SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard sheds some light on the world of work and child labor in the maybe-not-so-good old days.
Would a Roman have worked if he could collect SSDI, live in public housing, shop at the supermarket with EBT, and see a doctor on the taxpayers’ dime?
Cicero turned his scorn on those who worked for a living: ‘The cash that comes from selling your labour is vulgar and unacceptable for a gentleman … for wages are effectively the bonds of slavery.’ It became a cliché of Roman moralising that a true gentleman was supported by the profits of his estates, not by wage labour, which was inherently dishonourable. Latin vocabulary itself captured the idea: the desired state of humanity was otium (not so much ‘leisure’, as it is usually translated, but the state of being in control of one’s own time); ‘business’ of any kind was its undesirable opposite, negotium (‘not otium’).
Unfortunately there was no Welfare State 2000 years ago:
Cicero and most of the elite professed to despise wage labour. But for the majority of the urban inhabitants of the Roman world, as now, their job was the key to their identity. It was usually tough. Most people who needed a regular income to survive (and that was most people) worked, if they could, until they died; the army was an exception in having any kind of retirement package, and even that usually involved working a small farm. Many children worked as soon as they were physically capable, whether they were free or slave. Skeletons of the very young have been discovered in excavations with clear signs in their bones and joints of hard physical labour; one particular cemetery just outside Rome, near an ancient laundry and textile works, contains the remains of young people who obviously had years of heavy work behind them (showing the effects of the stamping and the treading needed in the treatment of cloth, rather than of skipping and ball games). Children are even commemorated as workers in their epitaphs. Modern sensibilities might hope that the simple tombstone in Spain of a four-year-old child, shown carrying his mining tools, was put up in memory of some young local mining mascot. Most likely he was an active worker.
Only the offspring of the rich spent their youth learning grammar, rhetoric, philosophy and how to make speeches – or the less meaty syllabus, from reading and writing to spinning and music, offered to girls. Child labour was the norm. It is not a problem, or even a category, that most Romans would have understood. The invention of ‘childhood’ and the regulation of what work ‘children’ could do only came fifteen hundred years later and is still a peculiarly Western preoccupation. Their tombstones make clear how important work was to the personal identity of ordinary Romans. Whereas Scipio Barbatus, and others like him at the top of the social hierarchy, emphasised the political offices they had held or the battles they had won, many more people blazoned what they did as a job. More than 200 occupations are known in this way from the city of Rome alone. Men and women (or whoever commissioned their memorials) often summarised their careers in just a few words and images, with a job description and some recognisable symbols of their craft. Gaius Pupius Amicus, for example, an ex-slave and by trade a dyer of ‘purple’ – a notoriously expensive dye, extracted from tiny shellfish and according to law used only to colour cloth worn by senators and the emperor – proudly described himself as a purpurarius and had various items of his craft equipment carved on the stone. Other tombs displayed sculptured panels depicting the deceased in action at their job, from midwives and butchers to a particularly splendid seller of poultry.
More: read SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome