Friday, November 5, 2010

Jobs in Ancient Rome – Introduction

So, let's say you're born in ancient Rome. Besides all the fun stuff, like watching gladiators, invading other countries and bathing four times a day, you'd still have to make a living, so you might want to check the job market, update your resume and analyze some of the career choices available.

I'll make a quick list of job options in ancient Rome for now, and I'll go into more detail... uh... sometime in the future. Maybe. Now, just for this general look, bear in mind that it's covering a huge time span, so requirements varied considerably from one age to another.

Cursus honorum is the closest to a Roman definition of a career, but with a trick: you'd have to be born into the right family- rich, old, with several senators and consuls among your ancestors. This combined being a politician, an administrator, a lawyer and a general all rolled into one (hey, success didn't come easy in those days, either).

The steps in this career were pretty fixed, the main ones being quaestor (in charge of finances, and you'd have to be at least 30 to land the job), aedile (responsible for infrastructure, maintenance of public buildings, organizing games and so on), praetor (judge – and opened up the more interesting position of propraetor – governor of a province) and consul, the ultimate goal. If everything went right and all previous steps were completed in time, a patrician could become consul at the age of 40, and a plebeian, at the age of 42 (because the curricula requirements were different for plebeians).
If you chose, or rather, if you were born into a family that chose this career path for you, you'd be spending most of the time dozing off and doing crosswords in the Senate.
Money came from owning properties, or at least you'd try very hard to give that impression. Trade was frowned upon in the Senate, but everybody was doing it in secret.

After the senators, the second aristocratic class was the equestrian order. Its members were known as equites, or knights. They had their own version of cursus honorum, holding some sort of middle-management positions – you know, doing all the hard work in the administration system, getting no credit for successes and all the blame for failures. The job became more interesting under the Empire, as emperors used the knights to reduce the power of the Senate.
Again, you'd have to be born into a relatively wealthy family (standards varied, but lots of equites were actually wealthier than senators). Money came from trade, collecting taxes or salaries. On some jobs, you'd be paid for a year more than 10 soldiers in their entire life in service.

Slaves – well, this is pretty much a question of luck. Slaves held the toughest jobs in ancient Rome, those where the life expectancy was below one year, such as working in the Spanish silver mines, and some of the best jobs, such as being the cook of a filthy rich senator, a doctor or a teacher. Some of them received small wages that allowed them to eventually buy their freedom, some made huge fortunes and some were thrown away to die alone when they were too old to work.

Okay, these are the best known aspects, but let's get to the good stuff. What if you were just a regular person? You couldn't trace your family tree back to a god, but your parents and grandparents were neither slaves nor freedmen, just ordinary citizens, what could you do to make a living then?

You'd think that farming was a good option in ancient times, at least considering that you'd market only organic products, nothing genetically modified – but in fact, it's the worst choice you could make. Small farmers had a very rough life – it was far better to be slave to a wealthy family then to struggle to make ends meet in the rural life.
As the rich got richer, small farmers lost their lands to the senators, the huge land owners of the time. The few who survived were driven out of the market by imported products – just like today, they could not compete against the cheaper goods produced elsewhere.
If you still think you have a green thumb you can use, at least forget about grains and try your hand at the higher selling crops, such as olives or vineyards, or at beekeeping. Forget livestock, senators took over the industry completely.

There were other options in the food industry besides farming. Fish was extremely popular in ancient Rome, and, while being a fisherman did not pay much and being a sailor was one of the deadliest choices, fishmongers made a pretty decent living. Smelly, but decent. You could also be a baker, a winemaker, or a small-time cook, in your own taverna or fast-food joint.

Traders, merchants and shopkeepers could make it big in the empire. Some had small shops in front of their houses, or rented such shops, selling jewelry, perfume, books, clothes, shoes – anything you can think of. Some were also artisans or craftsmen, producing anything, from the obvious, like pottery and glass, weapons and other army supplies, to wigs and fake teeth, and some manufactured goods on a mass scale, distributing them all over the empire.

International trade was huge, since the world opened up, and you could be importing silk from China, spices from India, ivory from Africa, amber from the Baltic region – for a hefty profit. Forget about exporting, though. Rome was a huge consumer and a lousy producer.

Banking and money lending was just as popular back then as it is today, and, with the odd wealth distribution of the ancients, one private individual could loan money to an entire country. Interest rates could reach outrageous values, up to 50%, despite various attempts of the authorities to keep them under control.

You know what Romans are famous for? That's right, buildings. And guess what, you need workers that build stuff. Contractors, architects, builders, decorators – there are plenty of openings for everyone. Some projects were carried out with slaves and some with soldiers, but there were still some good opportunities for hired work.

You know what else Romans are famous for? Right, the army. But jobs in the army opened up only around 100 BC, when a guy named Marius introduced the concept of professional army. Up to that point, you actually had to pay for the privilege of dying for Rome.

After that, however, the payment was decent and retirement benefits tempting. In fact, it was pretty much the only regular job in ancient Rome that had any retirement benefits. The downside was, well, that you could get killed on the job, and that the contract was long-term: 16 years in the beginning, then up to 20 years.

Services were available everywhere: you could own your own inn on the roads or in the cities (Constantinople was famous at some point because it had more inns than private homes; it was said that the inhabitants turned their homes into inns so they could drink all day and call it a business). Then there was the smelly, but popular laundry service; or you could be a postal worker, if you fancy long trips and you're not afraid of dogs.

Show biz was huge, though you'd have to give up any hope for a decent reputation. There were actors, singers, dancers, animals tamers, gladiators, and, of course, the staff behind the scenes – costume makers, producers, text writers – the whole gang. Just like today, very few made it big; but this was so glamorous, more kept trying.

Religion offered a mixture of opportunities. There were hundreds of different cults spread throughout the empire, so you could be working in a temple. Some were good – like the official imperial cult, which paid well for pretty much nothing to do – some had awful job requirements – like the priests of Cybele, who were eunuchs. In most cases, however, being a priest did not involve any religious vocation, you were just the administrator who had to organize highly formal rituals.
Temples offered more job openings, depending on the god in question, you could be a doctor (people were more likely to trust you if your practice was associated with a reputable god), a fortune teller (the fancy ones were called oracles) or a small artisan making and selling objects used by the cult, such as flower garlands.

Being an artist before copyright laws was actually easier than you might think, and you had a lot of options available – painter, sculptor, poet, novelist, playwright, historian, mosaic maker and so on. It paid off to find a rich protector – Maecenas being the most famous, of course.

Being a teacher could actually be a bit more profitable back then than it is today, only that you had to open your own school. If you became famous, and if your campus was located somewhere nice, like Athens or Rhodes, you could attract a wealthy audience.

Maybe you're wondering why I've said nothing about lawyers, when we know so much about Rome's legal system and their infamous lawsuits. As a rule, being a lawyer was a public service, not a job. Lawyers were not allowed to receive any financial compensation for their services, supposedly they did it because they honestly believed their clients were innocent and defended them just because it was the right thing to do. Of course. Well, being a lawyer was in fact a very profitable business, you just needed a good slave accountant to do a bit of money laundry so you could justify your income.

Things get trickier when we're talking about jobs for women. No equal opportunities policies there, so most authors mention only prostitutes, professional dancers and priestesses. Surely though many women in ancient Rome worked, and did more than just household chores. Those born or married into a family of artisans were most certainly involved in the family business. Some even owned businesses of their own. A classified ad from Pompeii shows that a woman was renting rooms and shops; a contract also from Pompeii was signed by two women, recording that one purchased from the other a big transport of pottery. Since, by law, women did not have any official status (but laws in Rome were twisted and bent in all directions by everybody) it's not impossible that some women-owned businesses used a male protector who did all the formalities and signed contracts on their behalf.