Ancient Roman jobs developed through time in line with the development of society: Bakers, for example, were a relative innovation thanks to new types of wheat, which in turn enabled other services and trades to develop around them. It is interesting to note how the wide variety of Ancient Roman jobs is close to those you expect today in many respects.
The number and range of Ancient Roman jobs increased and specialised over time, as urban centres, the Empire and wealth grew. The regulation of roles and jobs was also followed closely by the Roman authorities particularly with respect to the attainment of important official positions. General Sulla instituted the “Cursus Honorum” as a ladder of public offices up to the maximum position of Consul.
Introduction to Ancient Roman Jobs
Detailed discussion of ancient Roman jobs is complex: Mainly because of the long period of time and geographical extension we 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. The evolution of ancient Roman job types from the origins of Rome provides an interesting contrast with Imperial Rome. Social attitude to ancient Roman jobs also evolved.
Whilst considering the variety of jobs outlined below, it is also important to consider the relationship which exists between the evolved society of the Romans, the Roman economy and job specialisation which enabled greater productivity. As ancient Roman trade grew, so did the variety of jobs people performed around them. The famous poet Horace, is an example of individuals coming to Rome to pursue their education and career, not necessarily following the family trade. Horace chose to be a poet, his father had been a tax collector.
The poet Ovid is also a source of inspiration for us. He changed Virgil’s famous line “Amor Vincit Omnia” – love conquers all” – into “Labor Vincit Omnia”: Work Conquers All. What is poignant about this is that he did so in his famous “Ars Amatoria”! A book on the art of love was appealing to the sense of labour to achieve your personal goals. This reminds us of a long thread of literature, oratory, and legislation, particularly in the later Republic and Empire, championing ancient Roman morality. Looking back to the olden days of the Roman Kingdom and Republic where the Romans were hard working, morally upright farmer-warriors.
As with modern English, Roman names could be closely linked to a traditional business run within the family. “Cicero” for example means chickpea…
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 early Roman society during the reign of the 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 artifacts), 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 equally interesting, is the number of jobs and trades which are not present in the list, and which at first glance we might have expected: No Bakers, Washers/Launderers, Weavers, Butchers or Smiths! Not to mention other “very Roman” jobs, like Stone-workers, Architects, Sculptors, and Painters. Presumably midwives existed throughout, later called “feminae medicae”: women doctors.
At that time Rome was still a relatively undeveloped society where individuals performed numerous jobs themselves, including making their own home, growing their own cereals, making their own bread.
The development of jobs and specific guilds for them took some time. Let’s consider the development of a few such Roman jobs:
Ancient Roman Jobs – Bakers
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.
Ancient Roman Jobs – Smiths
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 (q.v. “Fibula of Manios” & ancient Roman art).
Ancient Roman Jobs – Butchers
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:
Salt was a highly prized commodity as it was necessary for preserving food. It was traded on the Tiber’s left bank along the “via Salaria” road. It also lent its word to “salary”. Quite literally, 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”. More than a century after King Numa the first Roman coins were minted.
So, no butchers in early Rome but a thriving economy, markets, trade, transport, huge intensive cattle farms and money markets developed in later centuries.
Ancient Roman jobs in Government
Roman society could not have evolved without a highly developed social infrastructure and government. This meant the development of government jobs, which considered today can be surprising such as the “curator operum maximumorum” responsible for large infrastructure, “curator viarum” in charge of roads and highways, not to mention the “curator statuarum” responsible for public statues!
A fitting inscription is found on the arches of an ancient Roman bridge which spans the Tiber, linking the Tiber island with the above-mentioned cattle market. The inscription reminds us that the bridge was “Lucius Fabricius, curator viarum, built it and tested it”.
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 meantime, 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. Patricians really made their initial family wealth from the funding of military enterprises. They invested their share of the loot into purchasing 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. It inevitably lead to social struggle and events such as the murder of the Gracchi brothers, who introduced important land reforms. The reforms were later upheld and promoted by the likes of Julius Caesar.
Mercantile trade was seen as being below the status of the Patricians. Therefore it was 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.
Ancient Roman Jobs: Military expansion, trade, and slavery
So who did the everyday work if the Patricians were limited to governing and enjoying the benefits of war plunder? 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. As the military and political strength of Rome grew it took over the trades and markets of its neighbors. They appropriated themselves of their neighbours’ salt trade, followed by 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. However, it was not only a model of military control but one of absorption and “Romanisation”. This meant that the populations they took over actually added and expanded the reach of Roman society and the economy.
Development of ancient Roman Jobs at Forums
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 for example because started as a meat and cattle market. It was located in the shipping area on the Tiber. In the early days, meat and cattle were an important trading good. Surprise surprise the Forum Boarium later became an area for money lenders and banking. The Argentari arch, “the arch of the money lenders”, is testimony of this. Built by the Cattle and the Banking guilds in honour of the emperor and his family.
Access to Cheap Labour: Ancient Roman jobs for slaves
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 hundred or thousands!
There were social mechanisms by which slaves could become free and indeed rich contributors to society. This was an important contributor to the success of the Roman empire as a while. Nevertheless, 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.
State welfare generally took the form of cheap grain and bread. On some occasions, it 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.
Ancient Roman Jobs: From rags to riches
Some 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: Many slaves were frequently mistreated or if sick might be left to die. 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.
Ancient Roman Jobs – Conclusion
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, architects’ instruments 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, shopkeepers, bankers and oriental carpet sellers. They were all there and traded pretty much as you would today. But without a computer.
List of Ancient Roman Jobs
This list of Roman jobs is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a start.
Given the importance of class structure in Roman society, we have chosen to subdivide ancient Roman jobs by social class. A further improvement would be to consider sex and age also: There were no women in the army! The jobs shown in the table are in themselves general classes of job, for example, “trade” or “politics”.
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. In French, this is known as “Dearogeance” and is a limiting factor in the development of ancient Roman inventions and industry.
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 Gladiatorsbut 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 had to be passed to limit participation and safeguard public decency.
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. A trusted slave or libertus would run the business.
Slavescould 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. There are records and inscriptions of freed slaves becoming rich benefactors of their local communities.
Shopkeeping and trading involved all the sorts of shops you would expect on your high street today. Barber/hairdressers, food vendors of all sorts including bakers, fishmongers, butchers, fruit and veg. Clothing, medicine, and dentistry to mention a few!
Religionin 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. People of lower social standing held positions of lesser importance.
We hope you found this information useful. We haven’t tackled what we might learn from ancient Roman jobs in modern times. The effects of modern Artificial Intelligence is like the entry of slavery into Rome taking away the plebeian class jobs. We’ve written a few thoughts on this in the ancient Roman jobs blog page.