Bloomsbury (2019, vol. 1) h/b 215pp £70 (ISBN 9781474244718)

This is the first of six published volumes, well produced and with a number of relevant b/w illustrations, that take the topic down to the modern age.

Lytle’s introduction draws on Dio Chrysostom’s Euboicus to highlight an important theme that regularly emerges in this volume’s ten contributions: the ideological literary tropes about admirable intellectual skills versus banausic manual labour, of which only farming was admired, partly because it was self-sufficient, partly because it produced soldiers. But those merely making things and so needing to sell them (and therefore bound to cheat), could not be truly free and were therefore not worthy citizens of a free state.

Dio, however, came to see that ‘the livelihood and occupations [of the urban poor] offer to men willing to labour many ways of making a living that are neither shameful nor harmful’. Lytle develops the theme. Homer’s similes and Socrates’ analogies regularly elevated types of worker. Aristophanes’ comedies frequently referred to trades practised by the audience; Alexis wrote comedies entitled The Cup Maker, The Plasterer, The Female Hairdresser, The Vine Worker. ‘Vulgar’ tradesman making it good, e.g. Cleon. The noble world of war likewise engaged the skills of ranges of craftsmen in everything from sieges to building forts.

Seth Bernard demonstrates that ‘growth’ in the economy, so important in the modern world, was limited in the ancient because it was almost entirely dependent on human labour. So increasing volumes of trade with other peoples was the main engine of growth. Here imperial power came into play. New state infra-structure in e.g. roads and harbours, demand for products from abroad (e.g. gold, stoneware) and operations using cheap manpower (i.e. slaves) to mass-produce e.g. pottery and wine, could produce limited ‘growth’, impossible from even specialised craftsmen making a living from their own workshops.

Philip Sapirstein discusses the visual evidence for work. Greek pottery and Roman grave monuments provide what evidence there is. Attic vases, most dated to 560-510 BC, feature shoe-makers, metal-workers and potters with vase painters the most flatteringly presented; less often merchants, usually selling wine or perfume, ploughman, harvesters and fishermen appear. Women are far more common: carrying water-jars, being harassed (because outside the home), spinning, wool-working and fruit-picking. Mostly the images suggest people of marginal status.

Roman grave monuments are more generous. Butchers, bakers, textile workers, leather-workers, shipwrights, metal-workers, sailors, smiths, carpenters, stonemasons (etc.) are all on parade, featuring proud inscriptions. One significant type is a heroic, semi-nude figure, with just a few tools on display to indicate his skills, downplaying the grubby aspects of his work. Working women feature only occasionally (fullers, merchants, barmaids, wool-woolworkers), though many well-dressed and apparently pleased with their work.

Miko Flohr on work and work places shows that much work (spinning, weaving, pottery etc.) was small-scale and could be done anywhere, but mostly at home. This domestic model was widespread in the Greek world, even in Athens, though the literature suggests the presence there of ergasteria (e.g. Lysias’ shield factory with 120 slaves). Delos is a major exception, with its huge purpose-built commercial facilities, related to its conversion into a free port serving Rome in 166 BC. In the Roman world, the emergence of tabernae, constructed as part of the public urban environment, proliferating along the streets and serving any sort of business, were a major commercial development. Pompeii, of course, offers a typical example, with its bakeries, tanneries, fullers etc., all busy at work right in the middle of the town. Rome’s harbour Ostia offers an example on a much bigger scale, with purpose-built structures employing anywhere from thirty to 100 people.

For Koenraad Verboven ‘workplace cultures’ display behaviours, roles, and hierarchies. He argues that elite ideologies about women (stay at home, protected), slaves (no agency at all) fall apart when it came to work. Not that women had the same opportunities as men, let alone that this was a ‘liberal’ world, but Greek inscriptions and legal cases show women engaged in banking, fully au fait with their husband’s work, freeing slaves and acting on behalf of children. There is plenty of evidence of Roman women’s involvement in business, while slave women helped out across the full range of a wife’s domestic responsibilities. Women worked on the farm as well as in the market-place. Pliny the Elder provides a list of famous female painters who learned the business from their fathers. Slaves meanwhile worked alongside the free on estates, often in positions of responsibility over free workers.

Philip Sapirstein (again) on work, skill and technology points out that, in early Greece, technê covered ‘skill’ generally, from poetry to pottery and military tactics, as did terms like mêtis and sophia: no one mocked Odysseus for making a boat or marriage bed or Epeius a wooden horse. It was in the classical period that the distinction between the intellectual and the manual began to be made, to the latter’s detriment. However, tomb inscriptions provide positive evaluations of artisans’ skill from shoe-making to carpenting and mining. When it came to knowledge transfer, the surviving literature is theoretical rather than technical (cf. Vitruvius on architecture), though there are indications of works on mechanics and design. New developments can be seen in roofing (truss, vaulting and concrete arches) and pottery technology (kick-wheel, decorative mould-made pots and lead glazes). When it came to training in skills, ‘sit by Nellie’ seems to have been the answer, though we hear of apprenticeship contracts from Egypt.

Ben Akrigg looks at the mobility of the work force. Towns and cities, as they flourished or failed, were drivers of much population movement, as were new cities. The military moved all over the Greek world and the Roman Empire, as did their supporting baggage trains and suppliers. Empires also needed administrators and support staff (more as time went by). International trade required an ever-mobile workforce. Town fares, markets, games and festivals all attracted people from far and wide, including local traders. As for involuntary migration, slaves were the main players, captured in war or taken by pirates, and (if lucky) themselves able to learn new skills and win their freedom. But it is all very difficult to quantify.

Sarah Bond tackles work and society, picking up earlier themes of ideology and real life. Some cities excluded workers from councils, others did not. But tradespeople still expressed pride in their work, as inscriptions show, whatever legal, civic and military systems decreed under the influenced of elite ideology. If beer was seen by the elite as a barbarian drink, it did not stop Romans producing it and boasting about the technical skill required, as a woman named Hostia Moderna did. Bond then shows how attitudes to work changed under the influence of Christianity. After all, Paul was a (lowly) tent-maker, and the idea gradually emerged of manual labour on earth as a way to heavenly redemption. Did not Adam fall from paradise when he had nothing to do?

On the topic of the political culture of work, Alain Bresson argues that the state always held the ring between the wealthy with land to work and the rest who gained the means of subsistence by working it, in the interests of the former. In the Homeric world, he says, slaves were fundamental to society’s workings (but surely only up to a point: Nausicaa does the laundry, Priam’s sons graze the cattle, Andromache feeds the horses, Anchises and Paris meet goddesses while on duty in the fields: see Strasburger [1982]); likewise, it is surely not the case that in the Odyssey the killing of the slaves faithful to the suitors shows ‘they have no rights of any kind’. They were killed because they sided with the suitors. Rights did not come into it. In the world of Hesiod, the poor were always likely to become indebted and enslaved; Solon dealt with the problem. Early Rome too had its problems with debt, famously leading to the struggle of the orders. Again, the problem was solved. But the free-slave polarity continued throughout the ancient world, and the state played a major part in keeping the supply of slaves going, both through war and negotiation with ‘barbarian’ slave-owners.

Finally, Zinon Papakonstantinou turns to the subject of work and leisure. Since most ancients lived off the land and interspersed fairly random periods of work and rest, ‘leisure’ has been thought a concept that emerged only as a result of the fixed working weeks associated with the industrial revolution. Not so, Papakonstantinou argues. The Athenian calendar distinguished clearly between days devoted to civic affairs and those to festivals, which were an integral part of Greek life, at fixed times of the year—theatrical, athletic and other agonistic occasions, parades, processions and banquets. Indeed athletic ones multiplied down the years, as Greek poleis competed to become established in the hierarchy of the four-year cycle of games topped by the Olympics (Caecilius, a baker from Macedonia, boasted of attending the Olympics twelve times): status was at stake, as were the euergistic ambitions of local politicians, dishing out banquets and olive oil to visitors, often including women and slaves. Romans were as keen as Greeks on the festivals, and Roman provincial elites began staging their own games during the imperial period, all attempting to lure the top athletes. Successful games were a mark of a proud, welcoming, civilised, well-ordered city though, as ever, they could also act also as forums for displays of public discontent, and public whip- or rod-bearers are often mentioned as being in attendance.

This inevitably summary is a most interesting, detailed, clear and thought-provoking collection of essays, emphasising in particular the distinction between elite ideology (‘all manual work is below proper men’) and the real world of proper men and women.


Peter Jones