. By the second half of the fourth millennium BC, the Egyptians were using lapis lazuli mined in modern day Afghanistan. It is possible that the precious stones were transported by a nomadic people but it seems more likely that the trade was handled by expatriate dealers living in Egypt, just as, 1,500 years later, there were expatriate communities of Assyrian merchants who dedicated themselves to arranging the transport of goods, living in a place that is now part of Turkey.
Nor was such trade confined to the Fertile Crescent and its environs. Archaeologists in the Israeli city of Haifa have recently discovered tin ingots, dating to the late second millennium BC, which were mined in Cornwall. As tin is a key component of bronze—the most important military technology of the day—it would have been in any nation’s interest to ensure a stable supply of the metal. Markings in Cypro-Minoan script suggest that a trading network in tin had already developed. At roughly the same time, Britons were importing amber from the Baltic, as we can see in the Bronze Age Hove Cup found on the English coast. The cup is around 3,200 years old. Nor did the material just flow westwards: samples have been found in Bronze Age Syria, which may have been part of a trading network that took Mesopotamian and Egyptian glass beads to Denmark.
At that time, there were few—if any—roads, sailing technology was rudimentary and large tracts of land were not under the jurisdiction of any state that could impose laws and provide security. The journeys these merchants undertook must have been long and dangerous. But still they made them. Even under those challenging circumstances, people were willing to overcome Scruton’s oikophilia and leave their communities.
While only a small proportion of people in the earliest societies are likely to have been traders, as civilization developed, so did the scale of trade. The Silk Road was probably designed to facilitate trade between the Greeks and the Chinese and later to allow the Chinese to sell silk to the Romans and the Romans to sell glass to the Middle Kingdom. (There are good grounds for believing that Hellenic artisans had a hand in the construction of the Terracotta Warriors). Some idea of the scale of the silk trade can be gleaned from a report by Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65) of the Roman senate’s attempt to ban the flimsy material on moral and financial grounds (it encouraged immodesty and too much Roman money was heading east). According to Strabo, the Romans launched 120 ships at the start of each sailing season to trade with India, at a time when maritime travel was still highly dangerous. Such trading routes proved highly resilient. The Silk Road was still a major highway in the eighteenth century when the Shaki caravanserai, covering 14,000 square metres and containing 550 rooms, was built near Baku (in present-day Azerbaijan).
For once humanity acquired the trading habit, it proved remarkably constant, despite societal and political changes. The Roman departure from Britain in around AD 400 may have ushered in the Dark Ages—usually seen as a time of poverty, disease and Viking depredations—but we know that the rubies in the Sutton Hoo helmet, produced in the seventh century, were mined on the island that is now called Sri Lanka. Indeed, in around AD 982, the Persian text Hudud al ‘Alam (“The Regions of the World”) refers to Britain as the emporion (workshop) of Rum (the Byzantine Empire). In Ibn Rustah’s ninth-century’s Book of Precious Records, the country is called the “last of the lands of the Greeks.” Despite the collapse of its political system, it remained connected to the wider world, which suggests that its inhabitants continued to travel.
Politics, then, has not always proven to be a barrier to trade. And neither has religion. The Protestant Queen Elizabeth I (“Sultana Isabel”) signed one of the world’s first free trade agreements—with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III. This led to the development of a network of English consuls across the cities of the Empire, to support the local communities of expatriate merchants. Will Adams, the seventeenth-century English mariner whose story forms the basis of James Clavell’s 1975 novel Shōgun, spent most of his life in Shinto/Buddhist Japan, where he gained the rank of a Samurai and was granted high office at court, an estate and the command of four red seal trading expeditions. Individuals like Adams not only left their geographical communities, the places where they grew up; they left their linguistic, cultural and religious communities, too.
But trade has not been the only motivator of human travel.
Religious pilgrimages have been part of the human experience for a long time. We know that Alexander the Great made a journey to consult the oracle at Siwah in the Egyptian desert and that Roman emperors travelled to Greece to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. At about the same time as Marco Polo was making his famous journey to China, the Uighur Christian Rabban bar Sauma was travelling in the opposite direction, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Political developments prevented him from reaching his destination, but he was still able to meet the Byzantine emperor and the French and English kings, witness an eruption of Mount Etna and receive communion from the Pope in Rome. Norse sagas tell of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir who was born in Iceland, gave birth in Newfoundland, became a nun and travelled to the Eternal City.
The lure of war and plunder has also often prompted men to become soldiers of fortune. Recent discoveries in Sicily indicate the presence of mercenaries from the Caucasus at the Battle of Himera in 480 BC. The Varangian guard, the Byzantine emperor’s personal regiment, was comprised substantially of Vikings. Being a mercenary was such a popular career choice that, in the early twelfth century the Westrogothic Law prohibited men who were living in “Greece” from inheriting estates, in an effort to stem the outflow. Sir John Hawkwood gained such success in his long career as a condottiero in Mediaeval Italy that the town fathers of Florence granted him the equivalent of a state funeral and Uccello painted a portrait of him on the walls of the Duomo.
By its very nature, diplomacy involves travel, often between non-contiguous countries, and we have an extensive history of such missions. Arrian’s account of the embassy from Rome to Alexander the Great is probably apocryphal, but there are more trustworthy reports of diplomatic expeditions from China to Rome during the reigns of Augustus and Marcus Aurelius. After the failure of Rabban bar Sauma’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he continued to travel, as the fourth ruler of the Mongol Ilkhanate in Baghdad’s ambassador to Europe.
Human history, then, is the story of human movement. From the Greeks, who planted colonies around the Mediterranean beginning in the eighth century BC, to the Europeans who sailed to America and ventured out into the wild west in their caravans, there have always been people willing to leave their home communities for new lives. Some of those who did not leave permanently were still happy to be absent for prolonged periods—a round trip along the Silk Road is thought to have taken 18 months in Roman times. Many of these travels remain unknown—recent analysis of Venetian glass beads discovered in Alaska reveals that European goods reached the west of North America before Europeans did, though we have no idea how—but the evidence is overwhelming that humanity has long been a mobile species.
It is easy to assume that our forebears lived sedentary, Hobbit-like lives, rarely venturing far from their ancestral villages. While this may have been true of many, it was not true of all. Some were prompted by religious or political duty, lust for war or the desire for commercial gain to leave the communities into which they were born either for an extended period or permanently. Home was not sufficiently important to their identities to prevent them from leaving it. Oikophilia may be a common emotion, but it may be less powerful than Scruton assumed. Or perhaps some people lack it altogether—Marco Polo’s father Niccolo, for example, who left Venice before his son was born and returned when he was fifteen, when he stayed for only two years before setting off again (this time with his son in tow) on the twenty-four-year expedition for which his son is famous. Home does not seem to have been that important to him.
Rather than conflating home with birthplace and positing it as a universal and ineradicable source of identity, we should remember that for many, throughout history, it has been, as it was for Naguib Mahfouz, “not where you are born,” but “where all your efforts to escape cease.”