BMCR 2021.07.20

Skilled labour and professionalism in ancient Greece and Rome

, , , Skilled labour and professionalism in ancient Greece and Rome. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. ISBN 9781108839471 $99.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

‘Professionalism’ in the title reflects the influence of Magali Larson’s Rise of Professionalism (1977, second edition 2013)—a sociologist’s study of how, in the nineteenth century, certain occupations organized themselves to attain market power, that is, to control the market for their expertise. The editors lead off by contending that ‘professionalism’ is appropriate also in an ancient context, asserting that “though it may not be possible to discriminate strictly between unskilled jobs and skilled professions, nevertheless we can say that there existed a fluid hierarchy of professions (6)” even though “no Greek or Latin word corresponds precisely with this ‘etic’ term [‘professional’] (7).” They note two objections. The first is that “‘professionalism’ is a modern phenomenon that belongs to a post-industrial world;” the second, that “the term ‘professionalism’, with its connotations of the modern workplace, is inapplicable to the ancient world (7).” They respond to the first by suggesting that “specialized skilled labour . . . was a feature of the civilizations of Greece and Rome (8)” and to the second that “There is no need to expect ancient professionals to conform to modern standards if it has in fact proved quite impossible to agree [on] a satisfactory definition for their modern counterparts (12).” The editors go on to argue that the ancient economy had markets for skilled labor, in which people worked for pay (14-15), and that these labor markets allowed skilled workers to achieve “status” that put them outside the classification of mass and elite (20-21). While the chapters unsurprisingly acknowledge the presence of skilled labor in antiquity, they differ in their assessments of treating this labor as professional.

In Chapter 1, “Many Ancient Greek Occupations, but Few Professions,” Edward Harris identifies four cases in which he finds professions of a sort rather than merely occupations. Starting with the associations of Dionysiac artists in the third century, Harris then moves on to the philosophical schools of Athens, noting: “The members of the philosophical schools were professionals in the sense that they pursued a full-time occupation, required lengthy training and enjoyed high status in the community (46).” Next are the doctors and finally the sculptors, who “might enjoy much prestige both within their own communities and abroad (54).”

Chapter 2, “Skilled Workers in the Ancient Greek City,” by Natacha Massar, defines professionals as “people trained in a technē, who practised it for a fee as their main means of earning a living,” focusing on those “employed by cities at public expense for a given length of time,” and covering “how specialists were recruited . . ., how the candidates were selected, their contracts, their payments, and rewards, as well as their travel (69).”

In Chapter 3, “Money Making, ‘Avarice’, and Elite Strategies of Distinction in the Roman World,” Emanuel Mayer begins by asserting that “Skilled artisans and professionals were not ‘invisible Romans’ (94),” observing that “classical scholarship is still struggling with the idea that social and economic behavior in ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire was not subservient to the prescriptions of highly rhetorical philosophical literature—and, for that matter, with the idea that social elites did not form a monolithic group, but were, in themselves, ideologically diverse (95).” He then turns to the sources of the ideas which he is attempting to supplant, “shaped by the political preoccupations of Marxist sociology,” whose devotees were “interested in the social and economic roots of political ideologies (96).” He finds this analytical framework less promising “in the discursive landscape of a pre-industrial society without mass media that could enable a simultaneous conversation between large numbers of like-minded actors (99).” While professed disdain for skilled moneymaking was “very much a social reality in the rarified intellectual milieu of a Cicero or a Seneca,” he finds “no evidence that these diverging attitudes [toward skilled moneymaking] led to open conflict, let alone class struggle (110).”

In Chapter 4, “Labour Specialization in the Athenian Economy: Occupational Hazards,” David Lewis casts his discussion in terms of occupations instead of professions in attempting to answer “how extensive was horizontal specialization (viz. the number of individual specialized occupations to do with producing a single product, or selling a specific good or service) in the classical Athenian economy (129).” Assuming “we refuse to admit as a ‘real’ occupation any entry on the list [originally proposed by Harris in 2002] that cannot have provided a continual livelihood (viz. < c. 250 days’ work per annum) (140),” his inventory leads to the conclusion: “Of the 276 ‘occupations’ in the list, our exercise . . . knocks out 114 entries, around 40 percent of the total, leaving us with a minimalist rump of 162 ‘genuine’ occupations that satisfy the definition of occupation outlined earlier in this chapter (155-156),” though he finally admits “around 180-200 specialized occupations (157).”

In Chapter 5, “The Perception of ‘Skills’ in Ostia: The Evidence of Monuments and Written Sources,” Alice Landskron sorts “skills and professions” into “occupations that require workers without special skills, trained craftsmen/professionals, or specially skilled/more highly educated professionals (178-179).” A sectoral classification follows—crafts (manufacturing) and commerce and trade (180-188) and services which require professional skills (188-195). After paragraphs on skilled labor and associations, the author concludes with observations on “a new social class—a kind of middle class—that developed in Roman society” and on “monuments which show proud individuals who were well accepted as skilled craftsmen and professionals since they played an important role within society,” many of whom were liberti (196).

Chapter 6, “Professionalism in Archaic and Classical Sculpture in Athens: The Price of Technē,” is the first of eight chapters on separate occupations, the first three of which are on sculpture. Helle Hochscheid asks “whether sculptors in archaic and classical Athens saw themselves and were seen by others as a respected group of professionals, or rather, were viewed as banausoi who should ideally be excluded from polite, not to mention political, society (205-206).”

In Chapter 7, “Artists beyond Athens: The Freedoms and Restrictions of the Artistic Profession in Ancient Greece,” Margit Linder considers “one particular piece of evidence for the perceived importance of artistic skill in the Greek world: the unrestricted mobility of artists (230).” In responding to the title question “Roman Sculptors at Work: Professional Practitioners?” in Chapter 8, Ben Russell considers not only the question itself but also what it might mean. Observing that there is “no consensus on the definition of a profession (245)” and that “it is doubtful that anyone in antiquity was a professional in the strictly modern sense (247),” Russell notes that stone carvers “occupied a sort of middle ground in these contemporary (and elite) perceptions of the hierarchy of work (249).” Russell concludes: “While the lack of a regulatory system governing stone carving practitioners in the Roman world might make it hard to fit them into most modern definitions of professionals, the core issue here, as Larson so succinctly summarizes, is that ‘professionalization is . . . an attempt to translate one order of scarce resources—special knowledge and skills—into another—social and economic rewards’ (262).”

The next two chapters go closely together. Chapter 9, “The Profession of Mousikē in Classical Greece,” contains Edmund Stewart’s discussion of “the group of activities that came under the heading of mousikē,” which he identifies as a profession in two respects—that “mousikē was widely regarded as a valuable, specialist skill involving esoteric knowledge that could form the basis of individual and group identities” and that “performers dedicated themselves to their art as their main or major occupation and, in doing so, strove to gain recognition as skilled practitioners (272).” Chapter 10, “Artists of Dionysus: The First Professional Associations in the Ancient Greek World,” begins with the early third century in the context of an increase in festivals and contests (293-294). According to Sophia Aneziri, the members of the association might have a common profession “as long as ‘profession’ is defined fairly broadly” by including “a wide variety of specializations (296).”

In Chapter 11, “Neither Amateurs nor Professionals: The Status of Greek Athletes,” Christian Mann observes: “Scholars usually point to the fact that both ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ are modern terms without equivalents in Greek or Latin, but nevertheless they use the terms to label different types of athletes or athletes of different periods (315).” He asks “whether it is reasonable to apply these labels to ancient athletics, whether they fit the specific features of ancient athletics [with respect to time, money, social status, identity, and organization], and whether they are useful tools or mere obstacles for an understanding of the ancient phenomena (316-317).” As for money, “ancient athletes, according to the terminology of the Greek texts, . . . , did not ‘earn’ money, they ‘won’ it. Athletic prizes, . . . , are not called ‘wages’ (misthoi) but gifts (dōra), and the athletes’ aim was defined as ‘glory’ (kleos), not ‘profit’ (kerdos) (322).” And social status: “it is important to keep two questions well separated: (1) From which social classes did athletes originate? (2) Did athletic success help to improve one’s social status?” To the first, “there were no insurmountable obstacles for talented competitors from the lower classes (323).” To the second, “sport offered possibilities for social advancement (326).” In conclusion, “it seems quite obvious that an application of the dichotomy ‘amateur’ versus ‘professional’ to ancient athletics faces severe problems,” and “one should avoid these concepts, since they create obstacles to our reading of the sources by conjuring up modern practices like labor contracts, wages, unions (all non-existent in ancient athletics) (328-329).”

In Chapter 12, “Professionalism, Specialization, and Skill in the Classical Spartan Army?”, Stephen Hodkinson argues that, in the fifth and fourth centuries, the Lacedaemonian hoplite army, especially the Spartiate part of it, was not made up in the main of “specialist full-time soldiers (337).” Spartiate soldiers “were not maintained at public expense . . . the Spartiates’ subsistence was entirely self-funded from the produce of their private estates (340).” Hodkinson finds that “adult Spartiate training for war was based more on various forms of physical exercise than on the acquisition of specialized military skills (354).”

“A Professional Roman Army?” In Chapter 13, Doug Lee is concerned to clarify the question by asking what it might mean. As he says, “when terms such as ‘professional’ or ‘professionalization’ are used in these contexts, it is usually done without any explicit discussion of them; they are often assumed, it seems, to be self-explanatory (363).” He continues, “This question of linguistic usage is an important issue because some of the connotations of these terms risk importing anachronistic, modernizing assumptions into how the Roman army is conceived (365).” After drawing on the social science literature to establish what might count as a profession, he finds that the Roman Army was not a profession even under the principate and empire, much less earlier, observing: “The conclusion that the Imperial Roman army was not ‘professional’ in the modern sense is strengthened by the difficulty of identifying other types of work in the Roman world analogous to a profession in the modern sense (368).” Thus, “the slippery nature of the terminology ‘professional’ and ‘professionalization’ deserves emphasis . . . while there are certain features which might be described as ‘professional’ in a loose sense, the wide range of connotations of this terminology makes it preferable to avoid this and cognate terms, and to speak instead of a paid standing army in the Roman imperial context (378).”

Readers of this collection will be exposed to a great deal of recent work on ancient Mediterranean technai and technitai in the chapters and in their separate bibliographies, which might have been consolidated usefully at the end of the book. They may wonder, however, at the book’s devoting so much space to twentieth-century social science’s orientation toward professionals and professionalism, from which some of the authors are at pains to disengage themselves in favor of examining evidence on the technai and technitai themselves, of which, as the chapters show, much is available.

Authors and Titles

Introduction, Edmund Stewart, with Contributions from Edward Harris and David Lewis
Chapter 1. Edward M. Harris, “Many Ancient Greek Occupations, but Few Professions”
Chapter 2. Natacha Massar, “Skilled Workers in the Ancient Greek City: Public Employment, Selection Methods, and Evaluation”
Chapter 3. Emmanuel Mayer, “Money Making, ‘Avarice’, and Elite Strategies of Distinction in the Roman World”
Chapter 4. David M. Lewis, “Labour Specialization in the Athenian Economy: Occupational Hazards”
Chapter 5. Alice Landskron, “The Perception of ‘Skills’ in Ostia: The Evidence of Monuments and Written Sources”
Chapter 6. Helle Hochscheid, “Professionalism in Archaic and Classical Sculpture in Athens: The Price of Technē
Chapter 7. Margit Linder, “Artists beyond Athens: The Freedoms and Restrictions of the Artistic Profession in Classical Greece”
Chapter 8. Ben Russell, “Roman Sculptors at Work: Professional Practitioners?”
Chapter 9. Edmund Stewart, “The Profession of Mousikē in Classical Greece”
Chapter 10. Sophia Aneziri, “Artists of Dionysus: The First Professional Associations in the Ancient Greek World”
Chapter 11. Christian Mann, “Neither Amateurs nor Professionals: The Status of Greek Athletes”
Chapter 12. Stephen Hodkinson, “Professionalism, Specialization, and Skill in the Classical Spartan Army?”
Chapter 13. Doug Lee, “A Professional Roman Army?”