Ancient Rome’s labour market was surprisingly modern

Case

Ancient Rome’s labour market was surprisingly modern

Family ties and social networks played a major role

There are few surprises when we look at the over five hundred occupations people could have in ancient Rome in the first three centuries of the Common Era. ‘Vanished’ trades – those which would be inconceivable nowadays – are hardly to be found in the list.

Perhaps the alipilus would qualify though: the ‘beautician’ who depilated your underarm hair in the bathhouse. What a job! Historian Miriam Groen-Vallinga drew up just such an exhaustive list of occupations for her research into the labour market in the Roman Empire. It is delightful to read, and introduces us to the alipilus. Seneca, the bane of many high school pupils – who find his use of Latin impenetrable – indulged in some humour about this curious alipilus in one of his texts. The stoical philosopher lived above a bathhouse and recorded the hawker’s relentless clamour in the street as he urged his clientele to undergo the treatment: as soon as he was successful, the noise of his efforts moved inside, changing seamlessly to that of his client’s screams…

Neither will one encounter a ballisterius (catapult maker) or a faber ocularius (maker of eyes for statues) on Monster.com nowadays. We can, however, imagine all sorts of things a rhyparographus (painter of commonplace or lewd scenes) or a pernarus (ham seller) might do, not to mention the faenerator (moneylender) and anatiarius (duck merchant). They were surely just bankers and poulterers? In general, it is the bakers, carpenters, shoemakers, pieceworkers and lawyers who feature, as well as a whole succession of crafts we would certainly still recognise today. Unless, of course, we mention the capsarius: the special servant who carried wealthy schoolboys’ satchels and slates.

Market scenes depicted in a fresco found in Julia Felix’ villa in Pompeii; image: PDMarket scenes depicted in a fresco found in Julia Felix’ villa in Pompeii; image: PD

A million Romans in the city

Miriam Groen is fascinated by the Roman world of work and family relationships. It was extremely complex due to its mixture of slaves, non-slaves and freed slaves, as well as the way family ties and other networks of confidants operated. In a city housing a million people in an empire of approximately sixty million inhabitants, this complexity is not so strange, considering its operational scale. Admittedly, we are talking about a pre-industrial society, but these million Romans still had to eat and drink every day, buy sandals and clothing, go to the doctor or the hairdresser and so on. This metropolis of such unprecedented size had need of an equally large urban labour force – how was it constructed, who worked in conjunction with whom and how? In other words, how exactly did the Eternal City work…

Miriam Groen-Vallinga; image: Leiden UniversityMiriam Groen-Vallinga; image: Leiden University

Inscriptions and reliefs on tombs

Miriam Groen: ‘Apart from the imperial family at the top, Rome had a small elite group of very well-to-do people who did not need to work. Their situation can be compared to that of nineteenth-century English families in the best stately homes: a handful of family members for whom an army of servants, cooks and nannies worked themselves to the bone. That luxury lifestyle was not something the other 98 percent of Romans enjoyed: hard work was the norm, with life expectancy averaging 25 years, which meant that families welcomed any help they could get… from slaves or children.’

The most important source for her research into the urban labour market was the several thousand remaining inscriptions and reliefs portraying occupations, which are mainly found on tombs. These are images of people at work or of tools, and lettering that mentions an occupation. As the context is often lacking, Groen also consulted all sorts of written sources, including legal documents and literary works. She restricted herself to the cities in Roman Italy, the heartland of the Empire, where the population density was the greatest and the degree of urbanisation the highest.

Paid employment and close cooperation between extended families was very important
- Miriam Groen-Vallinga

Miriam Groen discovered that the age-old image of Rome – that of small, independently operating family-run workshops and shops (tabernae), with one or two slaves – needed to be adjusted. Paid employment and close cooperation between extended families was just as important. ‘Everyone worked. Young children were undoubtedly often able to go to school, but they nonetheless had to do their share of the housework, as did the women. Slaves, free-born men and women and freed slaves alike had to do a lot of work. A family-run business of this nature should be seen in the broadest sense: as an economic unit, not as an isolated, self-supporting entity, a unit of production and consumption. People also went to work for other families, sometimes to learn a different trade. Workers from the same family or from colleagues with whom there was a good relationship were thought to be more reliable. There would frequently be several occupations within one family.’

The baker Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces was comfortably off: Eurysaces started his bakery after being freed from slavery. He became immensely rich, possibly because he supplied bread to the Roman army. He commissioned the building of the tomb as a memorial to his life and work, with a frieze depicting the activities performed in his bakery. The tomb, built near Porta Maggiore, remains largely intact. (The banner at the top shows a detail) Photo: Vito Arcomano / Alamy Stock PhotoThe baker Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces was comfortably off: Eurysaces started his bakery after being freed from slavery. He became immensely rich, possibly because he supplied bread to the Roman army. He commissioned the building of the tomb as a memorial to his life and work, with a frieze depicting the activities performed in his bakery. The tomb, built near Porta Maggiore, remains largely intact. (The banner at the top shows a detail) Photo: Vito Arcomano / Alamy Stock Photo

Trade risks in information-poor Rome

Gender likewise played an important role. In the race to acquire an income by, for example, joining the staff of a domus, an affluent family, freeborn women often came off worst if male slaves and freedmen were their competitors. Freedmen had a greater chance of finding work than freeborn women. Slaves were a valuable possession and were therefore generally well cared for: if you beat or starved a slave, you were robbing yourself, in the Romans’ opinion. Slaves even became an extension of the family.

The professional associations (collegia), the clearest example of Roman networks of confidants, were just as important. A collegium was an association formed on the basis of occupation – one might compare them to the later guilds – or on the basis of other similarities. These networks were crucial for avoiding the constant trade risks due to fluctuating supply and demand and potential defaulters, which were the order of the day in information-poor Rome. Collegia simplified cooperation in a world in which the reliability or creditworthiness of trading partners could not be easily verified or legally upheld.

‘In other words,’ Groen clarifies, ‘non-familial connections in the Roman economy were certainly not a trivial addition to family concerns. The importance of social networks for Rome was all-encompassing: they were a major reason why the community grew and flourished as it did.’

Did you know? Sociocultural aspects in ancient Rome underlie the principles of the true market economy.

How did the sausage maker work?

Research into labour and labour relations should not start with the Industrial Revolution, according to the doctoral thesis. Paid employment took place in a rudimentary form one-and-a-half millennia earlier, in Rome. The sociocultural aspects that developed there underlie the principles of the true market economy. Groen therefore argues in favour of prominently featuring the non-familial ties and associations, as they developed in ancient Rome, in such research.

All this arouses even more curiosity about activities in Rome, the city of millions, under the emperors. What daily life was like, what it smelled like, which sounds you could hear, how the strophiarius (the bra maker) organised his workshop and shop, which delivery periods the crepidarius (the sandal maker) applied and how the botularius (sausage maker) worked. And obviously where the best-sorted bybliopola (bookseller) could be found.

Additional information

Miriam Groen-Vallinga defended her PhD thesis at Leiden University on Wednesday, 24 May. Her research was made possible with funding from the NWO Free Competition programme. The supervisor is professor Luuk de Ligt and the co-promotor is Dr Rens Tacoma.