'A Roman World' - The Dignity of Labour by Iain Ferris
In my new book 'The Dignity of Labour. Image, Work and Identity in the Roman World' (published by Amberley on January 2021) I examine how images were used by some workers and professionals in the Roman world to publicly express their working identities in cultural rather than purely economic terms. The book is also a story of how art depicting workers and professionals became as much a part of Roman culture as real workers played in Roman society. There is no evidence to suggest that artistic expressions such as the creation of images of workers were regulated or deliberately limited in some way by the Roman authorities: rather, it would appear, that freedmen and others in trades turned to the visual to summon a new reality into being.
While there is a small but interesting body of Greek and Roman writing dedicated to the discussion of the nature of work and to the philosophical exploration of work as a metaphor for broader issues and its relationship to wealth, status, and power, as has been the case with all of my previous books, the emphasis here is on visual evidence. That is representations of workers in Roman art and particularly in the form of funerary sculptures, often clustered in particular places, and as images on mosaics, wall paintings, and on a small number of decorated everyday items. Reference is also made to dedicatory inscriptions which named workers and their professions, or their professional associations, and to makers' stamps that appeared on a range of items including bricks and tiles, pottery, glass, lead water pipes, metalwork, and even wooden items.
Examples are presented of depictions of builders, bakers and food producers, textile workers, metalworkers, miners, and professionals such as doctors, teachers, and scribes, for instance. In the book a number of more esoteric topics are also covered. For instance, why were the cremated remains of Eurysaces the Roman baker interred inside a funerary monument in the form of a bakery's bread-kneading bins turned on their sides? And why were there quite so many specialists job titles in Roman society, such as the alipilus-'a plucker of body hair'-or the faber ocularius-'a maker of eyes for statues'?
There were 71 Roman emperors and co-rulers between Augustus and Theodosius and quite rightly the history and events of their various reigns and their individual biographies have dominated, and to a great extent still dominate, the study and writing of ancient history and help provide structuring principles for museum collections and displays. We understand the sequential history of the Roman world through its emperors, even though the power of the emperors was out of all proportion to their individuality and to their relatively small number in total. To put this into numerical perspective, as a comparison and contrast, from Rome alone there are 1470 occupational inscriptions naming ordinary, non-elite individuals and their jobs. From stamps on their wares, we know the names of around 5000 individual potters working at the samian pottery terra sigillata factories of Gaul. I could choose here to go on to list numbers of known named masons, carpenters, metalworkers, textile workers, doctors, clerks, and so on, from more broadly around the Roman world but instead I have picked as a final example what might be thought of as somewhat of a fringe activity and minor industry in antiquity compared to these, that the names of 56 perfumers from Rome, Italy, and elsewhere in the empire are known from inscriptions and epitaphs. It should be clear therefore that the number of workers, artisans, and professionals from the Roman world whose names we know outnumbers and dwarfs the total number of named emperors.
I will illustrate the diversity of these professional images by discussing three very different Roman funerary memorials: to Eurysaces the Baker of Rome; to Longidienus the boatbuilder of Ravenna; and to Quartulus the Spanish child miner.
The extraordinary and unique tomb of Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces the Baker and contractor lies just beyond the city of Rome's eastern limits, outside of, but right up against, the Porta Maggiore, and dates to around 30-20 B.C.. The tomb would seem originally to have been a curious trapezoidal shape, to fit an irregularly shaped plot of land between the intersecting road system here, with a cemetery running out from here along the roads. Subsequently, having stood undisturbed for around three hundred years, Eurysaces's tomb was incorporated into the city gate forming part of the new Aurelianic city walls and the circuit's further strengthening by Honorius about one hundred and thirty years later, and there it remained largely hidden until the nineteenth century when demolition works exposed it once more as a free-standing structure. However, only about three quarters of the tomb is now still intact.
The tomb originally stood over thirty feet in height, its base being partially buried today, and consists of a plain tufa base with an entrance door. The first storey above the base consists of a series of vertical tube-like cylinders, this storey being separated from the second storey by a cornice which carries inscriptions on three sides of the monument. The second storey and main body of the Travertine-faced concrete tomb takes the form of a set of large circular openings, generally interpreted as images of giant cylindrical bread mixing bins set on their sides, adorned with an upper frieze relief depicting workers inside a bakery, making, baking, and stacking loaves. A low roof tops the structure.
Far less grand, but nonetheless of huge interest and significance, is the eight and a half feet tall late first century B.C. to early first century A.D. decorated tombstone of Publius Longidienus the boatbuilder from Ravenna in north-eastern Italy. Ravenna, the Roman port of Classe, at the mouth of the mighty River Po, was a highly significant port centre in the Republican and early to mid-imperial period, both as a merchant marine trading port opening directly onto the northern Adriatic Sea and as a base for the Roman navy.
In the upper register of decoration, in a niche topped by a double arch, appear the two half-length busts of the married couple identified by the inscription beneath as Publius Longidienus and his wife Longidiena Stactinia. Longidienus is clearly described as faber navalis, that is 'boat builder'. Wearing a toga, Longidienus is here being presented as a respectable Roman citizen, and Longidiena's stola, partially covering her head, suggested that she was a typical Roman matron. Underneath the main inscription is another arched niche occupied by the portrait busts of two young men, identified by the inscription beneath them as freedmen of Publius. These two paid for this monument to their patronus the inscription goes on to tell us.
Towards the bottom of the tombstone, we can see an image of Longidienus himself working on a docked boat held up by a cradle frame of wooden supports. Employing what would clearly appear to be an adze, he is depicted in the process of shaping a curving plank or rib destined for the hull of the boat depicted behind him. To reach the end of the timber he is standing on a stout, lockable toolbox that obviously doubled up as a stool when necessary. Next to the image of Longidienus at work is a third inscription which declares: 'Publius Longidienus, son of Publius, busy at his work'. On each of the narrow sides of the stele appears an image of a finished boat.
The third image to be discussed here is again quite extraordinary in terms of the information it provides about the world of work in Roman times. It is of a possible child miner, perhaps a slave, though this is not stated in the late first century A.D. stele's dedicatory inscription and comes from near a mine in the Sierra Morena mountains of southern Spain. According to the dedicatory inscription Quartulus or Quintus Artulus, the name being uncertain due to poor carving, was four years old when he died, even though the image of the child above appears a few years older. Everything about the image suggests that the boy was a working miner, even though this is not stated in the inscription, but other interpretations can be made. He is depicted dressed in a short, loose tunic that finishes above the knees and has bare feet. He holds a pick-hammer in one hand and a small basket in the other. 'May the earth lie lightly on you', the inscription states in translation, suggesting that he may have died in a roof-fall in the mine.
Alternative interpretations of the image include the possibility that he was the son of a miner, rather than a working miner himself, and that this familial identification was being stressed here, that Quartulus or Quintus was being portrayed in an adult role that he died too young to achieve, a very common trope in Roman funerary art in Italy, or that the boy was portrayed with these particular and distinct tools because they were symbolic of the mining community to which he belonged.
There is though plenty of evidence to suggest that in Spain and elsewhere in the Roman empire boys from the age of eight might have worked in the mines in some capacity.
It took a very long time for Rome and Italy's artisanal, commercial, and manufacturing families to form themselves into a self-conscious social estate that followed the example of the elite in being able to think of themselves as people who deserved and needed to have their likenesses and lives recorded and viewed by their family and the broader community; to express a modern sensibility in other words. Eventually, the expression of professional and working identities also became common in funerary art in several the provinces, most particularly in Gaul and Germany.
Iain Ferris's book The Dignity of Labour is available for purchase now.