Whilst considering the variety below it is also important to consider the relationship which exists between the evolved society of the Romans, the Roman economyand job specialisation which enables greater productivity. Certainly as ancient roman trade grew, so did the variety of jobs people performed around them.
A detailed discussion of ancient Roman jobs is necessarily difficult by virtue of the long period of time and geographical extension we necessarily have to cover. However, the long time span of “ancient Rome” can also allow us to get some simple, extreme insights into how Roman society evolved. For instance by having a look at some job types during the origins of Rome provides an easy contrast with Imperial Rome.
Job Specialisation in Early Rome
Job specialisation is a sign of an “evolved” society and economy. Conversely, lack of Roman job specialisation in certain areas will tell us something about what Roman society was like in its earliest days. With this thought in mind, we can turn to an interesting passage written by the Roman author Plutarch about Roman society during the reign of the early Roman king Numa (Life of Numa, XVII,3).
” He distributed them, accordingly, by arts and trades, into musicians, goldsmiths, carpenters, dyers, leather-workers, curriers (ed. leather workers), braziers (ed. maker of brass artefacts), and potters. The remaining trades he grouped together, and made one body out of all who belonged to them.”
So we find a number of extremely useful menial trades as well as musicians (likely the religious flute players) and goldsmiths. What is most telling, is the number of jobs and trades which are not present in the list and which at first glance we might have expected:
Earliest Rome lacked various job skills/specialisations: no bakers, washers/launderers, weavers, butchers or smiths! Not to mention other “very Roman” jobs, like stone workers, architects, sculptors and painters or some guild which might include them all. Presumably at that time Rome was still a relatively undeveloped society where individuals performed numerous tasks themselves, including making their own home, growing their own cereals, making their own bread etc.
It is worth making some further considerations about some early Roman jobs missing from the list and the subsequent impact they had on the development of ancient Roman society:
Bakers didn’t exist in early Rome, largely because soft grain hadn’t been discovered yet and making flower from rustic “spelt” grain was far more costly and time consuming. Production of flour and bread was therefore limited to personal use. The entry several centuries later of soft wheat for bakery and leavened bread and cakes had a huge effect on the Roman economy, Roman food and Roman wine to go with the bread.
Individuals owned and cultivated their own land and cattle. Cattle and meat were expensive items and either used for personal sustenance in terms of regular milk, eggs, wool or at a limit were butchered at home. Meat eating was probably limited to religious events – ie eating the meat resulting from a sacrifice. We get a sense of the huge value attributed to meat through various examples:
- a higly prized commodity was salt – traded along the Tiber’s left bank along the “via salaria” road. Salt was necessary for preserving meat. It also lent its word to “salary”. ie you might be paid a wage with salt rather than money. This was not unknown to the Roman military.
- In later centuries, the money lenders (Roman bankers) worked their trade at the Forum boarium – the cattle market.
- the word for Roman coinage was “pecus” stemming from the word for “sheep”. The first Roman coins were minted more than a century after Numa.
So, no butchers in early Rome but a thriving economy, markets, trade, transport, huge intensive cattle farms and money markets developed in later centuries.
The lack of smiths is surprising because we imagine even the early Romans, as warrior-farmers, as having a great need for iron items such as ploughs or armor and weapons. Presumably iron was still rare at the time of Numa whilst copper (note the braziers!) was likely available probably supplied by the Etruscan mines to the north.
It is notable that being a goldsmith was a recognised job in ancient Rome. Like copper/bronze, the raw material was likely supplied by the rich etruscans who controlled the right bank of the river Tiber. In fact early “Roman” jewelry with the earliest latin inscriptions is on essentially Etruscan styled jewelry (qv “Fibula of Manios” & ancient Roman art).
Ancient Roman Jobs and Social Structure
Everyone had a specific role in ancient roman society and as such you could say they had a “job”. A basic understanding of ancient roman jobs requires an understanding of the breakdown of the strict class system of Roman society.
The class system itself changed over the course of Rome’s long history and as a consequence so too did the roles of the members of society. For example, in the earliest days of the city the job of priests and priestesses
was both religious and legal in nature (the gods dictated what was right or wrong). Later in time their work was increasingly confined to the spiritual domain, as spiritual as practical Romans could be. A similar trend can be seen with the Senators
. In the mean time, the Emperor’s powers
were increasingly concentrated on a single person.
The rich nobility, called Patricians, traditionally focused their wealth on land ownership and farming. Where the Patricians really made their initial family wealth was from the funding of military enterprises from which they then reaped a share of the loot. This share they would then invest into purchasing further agricultural land for their estates.
The estates were managed by ruthless middle class farm managers who lorded life and death over small armies of slaves. This caused an enormous social division in land ownership and greatly limited the plebeians‘ access to wealth. Social struggle was an inevitable consequence and not surprisingly resulted in the murder of theGracchi brothers who nevertheless managed to introduce important land reforms, later upheld and promoted by the likes of Julius Caesar.
Mercantile trade was seen as being below the status of the Patricians and was therefore carried out through middle class intermediaries referred to as “clients”. At various times of the empire different laws were made regulating the ownership of mercantile sea vessels which of course were essential to trade in ancient Rome.
So if the Patricians were limited to governing and enjoying the benefits of war plunder, who did the everyday work? And what was the nature of this work? In order to answer these questions it is useful to take a broad look at Roman history:
The ancient Romans of the early days were first and foremost austere warriors descended from sheep farmer settlements which appropriated themselves of their neighbours’ salt trade. As the military and political strength of Rome grew it took over the trades and markets of its neighbors, such as the agriculture and metal trades of the Etruscans to the north and the Greek colonies to the south and in Sicily. Eventually Rome took over all the Mediterranean trade from the Carthaginians and pirates.
This expansionist attitude concentrated trade into Rome itself and as a consequence the various forums were built to keep step with the different trades. The roman forum gradually became institutional and shops moved into other forums: you might get meat at the forum Boarium, oil at the forum Olitarium and so on. The Forum Boarium is an interesting example because it started as a meat and cattle market, by the shipping area on the Tiber. In the early days meat and cattle was an important trading good. Surprise surprise the Forum Boarium later became an area for money lenders and banking. Testimony of this is found in the Argentari arch: the arch of the money lenders, built by the Cattle and the Banking guilds together in honour of the emperor and his family.
Together with the increased concentration of wealth and trade the expansion of Rome’s dominions brought a huge number of slaves
into the city. Slaves were literally traded in lots of several hundreds or thousands!
The result of this was that it was far cheaper to purchase and maintain a slave than it was to pay a plebeian a wage. Consequently many plebeians were jobless and heavily depended on the social well-fare which the Gracchi brothers had first introduced.
This generally took the form of cheap grain and bread but in some occasions also took the form of monetary donations. Nero was a lover of these monetary gifts to the people although it didn’t help him much in the end.
Slaves on the other hand could at least aspire to something better. Many were extremely well educated or able in the greatest variety of tasks which they had undertaken in their homelands. A good cook or medic was without price. It wasn’t long before they took over the looking after of children, running of homes, shops, banks, schools and so on.
Obviously it wasn’t a bed of roses and slaves were frequently mistreated or left to die if ill. As an example of their hardships, evidence from Pompeii blatantly demonstrates how normal it would be for a Patrician villa to have a back entrance from which one or more of their female slaves might be offered as prostitutes. Fancy that as a cottage business!
It was only later in time that laws were written to safeguard the well-being of slaves partly for moral reasons but mostly because of the realisation that they were of structural importance to the empire’s economy.
Given that slaves, particularly city slaves, could aspire to some education, putting money aside, winning back their freedom and even climbing the social ladder, it wasn’t unheard of for poor plebeians to sell themselves or their children into slavery so that they might have a chance in (future) life.
So what of ancient roman jobs? Frescoes, paintings and sculptural reliefs as well as archeological findings tell us much about their breadth and variety. Construction tools, architectsinstruments for measurement and planning, chisels, axes, cranes and bridges, money lenders, shops, fast food restaurants, mercantile trades across continents and gambling all went on with a steady pace.
Then there were the many jobs in public offices. Whole office blocks were created in the basilicas of the forums and filled with lawyers and bureaucrats to run services such as the road networks. Last but not least we shouldn’t forget those jobs many dreamt of but few managed to do well: acting, chariot racing and even fighting as gladiators. Women, knights and commoners in need of money all had a tussle with the criminals, slaves and war prisoners in order to win rich sums of money and be admired by the public in perfect reflection of life out of the arena. A champion charioteer could become a millionaire.
Perhaps there is one more job which should not be forgotten: that of the professional soldier. The growing need of good soldiers to fill the legions coupled with the social disorders created by the influx of slaves into the job market of ancient rome general Marius had a great brainwave: create a professional army and attract the plebs with a soldiers’ pay.
So there we have it, priests and priestesses, bakers, architects, engineers, builders, medics, bureaucrats, lawyers and judges, shop keepers, bankers and oriental carpet sellers. They were all there and traded pretty much as you would today. But without a computer.
Roman Jobs List
This list of Roman jobs is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a start. Feel free to write to our Roman jobs Forum with any queries or ideas you may have!
Given the strong accent on class structure in Roman society we have chosen to take a first simplified approach by subdividing Roman jobs by class, perhaps a further improvement would be to subdivide further by sex and age also. The jobs shown in the table are in themselves general classes of job, for example “trade” or “politics”. Each of these classes can be further subdivided, and we will endeavour to do so with time:
A number of these Roman jobs carried a variety of social stigmas, for example here are a few curiosities:
It was regarded as indecent for the patricians to actively participate in trade other than farming and agriculture so they would do so through their “Clientes”. For example there were laws limiting their ownership of large cargo ships.
Acting was regarded as low as prostitution and so was only practiced by the lowest ranks. That said, Nero disgusted his contemporaries for his love of appearing on stage, playing music, reciting poetry and acting.
A similar stigma was attached to working as Gladiators but the high prizes involved and the social fame attracted even the nobility and women to work as gladiators, Emperor Commodus’ love for gladiatorial skills is perhaps the extreme, but the attraction for him clearly wasn’t in the money. Laws were eventually passed to maintain public decency in this respect and limit participation.
Prostitution: Although it was regarded as indecent to work as a prostitute (whether male or female) it was not so bad to actually be the proprietor of such activities as is demonstrated by the whorehouse attached to the back of a rich villa in Pompeii. The business would be run by a trusted slave or libertus (freed slave worthy of trust).
Slaves could work and put money aside (if their owner allowed them the freedom to do so). In such a way they might buy their freedom and even go into business. A number of freed slaves are recorded as actually becoming rich benefactors of their local communities.
Shopkeeping and trading involved all the sorts of shops you wuould expect on your highstreet today: barber/hairdresser, food vendors of all sorts (bakers, fishmongers, butchers, fruit and veg), clothing, medicine and dentistry.
Religion in ancient Rome was wide and varied. The high ranking positions of prestige were generally reserved for the Patrician class, for example Julius Caesar was “Flamine” for a period. Another example of this would be the Vestal Virgins. Positions of lesser importance could be filled by persons of different ranks. The image at the top of the page gives a good idea of how many jobs could be involved in a procession alone.