BMCR 2017.07.15

Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean

, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. xv, 318. ISBN 9780472130085. $80.00.


Work in the Roman world is the subject of much interest at the moment, on the part of both historians and archaeologists. Thanks to, among others, Miko Flohr, Eugenia Liu, and Nicolas Tran all duly cited here,1 the question of the social status, public profile, representation and self-representation of various categories of workers in various parts of the Roman world, has increasingly been explored from perspectives other than those of often-quoted members of the literary and political elite, such as Cicero.

Sarah Bond’s book opens with a memorable document: an inscription from Umbria, through which Horatius Balbus announces a benefaction—the gift of burial places—to his townsfolk, with the notable exception of gladiators, people who have committed suicide by hanging, and those who “pursued a polluted craft for profit” (p. 1). Bond’s book, which is based on her doctoral thesis, focusses on those excluded categories, and on the nature of their exclusion. Her main questions are: if people could incur dishonour because of how they made a living, how was their dishonourability defined? How did it manifest, and how did it affect their lives? Why were these people considered polluted, or dirty? (p. 8) More implicitly, throughout the book Bond also try to shift perspectives, from the top-down attribution of dishonour, to the question, did the dishonoured think of themselves as such?

Those are all very good questions, but also part of extraordinarily big issues. Bond inevitably asks more than she manages to answer. Each chapter is a case-study of a particular group of workers whose activities were represented in the laws or the literary sources, as dishonourable or tainted. Bond uses a similar structure in each chapter and adopts similar focal points, which allows her to draw parallels and eventually tease out the shared traits of a bigger picture.

In her introduction, Bond sets out a fundamental contrast: on the one hand, authors like Cicero, but also members of much smaller, provincial communities, like Horatius Balbus, and, in addition, some legal sources, all testify to the view that certain professions were seen as unclean, undesirable and dishonourable, to the point where people practising them could be barred from accessing benefits, privileges and forms of public participation. On the other hand, those same professions were necessary to the life of the community, whether big or small. Moreover, there is also evidence, often in the form of inscriptions, that people engaged in those professions created communities of their own, in the form of collegia and other types of associations. Bond suggests that this might be evidence of self-awareness and possibly pride in their activities, or at least of a desire to safeguard or create a more positive alternative to the role and reputation attributed to them by hostile sources.

The role of forms of associations of disreputable workers is thus one of the running themes of the book, along with an exploration of the cases in which there is evidence for mostly social, but in one case religious, mobility for the practitioners of those tainted trades. In other words, Bond is careful to juxtapose different voices and possibilities, and to show that there are several sides to the story of people locked in their unsavoury condition for the duration of their lives. She also pays particular attention to the different ways in which professions could be seen as disreputable: whether the emphasis was on dependence on profit, on political ambiguity and danger, on death pollution, or on the monitoring of sensory experience, such as the rejection of both bad smells and smells which were perceived as too overpoweringly alluring.

Geographically, Bond tends to follow the evidence, but at the same time makes a real effort to move beyond Rome and Italy; chronologically, she takes very long views, from the late Republic to late antiquity. The wider time span could be meant to balance the narrower focus on specific professions, and in principle that is good idea. The inclusion of late antiquity is, in my view, interesting, and occasionally a true enrichment of the argument, but it did feel at times as if things were moving at such a fast pace than the resulting pictures were somewhat blurred.

The first chapter is about criers ( praecones). Bond traces a history of the profession from late Republic to late antiquity, carefully distinguishes between public and private criers, and points out the various arenas in which they operated. She teases out, again carefully and effectively, the wider networking and brokering role that praecones may have had, and which made them significant, and potentially dangerous, political players. A big role in terms of evidence is played by the Tabula Heracleensis, which Bond links to the lex Julia municipalis of 45 BCE, albeit with some degree of hesitation. Cicero also figures prominently, although Bond demonstrates awareness of the problems of mining information from, in particular, his legal oratory. Moreover, here as in subsequent chapters, Bond draws on epigraphic evidence, mostly funerary, which is collected in appendices at the end and organized by profession. She eschews, however, a demographic analysis of the data set afforded by the collected inscriptions, in favour of a more narrative argument within a chronological frame. The chapter identifies “two shifts”: “the exclusion of active criers from municipal offices in the late Republic and the social elevation of the praecones that served magistrates or within state institutions”. The former statement is the generalization of a clause in the Tabula Heracleensis, which is perhaps a risky move, but Bond’s claim, which views both shifts “as attempts to strengthen the control of the state and the local elite over expanding information networks” (p. 53) is on the whole plausible.

Chapter two deals with funeral workers, and expands the geographical frame from Italy to Egypt and Palestine. Bond reflects on the very different status and regulations surrounding funeral workers at different times and places. While all contexts involved shared the notion that dead bodies were polluting, and the necessity for dead bodies to be disposed of, she shows that the role of people taking care and disposing of corpses was seen as more or less dishonourable, or even more or less prestigious, depending on place, time, and religious practices.

The third chapter, on tanners, starts off promisingly. Relatively abundant archaeological evidence is available about tanneries, and Bond also introduces the issue of cultural perceptions of sensory experience: smell, unpleasant in this case. The investigation is however less thorough than initially announced (p. 98), even though intriguing points are raised, such as the connection of tanning with other animal-based crafts and trades, and the mismatch between the pictures presented by different sources. She concludes that, despite some indications to the contrary in the ancient evidence, tanners and tanneries were highly visible and central, both literally, physically, and metaphorically, symbolically. “The marginalization of tanners in Graeco-Roman communities was largely confined to the traditional, constructed literary landscape of the elites, who used ideas about smell, commerce, and space to differentiate between social groups.” (p. 124) It is a well-written chapter, which touches on a lot of fascinating aspects, and Bond’s conclusions are on the whole persuasive, but she possibly aims to pack too much within a small space here. She gestures towards some of the evidence, rather than fully discussing it.

The next two chapters share a greater focus on late antiquity, when the categories of workers explored here (mint workers and people engaged in sensual trades, particularly bakers and other food providers) were the subject of increasingly restrictive legislation. Bond convincingly argues that the extant laws which curb the mobility of mint and food supply workers had the ultimate aim of securing their services, thus creating ‘involuntary associations’ and immobilizing those workers socially as well as legally.

In conclusion, “constructions of honor and dishonor could change over time” (p. 176), particularly in late antiquity and with Christianity. We learn that, despite social and legal mechanisms of marginalization, voluntary associations carried on regardless and provided safe—indeed, nurturing and legitimizing—spaces for their members, so that they could be active and even respected participants to their societies. On the other hand, especially in late antiquity, sometimes disreputable professions were legally envisaged as groups, and lumped together, in order to secure necessary services, and prevent practitioners from abandoning professions which may have been labelled as disreputable, but at the same time were economically and socially vital. Both of the concluding claims are convincing, in my view: the former is not particularly new, but it bears repeating; the latter revolves around a very interesting and complex dynamic—dirty jobs are also necessary jobs. This tenet is repeatedly exemplified in the book, although its political and ideological ramifications could have been explored even further.

There are four appendices, on praecones, dissignatores, coriarii, and mint workers. As potential data sets, they appear to prop up Bond’s argument, rather than driving it. Moreover, they may be problematic for a reader to use, because the information they provide is partial. The third appendix maps tanners by the use of the term coriarius —what about the tanners who were not identified by that term? Above all, there is a distinct scarcity of descriptions of the archaeological context, or indeed of any visual component, of the inscriptions. The book has no pictures other than the front cover. Those may have been the publisher’s choices, rather than the author’s; all the same, the appendices seem a bit of a missed opportunity to create a very useful resource for other interested readers.

On the whole, Bond’s book navigates a very difficult course between case-study and generalization. At times, the strokes in her picture may seem too broad, and at other times, she may have tried to extract too much argument from individual pieces of evidence. There is sometimes a repetitiveness to the chapters—going over the same point in slightly different ways, spending a long time recapitulating and signposting, which aids understanding and clarity, but also stalls the attempt to delve deeper. Nonetheless, even with those reservations, Bond asks excellent questions, writes engagingly, and has a good nose for the obscure but interesting source. Trade and Taboo is a valuable contribution to the field, and will hopefully stimulate further research.


1. Miko Flohr, The World of the Fullo: Work, Economy and Society in Roman Italy, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003; Jinyu Liu, Collegia Centonariorum: The Guilds of Textile Dealers in the Roman West, Leiden: Brill 2009; Nicolas Tran, Les membres des associations romaines: le rang social des collegiati en Italie et en Gaules sous le haut-empire, Rome: École française 2006.