BMCR 2023.11.13

Work and labour in the cities of Roman Italy

, Work and labour in the cities of Roman Italy. Liverpool studies in ancient history. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022. Pp. 368. ISBN 9781802077599.



Work and Labour in the Cities of Roman Italy is a revised PhD thesis from 2017 (Leiden University) and evolves from the author’s research endeavors focusing on ancient Roman labor and labor relations and their intersection with urbanization, migration, gender, and price theory, among other lenses. The result is a rich and dense study that seeks to illuminate how Romans, from the early Empire through the reign of Diocletian (284-305) in cities of the Italian peninsula, negotiated a complex and dynamic web of work, labor, labor relations, and market economies of the labor market. In perusing the bibliography, the reader quickly observes that the author delves into a number of sub-fields in ancient Roman history, making this study magisterial, indeed.

The overriding purpose of the book is to put New Institutional Economics (NIE) to work to argue for a Roman labor market within which social institutions largely determined an individual’s daily working life (3). In so doing, the author, by necessity, confronts a number of long-held (and more recently argued) theories concerning the Roman economy and demography to reveal underlying patterns of a Roman labor market that should, she argues, contribute meaningfully to studies of a global history of work more broadly. It is the careful revealing of the underlying patterns of the Roman labor market that frames this study, with Chapters 3-5 digging into the material at hand—from epitaphs to legal texts, apprenticeship contracts, literature, and to a limited extent, archaeological remains. Aspects of the evidence will likely seem familiar to scholars within various sub-disciplines of Roman history, but the bringing together of various pieces of evidence provide a fascinating view of how decisions around work and labor played out in urban locales of the Roman Italian peninsula.

The book’s introduction and second chapter will be dealt with together here, as each helps to frame the parameters of the study while delving into scholarly debates on the Roman economy, demography, and work, labor, and labor market. The lengthy introduction helps the reader to see the various topics to be covered and the multi-pronged methodologies deployed, while attending to their robust historiography. Chapter 2, “Labour and Labour Market Theories,” does excellent work in setting the stage for how the author will confront the dynamics of the labor market by considering labor migration, job hopping, free and enslaved labor, skilled and unskilled labor, and gender in the following sections, all within the context of labor supply and demand (namely economic insecurity and fluctuating demands). It is these two chapters where the reader can feel the weight of the discipline and some of the contentious debates in the scholarship. There is a meticulous attention to detail (as one would undertake for a dissertation) that leads, however, to the occasional unclear trajectory, for example, in defining the terms work and labor; while critical to the study at hand, the argument is oftentimes tangled in the definitions of others, making it a bit difficult to hear the author’s own voice. That said, Groen-Vallinga makes an extended critique of Peter Temin’s The Roman Market Economy (2013), in which a trained economist makes a case for an integrated Roman market economy. Instead, Groen-Vallinga, a trained historian of ancient Rome, suggests that the notion of an integrated Roman market economy is a too all-encompassing concept to impose on the Roman empire (49) and that one must “allow for variation in degree of market integration within and between cities, and between city and countryside” (52) and put into play the many market imperfections. It is in this sense, then, that the author builds her case for the ever-changing conditions of the labor market, while acknowledging the peculiar nature of the evidence. Indeed, the last sentence of the book’s second chapter articulates well the assumptions, content, and directions of the book: “Strong labour segmentation within an urban labour market that was characterized by fluctuating demand and high labour participation, a large proletariat of unskilled labourers that is poorly reflected in the epigraphic evidence, and a small group of highly skilled workers that is well represented, are the backbone for the rest of this book” (79). What we witness unfolding in the following chapters is a nuanced approach that ultimately targets that “large proletariat of unskilled labourers” that can seem so invisible to our eyes yet were ever-present and integral to the ancient Roman urban labor market.

The heart of the book, Chapters 3 and 4, addresses the dynamics of family economics—one focuses on non-elite households and the other on elite domus. In Chapter 3, the author carefully addresses the complexities of labor relations with the demands in the labor market fluctuating, combined with the life cycles of Romans—men and women—and takes a quantitative and qualitative approach to non-elite family strategies with respect to family economics. The result is a rewarding study. With the premise that the family (and its life cycle) lay at the foundation of Roman society, the author first discusses the complexity of Roman families (namely, the family form, including, to a limited extent, enslaved persons and formerly enslaved individuals) and the dynamics of the family, from marriage to additions to the family (including children, alumni, and others, less often, through adoption), and the inevitable, but oftentimes untimely, death of its members. The family, the author aptly shows, was in constant flux. All of these quantitative factors formed the basis of what the author terms “family adaptive labour strategies,” which sometimes were the direct result of life cycle squeezes (such as the death of the paterfamilias and concomitant loss of income), so that the hitherto largely unrecognized work (both unremunerated and money-earning activities) of children and women comes into sharp focus. The chapter also confronts familial decisions around investments in its human capital, namely job training, in addition to addressing the notion of intergenerational persistence in a Roman society (with skilled laborers earning more than unskilled and thus able to invest in job training for other family members; and with unskilled laborers earning less and unlikely to invest in job training). Here, the evidence for job training and apprenticeships is slim for urban centers in Roman Italy, so the author turns to the material of Roman Egypt for apprenticeship contracts (Appendix 2), which seems a bit outside the “boundaries” she sets for the book in the introduction. Nonetheless, legal texts, limited literary sources, and epitaphs do seem to work together to point to the ways in which apprenticeship may have operated in Roman Italy. Ultimately, the author argues that a family’s life cycle and attendant decisions contributed to its own economic survival, while concluding that “intergenerational persistence predicts a continuous presence of freeborn skilled as well as unskilled labourers in Roman society” (276).

Chapter 4 focuses on the elite domus and what would have been a highly visible servile presence within the large households (meaning that there was very little room for freeborn laborers in domestic jobs of elite domus). Much scholarship has covered the extensive and highly specialized workforce of the elite families of Rome as evinced from the epitaphs of large columbaria and from various literary sources. The novelty of this chapter’s argument lies in its detailed rendering of the dynamics of Roman slaveholding in the context of family economics, from the buying and selling of enslaved people, to the raising and training of homeborn enslaved children, foundlings, and purchased infants. Here, the author also argues that the investment in the training of enslaved people was an economic advantage for elite households (trained enslaved people, for example, could garner more income when sold than the unskilled enslaved). The dividend from that investment also paid off through the manumission, meaning that formerly enslaved people were still tied in various ways to the family and participated meaningfully in the economics of the domus, in addition to bringing social capital to the former owner. While this chapter, too, covers a lot of important and substantial ground, some of the observations and conclusions are sobering: enslaved people are presented as coming close to what Varro meant with the term instrumentum vocale (Varro, RR 1.17.1), that is, “speaking tools” ripe for training and trade according to the economic needs and desires of the family, and not the human laborers that they were and not always with the humanity that they brought with them to the household. The notion that enslaved people were fungible objects in Roman society is well known. As this book delves into the strategies of family economics, it casts enslaved persons as cogs in an economically-driven wheel at a time when scholarship, whether of antiquity or beyond, has begun to turn to multiple points of views within slaveholding societies, including those of the enslaved—but such a turn is beyond the goals and methods of this book.

Chapter 5, on non-familial associations, also participates in a wide body of scholarship of labor collectives (also known as collegia), but now with a specific focus on the economics of association outside the family and with peers. This is stimulating material, noting that the formal organization of labor collectives was hierarchical with a structure that resembled civic organization. Members of associations, mostly free men (both ingenui and freed) of some means, participated in a broadened social, religious, and economic network. Through occupational clustering and the building of relationships built on trust and information sharing, the economic benefits of belonging to an association meant a safety net was in place (instead of the family) in volatile and uncertain economic times.

It would seem that the author’s multi-pronged method invites us to consider evidence in other locales, including the countryside and its agricultural work, which, as the author notes, could have a symbiotic relationship with urban centers. While Roman images of work and the archaeological remains (tools, shops, etc.) are not the focus of this book, they, too, are ripe for study in dialogue with the methodologies put forth in this book. The author, in fact, makes reference to several ancient objects and images depicting work and workers. It is therefore a pity that there are no illustrations in the book (except for the image on the bookcover), namely those images referred to in the text and some reproductions of the physical inscriptions, both of which do have the potential of contributing to the author’s argument. Additionally, it is regrettable that the press did not make the chart for Appendix 3 (“Taxonomy of Labour Relations”) legible. That said, Appendix 1 (Catalogue of Job Titles) is a most welcome update from previous scholarship.

With the traditional bias in our sources towards urban, free, skilled male workers, this book brings to the fore those individuals traditionally excluded from accounts of ancient work, such as women and children, whether free or enslaved, alongside male unskilled workers to reveal how the ever-changing market forces led to varied economic strategies among individuals, families, and labor collectives. Roman social networks and institutions played a crucial and complex role in giving shape(s) to the working lives of ancient Romans. Any scholar of Roman history, Roman work, Roman demography, Roman family, and Roman economy should read this study. It is entrenched in various debates in the field. Whether one agrees with the various premises and positions that the author takes to move the analysis forward or with the wide range of evidence pressed into use to make her case, this is an important book that is sure to spark futures studies on the dynamics of work, labor relations, and economic strategies that were subject to a variety of market forces not only in urban centers of Roman Italy but beyond.