Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.10.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.10.09

Nicolas Tran, Dominus tabernae: le statut de travail des artisans et des commerçants de l'Occident romain (Ier siècle av. J.-C. - IIIe siècle ap. J.-C.). Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome, 360.   Roma:  École française de Rome, 2013.  Pp. viii, 416.  ISBN 9782728309566.  €45.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Miko Flohr, Leiden University (

Table of Contents

This book is yet another important contribution to the quickly developing debate on the social and economic history of crafts and retail in the Roman world, and it provides the reader with a clear and well-structured argument about the world of Roman urban craftsmen and traders in the Latin-speaking West of the Roman Empire. The book is extremely well-documented, including a wealth of particularly textual and, to a lesser extent, archaeological evidence and discussing it in great detail. This results in a very vivid picture of everyday realities in which the micro-scale has center stage, and in which particular examples fit, apparently seamlessly, into the greater historical framework. There is no doubt that this book will be required reading for specialists, but it also constitutes a very good introduction for the wider academic audience, and can be eminently useful in teaching.

The agenda of this book lies primarily in the realm of social history. Tran aims to improve our understanding of the lower echelons of Roman society, and does so by approaching the lower classes through their everyday working lives. Specific focus is on the people in charge of shops and workshops – the master craftsman or the shop holder (hence the title, dominus tabernae). Other people involved in running these businesses are dealt with in a more sideways manner, but the reader will have a clear idea of what Tran thinks about the professional and social lives of these people as well. One of the core points Tran wants to make is that the world of artisans and retailers was as varied and internally just as stratified as the world of the political elite, and that in the construction of this variation and stratification everyday work played a key role. To make this visible, Tran discusses what he calls the ‘statut de travail’, a concept that is perhaps best left untranslated, but points to the way in which social statuses and identities are shaped through practising a specific craft or trade.

After a short introductory chapter, the main body of the book is divided into three parts, which consist of two chapters each. The narrative follows a logical order, moving from the shop floor, through the culture of work and its role in the professional status of craftsmen and shop holders to the embedding of shops and workshops in their wider social and economic contexts. The emphasis is on the work environment and its immediate surroundings: professional associations are remarkably absent from the book, but Tran has of course discussed these at great length in his first monograph, Les membres des associations romaines. Le rang social des collegiati en Italie et en Gaules, sous le haut-empire (2006).

The first two chapters focus on some of the practical aspects of running a business, and the way in which they may or may not contribute to the status of craftsmen and retailers. The first chapter discusses the juridical and practical backgrounds of entrepreneurship in the Roman World. Tran points out that there was a wide variety of scenarios, both legally and economically, and highlights the evidence attesting each of these, before arguing that if there was one thing that defined entrepreneurship in the Roman world, then it was the mastership of a specific set of skills. The second chapter explores the role of the entrepreneur within his business, and the way in which he could use and control his labor force, which might include women and children, slaves, and hired workers. Tran argues against the idea that control was based on pure coercion only, pointing to the complex nature of ties between entrepreneurs and their workers, and emphasizing the role of non-coercive leadership strategies.

The second pair of chapters zooms in on those aspects of the everyday work that were constitutive elements of the public occupational status of craftsmen and traders. The third chapter discusses apprenticeship and its role both in the practical organization on the shop floor and in establishing the name and fame of the master artisan who was a successful teacher. Tran rightly stresses the centrality of apprenticeship for our understanding of crafts in the Roman world, though it may be questioned whether this also is true in the case of retail and trade – a point that could perhaps have been elaborated a little bit more explicitly, given the topic of this book. Chapter four discusses three of the key pillars under the occupational identity of artisans: labor, ars and quaestus. Tran argues that each of these three aspects of their work could be a source of pride. References to labor – the effort put into everyday work – feature in literature as well as in epigraphy; ars – the mastery of the skills needed to produce – is a recurring theme in the commemoration of craftsmen, and underlies most of the iconography of crafts; quaestus – the profit made – also clearly played a role in the construction of occupational identities.

The last couple of chapters analyzes the social context in which craftsmen and traders operated. Chapter five discusses the way in which the professional activities of craftsmen and traders brought them into contact with others, including particularly customers and other professionals. Tran argues that many artisans actually sold their products themselves on the spot or elsewhere, though there also were entrepreneurs operating on a much larger scale. He then goes on to sketch the multiple relations that entrepreneurs might maintain with craftsmen, retailers and traders, really bringing to life the world within which professionals operated. The final chapter, six, looks at the living accommodation of entrepreneurs, distinguishing between those living and working in tabernae of various sizes, and those living and working in atrium houses. Tran uses the material evidence from Pompeii in particular to argue that the socioeconomic statuses of craftsmen and traders – even those performing the same trade – could be widely divergent.

The conclusion summarizes the main conclusions of the preceding chapters before shortly discussing some general issues. Tran emphasizes centrality of work in the structuration of urban societies in the Roman west, but argues against the (neo-Marxist) idea of a cultural opposition between the elite on the one hand and the plebs on the other hand: ‘il n’y avait qu’une seule culture romaine’. He also rejects the idea, championed by primitivists, that craftsmen and traders had a very marginal social position, but he also denies the existence of wealthy captains of industry comparable to those of the industrial period, thus taking up a nuanced, middle position in the debate about the social status of craftsmen and retailers in the Roman world.

This book is a major step forward for the debate on the social history of work in the Roman world. Some minor points of discussion, obviously, remain. I am here highlighting two methodological issues, and one theoretical problem that readers working with this book should want to keep in mind. They do not affect Tran’s main argument, but do suggest things that scholars working on similar themes in the future might need to address.

In the first place, Tran does an extremely good job of squeezing a lot of information out of written and iconographic evidence; the best and most innovative sections of this book are those where he examines inscriptions and literary (or legal) texts to understand the uses of specific terminology and its meaning for our understanding of everyday work – the discussion of labor, ars and quaestus in chapter four is perhaps the best example. Yet there is much less place for the material remains of shops and workshops. For this, Tran is not to blame: he does use the evidence where it has been studied (especially in chapter six), and shows great awareness of recent developments in the archaeology of urban crafts in – particularly – Roman Italy. Still, however, the book highlights once more that the scholarly field needs to invest more in integrating the material remains of commercial facilities into this debate. Especially after Tran’s book, this will be the main area where new ideas about Roman craftsmen and traders may be found.

The second methodological issue has to do with the way Tran uses the evidence in building up his argument: often, he sketches a scenario, and then illustrates it by discussing a small set of evidence to great detail. On the one hand, this is to be applauded as it signals a departure from some past approaches that dealt with especially the epigraphic evidence for occupations in a much more superficial way (e.g. by counting inscriptions, or by mainly focusing on the job title). On the other hand, while this form of ‘close-reading’ often makes it very clear that a scenario existed and is extremely useful in explaining how things worked out in practice, it makes it much harder to assess the relative historical importance of certain scenarios. For example, it is clear there were children on the shop floor, but how common were they really? How important was hired labor as opposed to slave labor and family labor? These questions are not easily answerable, but they do deserve our attention, though they require a different methodology than the one underlying the approach of Tran. It is to be hoped that future scholars will find ways to assess the relative importance of the scenarios sketched by Tran.

I conclude with a theoretical issue that is tied up with the problem of understanding the historical meaning of variation within the evidence. Tran provides the field with a powerful and diverse set of scenarios, which clearly shows how everyday work, in a variety of ways, could play a defining role in the construction of social ties and identities in Roman urban communities. What he does only to a very limited extent, however, is address the issue of variation in terms of time and place: the ‘Roman west’ of, roughly, the early imperial period, is essentially taken as one big historical whole. Tran is not alone in doing this: still, a lot of scholarly analysis of Roman social and economic history addresses ‘the Roman world’ as a whole or takes place at a comparable level of abstraction. Given the scope of the book, this was perhaps to some extent inevitable, though one could discuss whether limiting the narrative to Roman Italy (where most of the evidence comes from anyway) might not have made sense. Retail and manufacturing take place in specific local historical circumstances, and these differed widely in time and space within the Roman West. This differentiation deserves a place in our historical analysis. It is a key merit of Tran’s book that he outlines most of the variables at stake, and highlights the way in which they may be reflected in our evidence. The challenge it leaves to others is to explore the way in which these variables worked differently (or similarly) in different circumstances – e.g. in smaller or larger cities, in Italy or in Gaul, in the late republic or in the third century AD.

That being said, it is to be hoped that this book will receive the attention and merit it clearly deserves, also outside the francophone world.

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